Arment Dietrich

Why Your Customer Experience is Directly Tied to Your PR – Now More Than Ever

By: Arment Dietrich | July 26, 2010 | 

Guest post by Jeannie Walters, Principal at 360Connext.

Picture a CEO in a suit, with a cigar in his mouth, saying to his PR team: “Our customers don’t know what they’re talking about.”

I witnessed this reaction from a CEO (ok, sans cigar and suit) when he received unfortunate news from his PR team. Word on the street about the current customer experience was, um, bad. Really bad. Some tweets had recently tied the company name and “customer service fail” together. They were editing as fast as they could on the company Facebook wall, but it was hard to keep up with the influx of tirades.

This company was excellent at selling. They sold and sold and sold some more. They were growing – fast. But the dirty underbelly of all that rapid growth was a total lack of attention to their current customers. These customers were seen as practically pests – cogs in the wheel of their marketing machine.

They were moving employees out of important roles supporting the operation of the customer experience into marketing-focused roles. The website was quickly moving from a support center to a sales center. Calls to the support center were fielded by new, inexperienced, and untrained support personnel who only cared about the $14/hour.

The PR folks were doing their best to sound the alarm, but the CEO refused to see the connection. “It’s not a PR problem unless (trade journal/industry analysts/Wall Street Journal) gets wind of it.”

This was at the dawn of the current phase of the “Power to the People” period we’re in now. But companies still aren’t paying attention. Be grateful for feedback directly from customers – even in public. Those complaints via Twitter and Facebook are the proverbial canary in the coal mine. Recognize their importance, and pay attention! Otherwise, you could have PR nightmare on your hands – just like Gini Dietrich wrote about in her post Kevin Smith and Southwest Airlines: Crisis via Twitter, “no amount of policy can quell a firestorm created on Twitter if not handled in the right way.”

So what if you start seeing some external indicators that something is wrong with your customer experience? Here’s a three-step battle plan.

1. Respond publicly and then try to take issues offline.

Don’t respond with a “gee, thanks for telling us” without trying to connect with a customer you can help. (I wrote about United’s failed attempt at connecting with customers as an example of this.)

2. Make sure you have a way to internally connect the appropriate people and departments.

Don’t just forward a complaint from a customer to the right department – follow up and make sure there’s action on it!

3. THANK the customer for complaining.

This might be the last thing you want to do, but truly, customer feedback is vital to NOT losing customers. Providing feedback to the customer also shows you care, you’re working on it, and you’re not sacrificing loyal customers with new, shiny ones!

If there was ever a time to overreact to the singular customer complaint, it’s now. Who do you admire in this arena? Who’s doing it well?

Jeannie Walters has been focused on the customer experience for more than 15 years, consulting to companies big and small on their retention strategies. She is currently principal at 360Connext, speaker, and mom to two young boys. You can find Jeannie on Twitter (@jeanniecw) discussing the important and the mundane.

  • Great post Jeannie! As a consumer, I’ve been using Twitter more frequently to connect with companies I interact with, and have found the majority of them are responsive to both my complimentary and critical tweets. With so many public examples of what not to do, your three-step battle plan above gives companies simples rules to live by. Thanks for sharing.

    • Thanks, Kerri! Most companies DO respond, but I’ve found too few understand how. A “thanks for letting us know” doesn’t really resolve anything, and leaves the customer (publicly) feeling unheard. Appreciate your comment!

  • Jeannie,

    How awesome to see you on Spin Sucks! Once again your post is spot on and such good advice for business leaders. It is amazing sometimes the large gap that can occur between customer and upper management. Thanks for the wonderful words.

  • Yikes, I’m sure glad I’m not the PR pro working with that CEO. But sadly, I know there are many executives out there who operate with this same mindset.

    Your customer experience suggestions are great! I agree with you that one customer complaint can create serious reputation damage, especially when that complaint is shared online.

    • Hi Nikki –
      I think unfortunately the day-to-day operations sometimes just take over and CEO, teams and even PR folks lose sight over what will really have an impact. One complaint on Twitter might not seem like much, but we have all seen what can happen. Thanks!

  • Gini Dietrich

    Jeannie, great conversation starter! I’m with Nikki. I would not want to work with that CEO! I always say that I would much rather a client complain than tonget fed up and walk away. It took me a long time to grow into a leader who didn’t get defensive when a client complained. But now I’m able to put my ego aside, stop acting like a mother hen about my team, and actually listen so I can thank them for the feedback. Great, great advice!

    • Love your point about being a mother hen. Sometimes you need to peel the layers of the onion to really determine what the complaint is about. It might not really be about your team – it could be about a fixable process that’s currently broken. But you can’t know that unless you really listen.

  • Kara Vanskike

    Hi Jeannie,

    I think customer service should be the top priority for any company (isn’t that a no brainer?), but unfortunately that’s not the case. I take note of bad service and will go out of my way and maybe even pay a little more for good service. Providing good customer service isn’t rocket science.

    About three years ago, I helped create a customer service manual for our staff and we train on customer service at our company meetings. Your three points above are right on and are included in the five steps we list in our manual.

    The Simple 5 Steps:
    1. Acknowledge the customer’s complaint.
    2. Sincerely apologize.
    3. Take action to make things right for the client.
    4. Thank the customer for complaining.
    5. Write it up. (We want to document complaints so we know where we need to improve.)

    • Wow, Kara, AWESOME! So many organizations skip the step about documentation and it’s a really great point. I also talk a lot about acknowledgement. It’s sometimes all a customer wants and it’s enough to diffuse what could become a bigger situation. Thanks for sharing this, it’s a good road map for anyone.

  • Thanks for the great post, Jeannie! Customer experience IS your brand. I guarantee that CEO won’t last long — or he’ll drive sales into the ground before he’s done.

    Being good at selling will work wonders in the beginning, but eventually those you sell to the first time will decide whether they want to buy again or not. That’s where customer experience comes in.

    And I agree that you should thank the customer for complaining — but not just for the purpose of showing you care. Hearing about customers’ experiences is the best way to learn and continue to make the experience better.

    • You’re so right, Dan. I love Gini’s point about putting aside ego to really listen. It’s vital to make the changes necessary to improve.

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