Everyone has horror stories to tell about customer service nightmares, being entangled in call center hell and fruitless waits at home for utility companies to turn up in the time slot they have specified.
The feeling of powerlessness to influence these events is palpable and common to all three situations. The wider issue is that this is many companies' first and main interaction with their customers, and so often they make such a mess of it that this valuable relationship is dysfunctional from the outset.
I was pondering this the other day while waiting at my apartment for the guys from Time Warner to arrive and sort out my triple play TV/internet/phone offering. They had already had one failed attempt at installing my kit, which involved my wasting an afternoon watching a Laurel and Hardy-esque technician and foreman duo attempt to solve the vagaries of my modern apartment block's frankly pretty straightforward telecoms infrastructure.
At least they didn't fall asleep on my sofa, like the infamous Comcast cable installer whose antics swept YouTube in 2006, but they weren't exactly leaving me with a positive impression of Time Warner. To be fair, the second service call was much better and the guy sorted most of the problems out, though he still left me with a phone that isn't connected correctly.
Often the frontline contact is with a contracting firm, not the actual company providing/selling the service, but that is no excuse – it still represents the customer's primary experience of the brand.
And the most annoying part of the process is receiving an automated customer service call within minutes of your technician's departure. If you have had an unsatisfactory experience this call just exacerbates your bad mood.
In June's print edition of PRWeek (out next week), our digital feature includes a description of Time Warner's first corporate blog, called Untangled, which is a vehicle for internal communications as well as for consumers to interact with the cable firm and “put a human face on the company for people.”
This is an excellent initiative, but the consumer element of it relies explicitly on the quality of people interacting with customers on the ground – and that is a vital link in the consumer communications chain that can ruin many a cunning PR strategy if it is not a positive experience.