Bad customer service is nothing new and faulty products are a given in this era of mass production. But for the small business and large corporations alike, consumer complaints about products or customer service can add up and eventually spell doom. The internet has opened up an entirely new avenue for complaining. Web sites have sprung up around the world for the express purpose of calling out the faults of companies. In the world of public relations, defending your company’s reputation has become that much harder. But in this battle against consumer complaints, there are several weapons at the disposal of any public relations professional, including a few you might not have realized.
The first line of defense for any company is always the workforce. A bad product is one thing; it can be replaced, recalled, or re-engineered. But a bad workforce is like a disease that spreads until it engulfs a company. The public relations professional inevitably has to deal with consumer complaints once they hit a critical mass. With that said, it’s important to be proactive within your own organization.
Despite the hierarchy inherent and accepted at companies, people do not like to be told what to do. A technical support person knows his job better than a sales or marketing person and vice-versa. But a technical support person needs not only to be trained in proper customer service etiquette, but also in getting the company’s message across to the consumer. A quarterly or twice-yearly seminar that involves the public relations department addressing technical support personnel in a casual, non-confrontational atmosphere is a good idea. Be blunt about what’s on the line. If consumers complain about technical support it will mean less customers and fewer technical support jobs. Make sure the conversation goes both ways. The technical support people may have some concerns about how the company is publicly portraying its products or services. After all, if it’s not easy for the technical support team, it’s not easy for the customer.
The public relations professional needs to instill a sense of confidence in the company because you’re not only a public cheerleader, but an internal one as well. A Silicon Valley tech firm I did business with once sent out a survey to its 1,500 or so employees asking them for advice on how to get press for the company. The tech people suggested hyping their new product because it was “revolutionary” and the sales people wanted the price hyped because it was “going to be a competition killer.”
Put two and two together and your job is made simpler. The company soon unveiled a new public relations campaign utilizing the comments made by its own workers and spun it as a loving tale of a workforce happy with its work and its product.
The same company sent out an email to some of its partners, myself included, and asked us to describe our experience in dealing with its sales force, marketing department, and technical staff. The questions were simple: Were our sales people too aggressive? Are our marketing people working with you to meet your needs? Does our technical support staff respond in a timely and understandable manner?
This all originated from the public relations department. The goal, I was told, was to better the define the company publicly based on its customer experiences, products and workforce.
“We didn’t want to force change on people, we wanted to find out what to change,” the head of the company’s public relations staff told me.
“We gathered all of the information and we found out that our sales people were overly aggressive on the up sell. They’d badger customers after making the initial sale, not giving them enough time to become comfortable with their existing purchase. We sat down with the sales staff and asked them to employ a less aggressive strategy with existing customers. We understood their concerns that their compensation was partly commission-based, but we got the point across that alienating customers wouldn’t help them or the company in the end.”
“When it came to technical support, we found our customers were very happy with our services. We asked for and received permission from many of our customers to use their testimonials in our sales literature and on our website. When we received a customer service award from a magazine, we worked with our partners to ensure they got mentioned in a subsequent article about our achievement.”
The plan worked both ways I was told by my PR friend.
“When one of our customers was featured in a magazine they attributed some of their success to our products. We were so excited. It wasn’t a public relations victory. It was a company victory.”
Keeping the customer happy works both ways it seems. Small businesses can be cursed by bad word of mouth and one employee can do devastating damage to a business. Just last week I had an experience with a business that I would never like to see repeated. In the end, the business’s owner, acting as a PR person, came to the rescue.
Remember, your co-workers can help you shape your public relations vision and your customers can help you destroy it. Take the necessary steps to ensure that your customers are happy and your employees understand the importance of their playing a customer service role in your piublic relations strategy.
This article, written by Ben Silverman, originally appeared in PR Fuel (http://www.ereleases.com/prfuel), a free weekly newsletter from eReleases (http://www.ereleases.com), the online leader in affordable press release distribution. To subscribe to PR Fuel, visit: http://www.ereleases.com/prfuel/subscribe/.