ANALYSIS: Customer relations serve as a telltale PR barometer

A growing number of companies are now fully aware that their reputations - good or bad - are often directly linked to customer-service efforts.

A growing number of companies are now fully aware that their reputations - good or bad - are often directly linked to customer-service efforts.

Can a single incident of bad customer service affect a corporation's reputation? You better believe it. Every day, consumers talk to friends, family, and coworkers about their interactions with companies, both good and bad. Ignored complaints, long waits on a help line, or rude clerks are experiences that customers are quick to discuss. If it's particularly bad customer service, consumers may even share their stories with attorneys, the media, or on the internet. The sphere of influence of a single story can quickly circulate far and wide. That's when bad customer service crosses over into bad PR. For example, Jesse White, a Los Angeles resident, has spent the past year telling everyone why he's upset with Ford Motor Company. White purchased a new Ford F-150 XLT extra cab in December 2001. In May 2002, the truck began overheating during regular use. White took it to a Ford dealership numerous times, but the mechanics were unable to fix the problem. After months of wrangling, the company agreed to replace the truck when White threatened to use California's lemon law. But since it had taken such a long time to arrive at a decision, Ford was unable to come up with a comparable 2001 model, and wanted White to pay the difference for a newer one. White didn't think it was fair to have to pay more, when he not only had been asking Ford for a new truck for months, but had also continued to make payments on the old truck, despite the fact he could not drive it. Ford finally agreed to a no-cost upgrade. But as of press time, White still doesn't have the promised new truck (although Ford says it's on its way). Naturally, he shares his story with everyone he meets, with emphasis on what he perceives to be terrible treatment on the part of Ford's customer-service division. As a lighting technician in the motion-picture industry, White comes across dozens of business associates who drive trucks for both work and play. He also has a big circle of family and friends. By now, literally hundreds of people have heard of his experiences with Ford. Given White's story, some will no doubt think twice before purchasing from the company. That's a customer-service issue that has evolved into a PR problem. "If you have a good experience, you tell two or three people. If you have a bad one, you tell 10 or 15," warns Mark Scott, VP of marketing for mortgage lender HomeBanc, an Atlanta-based company that involves its PR department in customer-service issues. In the worst-case scenario, "you may end up with a reporter calling you out of the blue to say, 'I hear this customer is unhappy, and I'm writing a story about it.'" The PR-customer service bond At most companies, customer service and PR don't interact. But the truth of the matter is that customer service is the front line of PR. It is a direct channel of information to consumers, and provides a great deal of a company's perceived personality. A positive customer-service experience - even if that just means sympathy or a polite or speedy response to a problem - can create lifelong customer loyalty and a good company reputation within that sphere of consumers. At the Regional Airport Authority of Louisville and Jefferson County, KY, PR and customer service do work hand in hand. Rande Swann, director of PR for the two facilities, points out that there are a number of competing airports in the area, and since Louisville isn't a hub, travelers have to choose to begin or end their journey at her facility. That means the airport lives or dies by its perception as a customer-friendly place. "Our reputation is probably tied more to how we serve our customers than any other single thing," says Swann. "If we don't have a reputation for great customer service, then we don't have travelers." To ensure that the two facilities constantly generate a positive buzz, Swann helps keep customers happy by running customer-service training for every tenant in the airport, from airlines to food concessions. And each week, her PR department collects customer comments to compile for a weekly report - regardless of which tenant company received the complaint. Her department then follows up on every single one to make sure it was handled well by interviewing the relevant employees and answering the customer. "Your customers are probably one of your largest opinion-leader groups," notes Swann. "If you take care of them when you can, and apologize when you can't, they will be much more likely to come back to you and be more forgiving." Customer service is also an excellent source of information for consumers' attitudes and concerns - which are the early indictors of larger reputation issues. Interaction between customer service and the PR department can help preempt those potential image issues by providing early warning. "Sometimes there are trends to bad customer service," points out Marc Jampole, head of Midwest-based Jampole Communications. "There are things people don't like." Jampole illustrates that point with a recent example that arose for one of his clients, grocery store chain Penn Traffic. Jampole handles both PR and the customer-service hotline for the company. A crackdown on underage drinking in Ohio led Penn Traffic to institute a new policy at its Big Bear stores in that state that required cashiers to check ID whenever alcohol was sold, regardless of the customer's apparent age. Jampole's customer-service hotline began receiving calls from irate senior citizens who didn't like flashing their identification. "A week later, lo and behold, a TV reporter from a station in Columbus, OH asked about that, and we were prepared for it," he says. "Every day you get these customer complaints over the hotline. What it has enabled us to do is be more efficient and predictive in our PR." Of course, size makes a difference. At Ford, the call center receives about 7,500 calls per day, according to Ed Kimmering of the customer affairs group. About half of those are general inquiries about the company, and half are customers with issues. That makes it unmanageable for PR to become involved in every customer complaint. "Our PR department doesn't deal directly with customers. That's what the customer-relationship centers are supposed to do," explains Glenn Ray, public affairs manager of Ford's customer-service division. In fact, Ford tries to make sure that most of its customer-service matters are kept out of its own customer-service division, and in the hands of dealers. "From a customer-service perspective, we encourage that [the consumer] work with the dealer as much as possible," says Kimmering. "We catch those few that fall through the cracks." Corporate PR will, however, get involved when the press makes an inquiry on a customer-service complaint. Too little too late? Can a company truly overcome a bad customer-service reputation? Experts point out that corporations face closer scrutiny in this tighter economy. Those who have treated consumers well have a good reputation on which to fall back. Consumers are more willing to trust a company that they feel treated them well. However, those who haven't - the ones who have systematically, one by one, annoyed their consumers - face a public more than willing to believe the latest bad press. When it comes down to a crisis, the job of PR is to get the public on your side. By ignoring the rumblings of bad customer service, PR is allowing a company reputation to rest on quicksand. "Bad things can happen to any company," says Jampole. "The question is will the public be in your favor or not? If they are used to being pissed at you, they're not going to be in your favor."

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