Customer service and marketing: You Can’t Fix Stupid

ron whiteI am quite certain I’m not alone when shaking my head periodically over stupid marketing mistakes or frustrating customer service travails. Over the past few weeks, I have shaken my head so much though that I’m growing concerned about the impact on my brain from all that jarring movement.

The missteps have involved utility and cable companies, retail stores, a major bank, and a daily newspaper. And there isn’t any social media outreach or clever slogan that can replace simple research or focusing on good customer service instead of focusing on how to address complaints. In other words, stop staring so much at the trees and take a broader look at the forest you’re creating from time to time.

First, let’s talk about marketing miscues.

While watching the Olympics on TV the other night, an ad came on for WalMart, not a bastion of union love and Made in the USA pride for sure. The ad was about how much WalMart is pledging to support U.S-made products and the workers who manufacture them. Unfortunately, the marketing department at WalMart apparently doesn’t have too many classic rock fans on staff. If it did, they would have caught that the theme song they decided to run at full volume during the commercial was Working Man by Rush, which is an iconic Canadian band.

credit offerThen, just this weekend, I received an unsolicited email from one of my credit card companies offering a hassle-free, credit-check free increase in my credit line. I just needed to click the button linked in the email and I would be on my way. Spam! you say? Actually, I think it’s legitimate, but there’s no way to prove it. The most ridiculous part is that the bank has a Secure Messaging Center that allows you to correspond with the bank (and vice-versa) within their system once you’ve securely logged into your account. I have forwarded the email to the address the bank uses for customers to report phishing attempts so that they can either start working on this fraudulent scam or walk down to the marketing department and smack someone upside the head.

I also noticed this weekend that my local daily newspaper, the Lansing State Journal, ran yet another letter to the editor that was factually inaccurate. As a media relations professional, it has always frustrated me how much newspapers claim to pride themselves on truth and accuracy, and then fill their opinion pages with rubbish. I’m not lamenting opinion columns by newspaper staff or the public that might have a different take on an issue than I do. I’m talking about people printing absolute falsehoods because the newspaper fact-checks their news but lets opinion trample the truth. It makes it tough to believe the marketing pitches from a newspaper about how they can be a trusted source when they are printing things that can’t be trusted.

Perhaps all marketing departments should hang a poster in their offices of comedian Ron White and his great line, “You can’t fix stupid.”

Customer service is becoming a bit of an oxymoron in many companies, too, with a focus on outreach through social media to address concerns people have. Here’s a concern I have: your customer service is horrible and whitewashing it with public relations outreach after the fact isn’t going to save you.

A classic example of this is the cable company Comcast. For years now, @ComcastCares on Twitter and other outlets has been touted as a great example of social media customer service that is responsive and well-liked. Unfortunately, Comcast as a company is considered vile by many of its customers. Just say something on Facebook or Google Plus about Comcast and watch the hate mail pour in on your comment stream.

comcast googleI discovered HBO GO is available as a channel on my Roku streaming device. I was excited because it meant I could stop using Comcast’s menu system that is as complicated as the family trees on Game of Thrones. In a strange twist, I actually started watching Game of Thrones after receiving a free subscription to HBO from Comcast because they were trying to make up for a massive billing mistake on their part. Unfortunately, Comcast isn’t one of the cable companies that allows you to log in to HBO GO on Roku. When I lamented about this on Google Plus, I tagged Comcast and ComcastCares. Of course the main account ignored me but ComcastCares responded within minutes. It wasn’t a particularly good or useful response, but at least I knew someone had heard me.

A local municipal utility company in Lansing, Michigan also suffered a massive credibility crisis back in December when ice storms wiped out power lines and the electricity they provide to area residents, in some cases for more than a week. Information was hard to come by and what was being delivered was questionable in terms of accuracy. After a public outcry over the Lansing Board of Water and Light needing to do a better job, the utility’s response was to post an opening for a social media coordinator. Of course! That makes perfect sense. After all, when I’m frustrated with a utility because my pipes are about to burst and food is rotting in my refrigerator, what I really wish I had was some great outreach via Twitter. Or, maybe, I’d rather have my electricity restored. And perhaps the money spent on social media whitewash might be better spent on restoring power and making sure it stays on.

Some days, I don’t think some places even care enough to try anymore.

Take a local store in my town called Meijer. It’s a Michigan-based company so many friends and I have tried to look past problems it has because we want to support the home team. The biggest issue people complain about is growing frustration with a reliance on self-checkout lanes that have lackluster scanners and a cumbersome layout. Most people who lament about not shopping there anymore seem to cite that as reason number one for their decision. I have learned to shop there at night since their checkout system is a bit more tolerable with fewer customers trying to use it.

However, a recent trip there and responses to complaints I filed about my experience have forced me to join the flock of those seeking my groceries and home supplies elsewhere. It was shortly after 10 p.m. when I stopped in to buy a few things, the bulk of which were in the toiletries section. Ten o’clock in the evening is late but not very late and considering the store is open 24 hours, it seemed too early for entire sections to be shut down for cleaning. But, alas, I left empty-handed with not a single toiletry item in my bag. When I inquired at the “customer service” counter about that section of the store being entirely closed off to customers, they shrugged and told me sorry, there was nothing they could do. I reported my frustration with the situation and the response to corporate headquarters. They forwarded it to the store manager who emailed me to say he was sorry, but cleaning was necessary and had to be done some time. I agree, but as I mentioned the store is open 24 hours, so how about cleaning at 2 a.m., or only cleaning certain aisles at a time instead of shutting down an entire corner of your store!?

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Frank Eliason, the founder of ComcastCares and now Director of Global Social Media at Citi, recently wrote about social media and customer service on a LinkedIn post. It’s a great read and I recommend taking a look, but here’s the line that really stood out to me:

I have yet to find a more important job than Customer Service. It is sad that people feel it is beneath them, because some day businesses will realize how important it is to their own success (or failure).

Well said. After all, no matter how good your PR and marketing teams are, they will never overcome horrible customer service. Fix the customer service first instead of whitewashing it with cool tech tools. And take the fun stuff away from the marketing teams for a while so they can spend time on the front lines dealing with customers and their personal frustrations. Maybe then you’ll be able to market your product without it resulting in a violent shaking of heads.

UPDATE: I’ve written a follow-up post about replies I received from the various organizations.

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“PR” doesn’t stand for Problem Repair

Associated Press Television News photographer Rich Matthews went diving in the Gulf of Mexico to take a closer look. (AP Photo)

The public relations industry is taking a beating lately because of the BP Oil catastrophe since those in charge seem to think PR stands for “Problem Repair.”

Whether it’s customer service, product design, political popularity or a giant gash you cut in the bottom of the ocean, PR can’t fix the root cause of your troubles. Sure, public relations practitioners not adhering to the Code of Ethics can divert attention away from the situation, but they cannot do so indefinitely. At some point, the truth will be revealed, the problem will continue to grow, people will no longer be fooled and the ultimate answer — fixing the problem — will have to be addressed.

Ad Age recently interviewed “Leroy Stick,” the pseudonym of the creator behind @BPGlobalPR on Twitter. In the interview, Stick said:

I started this account because I think most people in PR are liars and most people in the media don’t have the balls to call them out on it. There’s a system set up where companies make press releases and the media regurgitates them. Personally, I’d love it if more journalists delved into why companies say what they say rather than simply presenting what they say.

I can’t help but think a little about the pot calling the kettle black, since “Leroy Stick” won’t reveal his true identity and is, therefore, also a liar. But I digress. The bigger problem is that BP executives and government officials all the way up to President Barack Obama are looking to public relations professionals to make this problem go away. There is only one way to the make the problem of oil flowing into the ocean go away: stop the gusher you created.

Talking about sealing the gash won’t close it. Pointing fingers at who might be responsible won’t let nature start its cleaning process. Demanding money or agreeing to pay it won’t bring back the livelihoods of people affected by oil slicks hitting beaches. Having a photo opportunity with the families of the oil workers killed in the explosion won’t bring those men back. And trying to change the subject to a political agenda pushing for more controls over greenhouse gas emissions won’t save the fish, the birds and the mammals being poisoned to death.

I’ve been involved in media relations and public relations as a journalist, a practitioner and a university instructor for more than 20 years. I’ve learned a few things along the way. One of the things I’ve had to teach to students, colleagues and bosses is that PR can help you explain difficult answers and it can help you repair your reputation after you’ve had to publicly offer a difficult answer. But PR is not the answer.

So if you have horrible customer service, pushing PR messages about how great your Twitter team is handling complaints about it won’t help in the long run.

If you have a dangerous product, pushing PR messages about how much you care about your customers won’t change the fact they are at risk.

If you’re responsible for opening a hole in the Earth that is spewing millions of gallons of oil per day into the Gulf of Mexico, pushing PR messages about how you’re going to make things right won’t stop the oil flow.

And if you’re the man elected to lead this nation in times of crisis, pushing PR messages about caring for the environment more than the other political party won’t change the fact that people disapprove of your leadership.

Sure, I’ve stood up and said I’m responsible for oil spills. But as a public relations professional, I’m here to tell you we don’t cause bad customer service, dangerous products, holes in the ocean floor or poor leadership decisions. So stop expecting us to be miracle workers. Fix your damn problem; then we can talk.