Unpacking The Away PR Disaster

DTC luggage company Away replaced Steph Korey as CEO just days after a PR trainwreck of an article by The Verge exposed its punitive work culture. Korey will be kicked upstairs to take an Executive Chairman post and former Lululemon executive Stuart Haselden will step into her old position.

To be clear, Haselden’s hire must have been planned before the “toxic PR” generated by the Verge story. But it’s a perfect time for fresh leadership, and a good way for Korey to be sent packing as a public face of the brand. It didn’t have to be that way.

There’s a lot to unpack here. Yet my first take on the Away reputation mess wasn’t just that workplace culture impacts brand reputation, although that’s true. It’s not only that muzzling workplace dissent is a terrible idea and often backfires, though it does. Or that Korey’s apology was inadequate. Or even that warp-speed growth goals and cult branding pervert work culture — though they often do.

The entire episode tells us something else, too. It’s about one of the key departments Korey oversaw – customer service – and its seemingly impossible standards.

PR, CX and ever-higher expectations

These days, customer relations is public relations, especially for high-growth DTC brands. You can tell a lot about a company by how it handles customer complaints. Businesses spend millions on brand reputation and community service. They hire high-powered PR agencies. But a reputation can unravel quickly when a public-facing employee mistreats a customer, and the customer takes the case to the social mob. In many ways PR and customer relations are two sides of the same coin.

Even more, the Away fiasco shows how brutally hard it is to maintain the CX standard that most of us have come to expect. It’s a standard largely set by Amazon. Lydia Polgreen said it well when she tweeted that “the CX expectations set by behemoths like Amazon are impossible to meet in a humane way and yet set the standard for any DTC business.”

It probably hit me then because I was in the midst of a 9-day effort to cancel, then return, an incorrect Black Friday order from National Grid Marketplace. (National Grid is a company that’s good at getting your gas turned back on after a storm but is comically inept at e-commerce.) My experience involved seven real-time chats with different customer service reps, 14 emails, three phone calls and 29 minutes of phone waiting time. To top it off, each interaction triggered an automatic email customer service survey, but no one addressed the actual problem.

That CX experience was objectively terrible, but most companies are not terrible. Most are even pretty good. Yet given customer expectations, they’re hard pressed to meet an Amazon-like level of customer service.

Remember the New York Times piece that peeled back the wrapper on Amazon’s own cutthroat, exploitative work culture?

(Employees) are told to forget the “poor habits” they learned at previous jobs, one employee recalled. When they “hit the wall” from the unrelenting pace, there is only one solution: “Climb the wall.” To be the best Amazonians they can be, they should be guided by the leadership principles, 14 rules inscribed on handy laminated cards. When quizzed days later, those with perfect scores earn a virtual award proclaiming, “I’m Peculiar” — the company’s proud phrase for overturning workplace conventions.

At Amazon, workers are encouraged to tear apart one another’s ideas in meetings, toil long and late (emails arrive past midnight, followed by text messages asking why they were not answered), and held to standards that the company boasts are “unreasonably high.” The internal phone directory instructs colleagues on how to send secret feedback to one another’s bosses. Employees say it is frequently used to sabotage others. (The tool offers sample texts, including this: “I felt concerned about his inflexibility and openly complaining about minor tasks.”)

Sounds like the Verge article. This is not to excuse Korey’s creepy, abusive cult-leader-like tone or her use of “empowerment” language and “brand values” to manipulate employees. Yet we assume that businesses, especially retailers, will strive for an Amazon-like level of customer service because it’s the only way to compete. That comes at a cost, even for well-funded DTC companies like Away. Especially for those companies, because they’re slavishly following the model. For high-growth businesses who need to hit their goals, the customer service bar is forever rising. The only way to balance it with growth demands is to push workers harder. There is a model, and the model is Amazon. Give them part of the credit, and some of the blame, too.

How PR And Customer Service Can Work Together

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 sets the standard

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.

Involve PR in customer service messaging

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.

Align the goals of public relations and customer service

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.

Empower CR reps to quickly resolve or escalate ordinary complaints

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.

Offer CR talking points or follow-up directions on sensitive issues

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.

Arm them with good news where appropriate

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.

When Fans Attack: How To Defend A Brand’s Reputation Online

A social media presence can morph from PR asset to liability in the time it takes to say “brandjacking.” The recent takeover of Nestle’s Facebook page by Greenpeace activists has many brand marketers dusting off their crisis programs.  But the world has changed. How do you defend your brand if, despite good business and communications practices, you become a target? What can you do if your brand is attacked on its own turf, or in a public online forum?

First, anticipate. If your crisis plan was last updated in 1993, or even two years ago, it’s not relevant. Have an online listening post, focus on the most likely criticisms and complaint scenarios, and make sure your messages are current.

Ramp up customer service. Would you put an intern on the phone to handle a client complaint? Don’t do it online either. Make sure your communications team is trained in customer relations, and vice versa. Not every company is ready to jump into Social CRM, but the line between communications and customer service is getting blurrier every day.

Stay calm. When the heat is on, sarcasm and anger are not your friend. Don’t be funny or flippant either. Use of humor is a classic apology PR tactic for an individual under fire, but a corporation should take legitimate customer criticism very, very seriously.

Be transparent. In most attack situations, it’s not worth closing off comments or trying to astroturf your way out of trouble. It rarely works and is often exposed.

Be timely. Nothing pours kerosene on a customer complaint fire like silence. A timely answer, even if not the desired response, is better than the void.

Take it offline. When complaints cascade anonymously, it’s often impossible to deal with them offline. But, on Facebook and other sites where comments are transparent, offline resolutions may be possible, and the complaint chain may be interrupted.

Apologize. If the situation warrants. Though the public apology is being rapidly commoditized, a sincere, factual, and personalized apology beats silence, defensiveness, or apathy.

Use the media. Be ready to produce a response commensurate with the attack – through online commentary, video, and social media news releases.

Look for – and leverage – the opportunity. A negative situation doesn’t always spell lasting damage. In fact, it can be an opportunity to tout positive change, clear up a misimpression, and build customer engagement. No one is more loyal than a grateful customer. If the problem can’t be fixed, a fair hearing can still go a long way.

What We Can Learn From "Undercover Boss"

When I was 23 years old I worked for a PR entrepreneur who insisted we accompany the sales reps of a large client company on their customer calls at retail. He said it was the only way to learn how the company’s products got to market and to gain a real-world perspective on our PR planning.

What an education. My field experience was a permanent lesson in how even the most strategic marketing and PR programs can miss the mark if they’re developed in isolation.

That’s why I was interested in the CBS reality show “Undercover Boss.” You know the one, about disconnected CEOs who get down with the workforce on the front lines. It also made me think about our business. Getting your hands dirty is not only valuable, it’s more necessary than ever.

It’s not a new idea, actually. HBR reports that more than forty years ago, legendary Avis Rent-a-Car CEO Robert Townsend insisted that each senior executive spend time every month behind a rental counter. Last year, Jeff Bezos spent a week working in an Amazon distribution center in Kentucky. Some enlightened companies even make every employee spend a week per year inside that Siberia of business functions, customer service.

But, customer service means something different today. In a small way, we’ve learned just how different by creating and managing a Facebook community for a major technology brand. Most of the inquiries we field have nothing directly to do with PR. Many aren’t related to positioning or brand attributes, of course. Lots come from outside the U.S. – not our purview. None of this is really our job.

Except that it is. And, in dealing directly with consumers and working closely with our client’s customer service team, we’ve learned enormously about how consumers perceive product quality. And how the quality of even the smallest interaction with the brand has an impact on its reputation.

Many have written about the growing intersection of PR, brand reputation, and customer service. As more customers post, tweet, blog, and shout their dissatisfaction on the social Web, the risks to brand reputation grow. And, with the disintermediation of the traditional press, PR and communications has a new set of rules.

So, whatever you think about reality TV, the “undercover” concept has real relevance to what we do. The customer experience is out there. It’s public, it’s dynamic, and it’s a growing part of brand reputation. As formerly behind-the-scenes strategists and communicators, we can’t hide behind the media any longer. Our cover’s been blown. We’ve been outed, too, and, like the White Castle CEO, we’d better put on another hat and learn the ropes.

Don’t Get Mad, Get Online; Social Media As Bully Pulpit

Social media has become not only a way to connect with friends and contacts, but a bully pulpit about customer service. Today’s Wall Street Journal features yet another story about large companies who act fast to avert PR disaster when someone complains publicly about their service or brand.

And, why not? Who hasn’t used social media to air their ire?  A couple of years ago, I went berserk on a customer service rep for a major retailer that wouldn’t allow a furniture return as promised.  I ranted that I would use my PR skills and media contacts to make sure everyone knew about my terrible experience. I even mentioned the name of a national consumer reporter I knew in high school (and whom I haven’t seen or spoken to since.)  My tirade was ridiculous…but, for whatever reason, the store sent a truck for the furniture the following week.

Coincidence?  Maybe, but taking our grievances public is becoming more and more common, for two reasons. First, many companies offer poor or nonexistent customer service.  Two, using social media as a complaint platform can produce a response. Cable not working? Blog about it!  Airline lost your bags? Take it to YouTube!  On hold with customer service? Facebook it!

But, lately, I worry that we’re tipping the balance. It’s like crying wolf; abuse your influence – however little or large it may be – and people stop listening.  Even worse, there are those who would use their social media influence or SEO skills to settle petty scores, or get something for nothing.  Case in point:  the now-infamous Crocs “blogola blackmail” event where a blogger threatened to post negative comments if she didn’t receive free shoes.  The incident is very troubling…but not very surprising.

I’m not saying we should keep quiet about bad business or deficient customer service practices, but maybe the full-court press (or stupid threats about it) should be more of a last resort than a default behavior.  Besides, pulling off a last-laugh-style stunt like Dave Carroll‘s video complaint against United Airlines, requires getting over your customer rage…it takes patience, creativity, and deft humor.

What’s particularly useful, and every bit as empowering, is to post about companies when things go the other way – at those rare times when a product or service is actually above expectations.  And, until then…well, we’re in good company.

Zappos And The Social Media Myth

It’s a common perception that Zappos, which was just acquired by Amazon.com, was able to build its brand, and even its business, on the strength of social media.  After all, CEO Tony Hsieh is a Twitter celebrity with over a million followers.  Zappos encourages its employees to Twitter, and more than 400 do. A model of transparency, it aggregates public mentions on a page on its website.  No wonder it’s been hailed by traditional and social media as the one company that does it right.  One writer even opined that Amazon was motivated to acquire Zappos to get a little of its “social media stardust.”

That’s nonsense. The soul of Zappos, and the open secret of its success, has nothing to do with Twitter. It bears remembering that long before Hsieh tweeted his first update, Zappos had taken the lead in the online shoe market. Hsieh’s really big idea wasn’t showing his personal side on Twitter.  It was making returns a competitive advantage. It was, in essence, beating Amazon at its own game. It was focusing, really focusing, on the customer.  And, to Zappos, customers are not only shoppers, but employees and vendors, too.

If you search for articles and posts about Hsieh and Zappos long prior to 2008, when he opened his celebrated Twitter account, your eyes will glaze over at the numbing repetition of its customer service mantra. Hsieh describes the employee recruiting and training program, including the counter-intuitive “quitting bonus,” as shaping a customer service culture. He philosophizes about transparency, openness, and authenticity – all in service of the customer, of course.  He, and the partners who back him, take the long view on the company’s ultra-liberal returns policy, betting that no investment is too great if it supports customer retention.

Basically, Hsieh did two things very, very well. He articulated a customer-obsessed culture. Then, he walked the talk. Social media came naturally for Zappos later because the company never looked at it as a marketing channel, but as another way of building customer relationships and adding service.  In essence, the shoe fit.

Jeff Bezos doesn’t give a rap about Zappos’ social media profile. As Bezos himself said in describing its customer service obsession, “It is the place where Zappos begins and ends.”  I’m hoping that, for Zappos, this is a new beginning, and not an end.