Ex post facto customer service

Complaint Ask the average public relations executive if she understands customer service and employs it as part of an integrated communications solutions set and you'll receive a resounding, 'Absolutely!'

She'll proudly point to her complete mastery of social media, cite endless examples of how she's used blogs and tweets to better serve a client's customer and be equally quick to point with pride at how she 'solved' a customer's complaint by 'taking the offending conversation offline' and figuring out a solution.

I'd call that ex post facto customer service.

What the average public relations executive DOESN'T realize is that, when it comes to customer service, we're actually part of the problem and not the solution. Why? There's a number of reasons. The macro ones are best enumerated in a superb Harvard Business Review piece authored by Bruce Upbin.

The more mundane reason we PR practitioners don't get customer service is rather obvious (if consistently overlooked or ignored). We eagerly partner with marketing communications to push out campaigns touting the corporation's faster, better, easier-to-use, more cost effective, safer, sleeker, sexier, more stylish, more reliable product or service without EVER involving the very same organization's customer care people in the messaging creation. Nor, do we EVER put ourselves in a client's customer's shoes and experience the brand from the purchaser's POV before crafting copy or pitches. Experiencing the brand is critical because it's no longer enough to hold traditional, and sometimes staid, focus groups to "understand the customer." Focus groups are not the equivalent of truly immersing MARCOMM in the customer experience and are simply not enough when making the linkage between brand promise and customer experience. As a result, we're fully culpable for reinforcing a brand promise that's inside-out in its creation, inconsistent at times and, in some cases, the EXACT opposite of what the customer or prospect experiences.

The end result is an angry, confused customer, lost sales and a damaged image and reputation. Want some examples? Look no further than Comcast, Toyota, Goldman Sachs, or just about any airline, insurance or telecommunications company. Their marketing campaigns extol such virtues as superior service, consistent results, employee pride and low-cost, dependable service. But, we all know the exact opposite to be true.

And, yet we PR types beam with pride and do a big chest bump whenever an editor, analyst or prospective client asks who owns social media nowadays. Why, we do. PR SHOULD own it we say, because we understand the conversation better than those evil one-way, talk at you advertising or digital types.

But, what we don't know (or don't care to know) is that most corporation's organizational structures are broken. They separate marketing communications from customer care and, indeed, treat the latter as the office ghetto. Intelligence coming into customer care from actual customers could be used to make the product or service better or find out what customers are thinking in real time. But there are often no channels internally for those in marketing, customer care and product development to exchange information and hear from customers regularly and robustly.

So nobody in the company has a stake in the whole customer experience, except the customers, who often end up knowing a company better than its employees. Customers have to talk to and deal with different parts of the company that never speak to each other. Office ghettos and silos foster a culture where people only focus on their part of the business and damn the rest. Ghettos and silos stiffle creativity, innovation and the ability to care about the customer. As a result, there are fundamental gaps between what an organization promises and what we, the customers, actually experience. And, if we PR types were REALLY smart and strategic, we'd figure out ways bridge those gaps.

I'm not suggesting my firm is REALLY smart or strategic, but guess what? Thanks to a superb strategic partnership, we're putting the pieces in place to begin closing the aforementioned gap and better align what a brand promises and a customer experiences. And, when we've perfected it dear Virginia, I believe it will usher in a new era in which PR people really do GET customer service.

Until then, I've got to run. Comcast just disrupted my on-demand service for the 30,000th time. And, I need to raise holy hell. But, they'll keep on telling me they're just Comcastic on every single TV commercial.

7 thoughts on “Ex post facto customer service

  1. Thanks 9inch. I’d love to see the various awards programs add a category entitled, ‘best alignment between a brand’s promise and their customer’s experience.’ Of course, that wouldn’t be possible since the awards’ programs don’t get the disconnect either.

  2. Great post Steve. Customer Experience is the new marketing and holy grail. Everyone wants to go heaven, but few are willing to pay the price.

  3. Credit Union’s have beat other Banking organization’s in ratings for customer service for over 40 consecutive years…and I think it is because Credit Union CEO’s pay attention to what happen’s on the front lines. I have done Teller for a Day for a few decades …sometimes as many as six times in a year. The biggest benefit to working the front lines is that the employee sees the CEO’s commitment to member service and they are more willing to commit and share information about what’s not working and how to make things better.

  4. From your mouth to god’s ears, PRCarl. The average CEO is so far removed from the actual customer experience that he/she has no clue how close to reality his/her brand promise actually is. That’s why a recent Repman blog challenged each, and every, PR holding company CEO to do what I did for a day: swap jobs with their receptionist and see what sort of experiences visitors to their office and callers to their main number actually had. I guarantee none will do it, though. Unlike your John Lewis CEO example, my peers are ‘above’ doing that sort of thing.

  5. Great post, Rep.
    There is a retailer in the UK called John Lewis. Its actual name is the John Lewis Partnership, because that is what it is. Each of its 76,500 employees is a partner in the firm, with the profits being shared among them. John Lewis is famous for many things, but chief above them is its excellent customer service. I once saw an interview with the John Lewis CEO, who said that customer service is not a tap that you turn on and off; it is built into the organization.
    I would say our challenge is not so much about bridging gaps, although that is a good first step, it is about injecting the experience of a customer into the DNA of all areas of a company. Whether that ultimately comes from financial incentives, corporate structure, inspiration from the leadership, or a mixture of all three, I don’t know. Maybe a good motto to have is that instead of focusing on the bottom line and then thinking about the customer, think about the customer first and foremost and the bottom line will look after itself.