Poor Customer Service Can Lead to PR Headaches

A wave of relief washed over me after I called the customer service line of Dow Jones. After three months of paying for a subscription, I had only received two issues of the weekly publication to which I had subscribed. The customer service agent at Dow Jones was courteous, changing the delivery method and extending my subscription for three months, free of charge. This kind of excellent customer service is rare, which is surprising considering that customer service experiences are directly related to how the public views a company. Poor customer service can quickly snowball into a public relations nightmare, as evidenced by the snafus of two large corporations.

Cable giant Comcast is the first company, and the evidence was on a video.

Brian Finkelstein, a young man in Washington, D.C., was having problems with his cable internet connection. He called Comcast a number of times to get the problem resolved. When a technician arrived, the tech had to call Comcast’s own technical support for help. The technician proceeded to fall asleep while on hold with tech support.

The angry customer, meanwhile, videotaped the incident, added some music and unkind text overlays, and slapped the video on YouTube, the popular video-sharing website. Thousands, perhaps millions, of people, including me, saw the video before the mainstream press picked up on it and turned this extreme example of poor customer service into an actual “story.” Comcast responded by issuing an apology, and firing the technician.

Next up was AOL, a division of Time Warner. In this case, Vincent Ferrari of the Bronx, NY, called to cancel his subscription to the popular online service. Sometime during the process, he decided to record the event. I’ll let the New York Times take it from here:

“To listen as Mr. Ferrari tries to cancel his membership is to join him in a wild, horrifying descent into customer service hell. The AOL representative, self-identified as John, sounds like a native English speaker; he refuses to comply when Mr. Ferrari asks, demands, and finally pleads — over and over again — to close his account.”

Ferrari posted the conversation on his blog. The story was picked up by Digg, a popular online news service. By the time it was over, Ferrari was on The Today Show, and AOL was publicly apologizing to him, saying it was changing its customer retention practices.

Comcast and AOL are enormous companies. Each offers services — cable and/or internet access — known to cause headaches for consumers. Judging from a trip around the internet, neither company is known for offering outstanding customer service. Nonetheless, because of their respective sizes, and because each is deeply entrenched in its business, it’s doubtful that either company will lose a substantial amount of customers due to poor customer service.

Customer service is extremely important, and the public relations industry needs to be vigilant about poor customer service. In many cases, customer service agents may be the only employees who actually interact with customers. Customer service agents must be made aware of the fact that they are also acting as public relations agents for a company, and they absolutely must understand that their interactions with customers reflect directly upon their company.

At my company, we have two customer service agents. They deal with two distinct types of customers: Retail investors paying a few hundred dollars for newsletter subscriptions, and institutional investors paying thousands of dollars for access to a data service. Obviously, one type of customer has very different needs and concerns from the other. At the end of the day, however, they’re both paying customers. They both deserve the same level of service.

We take customer service very seriously, as any business should. If we get a complaint, we immediately address it, pulling in everyone from editorial staffers to technical staffers to resolve the problem. Our customer service people understand that they represent our company, our products, and our workforce on the public relations front. If they should fail, it reflects poorly upon the company as a whole. Most importantly, the customer service agents take their jobs seriously, a seemingly rare attitude in the customer service industry.

Critics of public relations like to suggest that we’re all just publicists looking to rack up some ink for our companies. These critics are right, sometimes. We can prove them wrong, however, by making sure that we take an active role in all aspects of the business, from customer service to sales. A public relations rep’s job is to build and protect a brand, and we can’t do that if fellow employees are creating senseless public relations problems.

This article, written by Ben Silverman, originally appeared in PR Fuel (, a free weekly newsletter from eReleases (, the online leader in affordable press release distribution. To subscribe to PR Fuel, visit:

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