Good customer service and good public relations have never been more aligned. One of the quickest ways to understand an organization’s reputation is to look at its response to a consumer complaint.
A company can spend millions on a brand reputation campaign, use high-powered PR agencies, and reap the benefits of CEO thought leadership, but if unhappy customers hit a brick wall instead of help, those investments may be squandered. In the age of social media, an unhappy customer has access to a digital megaphone to share their anger, and most are only too happy to use it.
Take a look at the recent YouGov survey of Most Improved Brands. On the list are Comcast/Xfinity, Uber, and Amazon. Comcast’s problems aren’t all in its customer communications; its entire industry suffers from a poor reputation, in part due to a lack of competition and steep prices. But when the “last mile” of the customer relationship is owned by a company rep who frustrates them with doublespeak, unresponsiveness, or missed appointments, there’s bound to be fallout. After a video of a Comcast service rep falling asleep on a customer’s sofa while on hold with the home office went viral, It had nowhere to go but up. In fact, Comcast made no bones of the fact that it rebranded its service as Xfinity to represent a fresh start for its reputation.
As a brand, Uber has inherent sex appeal, but it also suffered bad PR due to a slow response to emergency situations, insensitivity to customer complaints, and widely shared, if isolated, incidents of driver horror stories. Uber’s rating system goes a long way toward ensuring a good experience for customers, but it has drawbacks. The company also ran into some reputation roadblocks when it made the decision to outsource customer relations to “centers of excellence” outside the U.S. Buzzfeed reported that about 500 customer service reps were let go, leading to a bumpy transition, not to mention resentment among those fired without notice. In 2016, however, it seemed to steer things back onto a positive path.
Amazon has set the standard for customer commitment, giving rise to much debate and coverage of the “amazonification” of commerce. Although its customer service isn’t perfect, it’s nearly always innovative, and Amazon exerts an outsize influence by pushing others in retail to raise their own criteria. The true test for the future will be Amazon Go, and its widely promoted plan to open brick-and-mortar stores.
So how can public relations and customer service work together? Here are some practical ways based on our experience.
We represented a company that was very successful selling specialized insurance online, but because many buyers failed to read and understand the policies they bought, they were disappointed if claims were denied and often vented anger and frustration on consumer complaint boards. The result was that pages of negative reviews turned up after a simple search of the brand name. Our program helped educate prospective customers about the insurance and how it works, and we worked with customer service to develop responses that not only showed a prompt commitment to resolving complaints (and escalating them where appropriate), but pointed them to third-party articles and information about the insurance. It was a very productive collaboration, but it doesn’t happen often enough.
You get what you incentivize. Too often, customer relations reps have goals related to the volume of inquiries handled. Meanwhile, the PR team is working to earn positive media coverage or drive a perception of value. If CR is evaluated and incentivized instead by complaint resolution rates, and/or customer satisfaction survey scores, the teams will working toward similar goals.
We’ve all had the delightful experience where a relatively minor complaint is met with a quick agreement to waive a penalty or credit a finance charge. For many situations, it’s worth it for companies to give customer service personnel the leeway to make quick decisions for minor matters. After all, what typically adds insult to injury is a lengthy wait where a complaint is escalated, or a non-response in the face of a legitimate problem.
A couple of years ago I cancelled an account at an international bank that was hit with a money-laundering scandal. I had multiple motivations for moving the account, but when the bank rep asked why I made the move, I mentioned its terrible reputation as a drug-money launderer. She politely told me she understood and ended the call. It might have made more sense for her to ask if a bank representative could contact me later or send a note recapping the bank’s public apology and amends made in the wake of its settlement. The opportunity to build a relationship, even when it starts with a complaint or cancellation, is always worth taking.
If a company has just launched a new product or it’s been reviewed with five stars by an important critic or community, it makes sense for the customer relations rep to know about it and have a quick talking point for callers who have relevant inquiries. It can also be a humanizing exchange.
According to telco services company Mitel, it takes 12 positive customer experiences to make up for one unresolved negative one. When PR and CR team up, those numbers improve, and we all benefit.