Wise comms counsel can do wonders for customer service

This coming holiday season, consumers will have more information about pricing and retailer reputations than ever before.

This coming holiday season, consumers will have more information about pricing and retailer reputations than ever before. Walk through the aisles of any store and you'll find people zapping barcodes to check prices with their smartphones. A quick search on almost any product will bring up results that include cost, shipping, and taxes from hundreds of competing online retailers.

All of this technology has turned many products into commodities, which is a big problem for retailers. To survive the war on prices, sellers will have to rely on service and reputation - and this is where the PR pro must step in.

A quick poll through my agency revealed how social media can impact a retailer's reputation. It was conducted through participants' mobile phones, which represent those most likely to share their pleasure or displeasure immediately. Stunningly, when a customer has a problem in a brick-and-mortar store, one out of three shoppers would write a critical review online without ever complaining to the store directly. This is significantly more damaging than the 13% who would turn to Twitter to voice complaints.

The long-term effect of these reviews can hamper a retailer's future success. When two stores have the same item at the same price, a store's online review can be the tiebreaker in a purchasing decision. It is up to the PR pro to develop a plan for responding to poor reviews. It can't end there, though. Email programs and in-store kiosks must be employed to gather positive reviews, as well.

For online retailers, the ease of reporting a customer service issue and the immediacy of a resolution seems to be the biggest differentiator. In our poll, 44% of online shoppers said the ease of dealing with customer service was of great importance. A stunning majority preferred to contact an Internet retailer's customer service over the phone (49%), compared to those who preferred contact via email (29%) and social media (22%). In this realm, it is vital for PR pros to educate their e-commerce clients on the need to monitor social media for customer service issues.

Customer perception of a retailer's reputation is now a key buying factor, so ignorance of complaints on social media can harm the bottom line. The plan to deal with this is up to the communications pro and not an afterthought of the customer service department. 

Jim Nichols is VP, digital at Stern & Associates.

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