THINKPIECE: In a world full of choices, the companies that will stand out are those that have the human touch

Whenever I seek to do business with a major corporation, the first thing I hear at the other end of the phone line is an electronic voice assuring me that 'your call is important to us' or 'this call may be monitored to ensure quality.' I know what's coming next: a menu of choices that don't anticipate my needs, and an interminable wait on hold that may, if my patience endures, get me connected to the voice of an employee who is neither equipped nor empowered to respond to my needs.

Whenever I seek to do business with a major corporation, the first thing I hear at the other end of the phone line is an electronic voice assuring me that 'your call is important to us' or 'this call may be monitored to ensure quality.' I know what's coming next: a menu of choices that don't anticipate my needs, and an interminable wait on hold that may, if my patience endures, get me connected to the voice of an employee who is neither equipped nor empowered to respond to my needs.

Whenever I seek to do business with a major corporation, the first thing I hear at the other end of the phone line is an electronic voice assuring me that 'your call is important to us' or 'this call may be monitored to ensure quality.' I know what's coming next: a menu of choices that don't anticipate my needs, and an interminable wait on hold that may, if my patience endures, get me connected to the voice of an employee who is neither equipped nor empowered to respond to my needs.

Ironically, companies say they are trying to distinguish their products and services in a world full of choices. But they seem to be missing the obvious: the human element.

The PR pioneer Arthur W. Page long ago pinpointed some principles to ensure customer satisfaction. Two recent op-ed pieces confirm the need to revisit his advice.

Ritz Carlton CEO Horst Schulze wrote in The New York Times that 'one of the greatest paradoxes of our aging service economy is that actual service, with a human face and a helping hand, has disappeared from most American companies.'

And Nico Canner and Marc Feigen of the Katzenbach consulting firm wrote in The Wall Street Journal that the recent Verizon strike ought to prompt management to turn its attention to 'getting front-line employees to deliver service that will differentiate the company.' In short, the business practices of most large corporations today are, in fact, anti-consumer and anti-employee.

What follows are Page's principles. These are the building blocks that build relationships, brands and - how quaint - sustainable profits.

- Tell the truth.

- Prove it with action. The public's perception of a company is determined by what it does, not what it says.

- Listen to the customer, understand what the customer wants and needs.

- Manage for tomorrow. Promptly eliminate practices that create difficulty for customers as well as employees.

- Conduct public relations as if the whole company depends on it.

- Remain calm, patient and good humored.

- Employees are a company's greatest asset in projecting the character of the business. Hence, management must support each employee's ability and desire to be an honest, knowledgeable ambassador to customers, friends, shareowners and public officials.

The next likely manifestation of 'rage' in our society will be an anti-business backfire by millions of consumers who simply aren't going to take it anymore.

- Edward Block was SVP of PR, advertising & employee information for AT&T for 12 years before retiring in 1986.





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