Jun 03

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.

Aug 04

Timeless academia in need of re-publishing

TODAY'S GUEST POST IS BY MICHAEL DRESNER, CEO, PEPPERCOM'S BRAND² SQUARED LICENSING DIVISION.

Long before I entered the workforce I read an article in college called “Marketing Myopia” by
Usps-USPostalService Theodore Levitt. It was laborious reading– not because of complicated subject matter, but because I was two years out of high school and acting my age. I never forgot it. And, in the same way readers refer back to “Catcher in the Rye” or “Huckleberry Finn” (other books I didn’t understand the first time I read them), there are profound lessons that can’t be missed.

“Marketing Myopia”– first published in 1960– provokes a businessperson to rethink and sharpen the definition of the industry in which they have a presence. The more narrow that industry is defined, the more risk a businessperson applies to her or his future. Fact is, too many industries become obsolete once new innovations fulfill the same customer needs– more easily, more quickly, more cheaply. The classic example from “Marketing Myopia” is the railroad ecosystem of the 19th century. Railways and train manufacturers alike had a grip on the industry of getting people from points A to B. But they always (and still) define their industry as one of train travel. If they considered their industry as one of people travel– and leveraged their engineers, government relations, cash position accordingly– they could have been the automobile and highway conglomerates of the 20th century. Henry Ford and Alfred Sloan would have simply worked for Union Pacific. The rest is history there.

I was reminded of this analogy in a Newsweek article last month, quantifying the electronic communication trend from 2000 to 2010. Unsurprisingly, 12 billion e-mails sent in 2000, 247 billion in 2010.  Four hundred thousand texts in 2000, 4.5 billion in 2010. Here’s another trend: 208 billion letters mailed in 2000, and 176 billion in 2010. Where was the US Postal Service (either the service, the infrastructure or the brand name) in all of this?  They rode the contraction train for sure. If they have anything to do with society’s expanding e-mail and texting activity, I haven’t seen them.

What a shame. For centuries, the USPS had a near lock on the industry in which they are now a dinosaur. Like the railways of old, USPS had (and has) staff by the thousands. Consumers across every demographic go out of their way to stand in line and prepay for the service. Its balance sheet is a practical ATM machine that most CFOs would kill for. And the universal experience of pressing a fresh stamp on an envelope is a brand moment no other entity has ever been able to replicate. No doubt– they have stayed atop the mail business. 

Except that’s not what their business is or ever was. The USPS was a driver (and now follower) of the written communication business. And by sticking to paper, envelopes, stamps and metal boxes, they were wedded to the feature instead of the benefit. Imagine having an electronic “stamp” option to credentialize every e-mail. (MS Outlook does have that option, hidden obscurely.)  It may sound inconvenient, but we’ve been doing it for centuries. The USPS could have brought their leadership from traditional postal service to digital communication. Their brand equity was far more embedded in consumer psyche even 15 years ago relative to Hotmail, Gmail, Facebook, and most every other way we now express ourselves in writing. Postal service personnel still abound, but let’s face it– en masse at least, they’re on borrowed time. Kind of like trains.

Nearly twenty years after I first read “Marketing Myopia” I spend my days trying to convince brand owners that by testing their relevance in new categories they can rethink the industry definition in which they must thrive. It shouldn’t be this tough.  But lots of managers have noses to the grindstone, putting out the fire du jour, with so little time to step back, putting their company’s futures in peril. Is the New York Times in the newspaper business or the information distribution business?  Are PR firms in the media placement business or the client repositioning business?  Are these legitimate questions?  Does anyone go back to re-read business articles from the early 1960s?  “Marketing Myopia” is worth a re-look.  Unlike the industries it laments, Theodore Levitt’s treatise will never go out of style.