“Sorry” customer service responses vary greatly

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Adorable puppy courtesy of http://www.theclaimsspot.com.

When you complain to or about a company or brand on social media, sometimes you’re just venting and sometimes you are expecting a legitimate response because for some reason we think that’s an acceptable method of communicating our grievances now. Sometimes you want to offer unsolicited advice, which if reacted to makes you feel good but if ignored shouldn’t make you feel bad. After all, it was unsolicited and no one is obliged to listen to your advice if they didn’t ask for it.

In any case, most of the time what customers are seeking when they complain, and especially if they’re just venting, is to hear “We’re sorry.” Maybe the company can’t fix your problem and sometimes all they can do is acknowledge your frustration. Who knows, that may be all you were looking for. Humanizing that response is far superior to offering a form letter reply, because form letters don’t help anyone believe that you really care about their issues. Note that a form letter style of reply is different from a template. Often, the same information should be conveyed as part of your organization’s response, so having similar paragraphs within personalized letters or emails is understandable and acceptable.

I am writing this post as a follow-up to my post about customer service and marketing miscues. I thought it might be of interest to see what reactions I received to my initial customer service complaints and the resulting post about them.

So, in the order established in that other post, here are the reactions:

  • After my post mentioned Walmart and it’s pro-American worker commercial with a theme song by a Canadian band, nothing official happened, although a couple of days after the post ran, I heard from a local lobbyist who works for them. He said “my post did not go unnoticed” and he was sharing it with HQ in Bentonville. That’s actually more than I expected.
  • The credit card company got back to me within a few days of my email complaining to them, noting that the offer indeed was legitimate but that they couldn’t do more for me without having me log in to their secure server. At least there wasn’t a link for me to follow or be concerned about. This was one of those cases where they included a template of security tips gobbledygook in the reply, but I understand why.
  • I’ve heard nothing from the local newspaper, and I rarely hear anything from the media when I complain as a routine member of the public instead of as a press secretary. Granted, the Lansing State Journal was in my post but I did not contact them directly. I suppose maybe no one in that organization is monitoring Google for mentions. It’s a position they should seriously consider adding if they want to truly be a part of the entire local community, both offline and on.
  • comcast googleBelieve it or not, one of the better responses came from Comcast, which I complained about the loudest. The main corporate account didn’t respond, but within minutes of tagging Comcast Cares on Google+, I had a very human response from an employee that said they don’t have an ETA on when the feature I’m looking for would be available. She even added a frowny face emoticon. Nothing says a human replied like an emoticon; it’s better than a bot or a customer service person ordered to use standard company language.
  • I already posted in my earlier blog entry about how the Lansing Board of Water and Light is embroiled in a PR crisis and unlikely to exit unscathed anytime soon. I haven’t heard from them but I didn’t expect a response because, quite honestly, they have much bigger things to worry about than my rantings.
  • And the Meijer store manager responded to my original complaint with a lackluster answer that only made me more frustrated, which is how they ended up in my other blog post originally.

So, a few observations:

  1. If customers contact you directly, respond! It’s fine for an automated response to acknowledge receipt of an email, that way someone isn’t waiting and wondering. But the real reply needs to be sincere and from a real human, not a bot or an automaton spouting propaganda.
  2. Monitor pings of your brand or organization online. It’s not that hard and, if you use a service like Google Alerts, it’s free! Just because they don’t contact you directly doesn’t mean people aren’t complaining about you. In fact, it may be worse because instead of a private outreach, they are publicly saying things that you should respond to but probably aren’t.
  3. In whatever response you offer, send along an “I’m sorry.” It may not seem like much but it can go a long way. If nothing else, you should at least be sorry that the customer had to make an extra effort to reach out to you because of a problem. That’s time they could have spent saying nice things about you, or nothing at all, which is preferable to a few choice words surrounding your brand name.
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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.

Survey says: Pointless Surveys Are Dead

Breaking news! All forms of media are dead! They are useless to the world of public relations because what the media covers and what is being chatted about on social media just doesn’t matter anymore. It’s all about direct influence of consumers through…well, wait, if we don’t use the media and social media, how will we reach consumers? I’m sensing a flaw in the latest survey by the Reputation Institute that is making some communications pros question their media relations and social media outreach plans.

The basic premise behind the Reputation Institute’s findings is actually quite reasonable. It suggests that direct experiences with a company have more of an impact on how a consumer feels about a brand. They compared that with what a company says and does or what is being said about the brand in the mainstream media or on social networking outlets. Really though, I’m certain the proverbial 1,000 monkeys at 1,000 typewriters could have produced that report.

What I find flawed is the interpretations of the survey results. I’ve already heard one industry leader reference the survey and buy in to the Institute’s headline: “Media’s Net Impact on Reputation is Zero.” I imagine others will jump on this bandwagon as well. The survey suggests that the reputation gap between those people who have had direct experience with a brand and those who have not is nearly zero when measuring the influence of media and social media. That finding, of course, may have people wondering why so much attention (and budget) is being paid to social media experts and the media relations teams at various companies.

The problem is that the finding is utter nonsense. The category that had more of a reputation gap was the one that included marketing, branding and public relations. The largest gap was found in the area that included customer service, products and employment. The idea here is that the larger the reputation gap, the more impact that particular area has on people’s opinions of a company or brand.

But like too many traps in the public relations world, you cannot boil public relations, marketing, media relations and social media activities into one solitary silver bullet that is the cause of trouble or the salvation for your business.

What you make as a product matters to your reputation and so does customer service. Marketing your product, public relations efforts to consumers and branding activities involving social responsibility are important, as well. If you have a great product and excellent customer service, and if you spend money on marketing, public relations, and social responsibility, then you are probably involved with the mainstream media and social media as well. These areas are not silos that can be singled out as the best or worst thing your company should focus on. Instead, you need a more comprehensive and cohesive approach to success.

A great product will sell. Excellent customer service will bring in more customers. And both will be advanced through great public relations and marketing efforts. Those efforts, more than likely, will involve mainstream media stories, articles in industry publications and perhaps even some social media outreach.

So before people go running off declaring media doesn’t matter, perhaps we should look back to earlier reports. Remember the stories about the press release being dead? It’s not dead; it’s simply evolved rather than becoming extinct. Evolution is the name of the game now. Before you write off all forms of media relations because of survey results, consider whether they make sense or not. Perhaps what we need to do is declare pointless surveys with screaming headlines dead. Anyone willing to conduct a survey for me on that?

No matter how hard managers stir, “communications” still isn’t a bucket

A recent column and blog post have created a dust-up over whether journalists should be hired to do public relations. It all started with a column by Jill Geisler at Poynter.org listing the 10 reasons why journalists could help public relations operations. That led to a post by Kathryn Hubbell at the Public Relations Society of America’s blog citing frustration in some parts of the PR profession with journalists invading the PR territory.

The comments at the PRSA blog turned nasty rather quickly, suggesting that Hubbell’s piece was inappropriate, short-sighted and, for some, insulting. I was bothered by the post, too, because it seemed to attack the path I had taken in my career. I was a newspaper journalist — first a reporter, then an editor — before jumping over to the public relations side of the business. I’ve always valued my media background, and so have my employers and clients. Journalists are trained to recognize a good story, write it well and explain it in easy-to-understand terms. Still, there’s more to public relations than that. There’s research, strategy and myriad other components involved in being a good PR counselor.

At first I was going to respond to the PRSA post talking about how off-base Ms. Hubbell was, but then the slew of comments that ensued took care of that for me. And as I watched those comments unfold, my opinion that some PR people are just snooty about their profession and want to defend it from outsiders changed. I came to realize that we’re all a bit like that, whether we specialize in journalism, public relations, marketing, advertising or any other form of communications. We hold our specific training and talents sacred — and rightly so.

The problem now seems to be that economic conditions have led to management teams losing sight of the fact that “communications” is not a bucket into which you can just stir in bits and pieces of professions and watch great products emerge. Journalists and their counterparts in the other various communications fields each have something to bring to the table. Unfortunately, we’ve reached an era where management is looking solely at the bottom line, hoping that by combining public relations, marketing and advertising into one discipline, with half the positions previously considered necessary, they have a winning managerial decision on their hands.

But the reality is all they’ve created is an inefficient and ineffective mess. Here’s a newsflash for those number-crunching CEOs: the people trained in those disciplines get upset when they’re told anyone can do their job, and so they should. Too many CEOs and vice presidents seem to believe that if you’re a journalist, of course you can do public relations. If you can do public relations, of course you can do marketing. And how hard can advertising really be, so why can’t the PR people or marketing staff take care of it? Oh, and internal communications — well, anyone can drop some cute stories into a company newsletter, right?

I’m a former journalist who now does public relations. The leap can be made. There are plenty of people who can be trained to cover more than one discipline. But it takes years of training, experience or both to make that transition and reach a point where you are comfortable saying, “Yeah, I can do more than one job for you.” But even then, it doesn’t mean you want to or that you should have to.

The company managers trying to figure out how to handle media relations, public relations, marketing, advertising and internal communications need to get a grip on reality. They should stop trying to save money by forcing people to work outside their disciplines, and then holding them accountable when they don’t get the biggest bang for the buck.

As I was thinking about this over the past few days while contemplating this blog post, I remembered a great lesson on figuring out the difference between several of the communication arts disciplines. It goes like this:

If the circus is coming to town and you paint a sign saying ‘Circus Coming to the Fairground Saturday’, that’s advertising. If you put the sign on the back of an elephant and walk it into town, that’s promotion. If the elephant walks through the mayor’s flower bed and it makes the nightly news, that’s publicity. And if you get the mayor to laugh about it in the news story, THAT’s public relations.”

Maybe those of us involved in communications should begin communicating more with our managers, starting with delivering a copy of that story.

(Image courtesy of Jake Khrone’s Flickr feed.)

Are bloggers the new “special interest group?”

A friend of mine recently posted a blog entry about the Motrin Moms and how “this marketing debacle validated the simple fact that social media has changed our culture.”

I commented at her post, and some of the comment is replicated here. But I also wanted to chime in with something disturbing I’ve been noticing lately: the lack of an ethics creed for bloggers and social-media types.

“Social media people” need to be careful not to become the “social media elite.” Sure, a bunch of moms got mad about something and forced a company to change course. But does that mean the Motrin Moms are right or just loud and unrelenting?

Suggesting that companies can’t do anything right if they haven’t consulted with “us” first is a bit cocky.

I can’t help but wonder if Twitter and other social media networks have become the new home for the squeaky wheel.

The old saying, “The squeaky wheel gets the grease,” is now amplified, which means the potential for knee-jerk reactions by corporations and politicians also is at an all-time high. And rarely have knee-jerk reactions ever resulted in the best strategies for anything.

I’m a firm believer in a little anarchy now and then being a good thing. But I also believe that power corrupts even those who start out with the best of intentions.

Bloggers who started out as an alternative form of media that would hold corporations’ and politicians’ feet to the fire may be on their way to becoming a special interest group that expects everyone to cater to their needs and demands.

At the same time, you have a number of people who aren’t following some of the most basic credos of journalism, such as verifying facts, being fair and balanced in their reporting, and protecting the integrity of their writing by avoiding even perceived conflicts of interest.

I pointed out at Digital Pivot the other day a story from Advertising Age that talked about one of the purveyors of the Motrin Moms’ debacle now being a WalMart supporter via Twitter. The story talks about some special treatment she’s received and how, lo and behold, she can’t stop talking about how great WalMart is. I think the title of the post I made, “Perks are pay, aren’t they?” sums up my feelings on this pretty well.

When I was a journalist, I once made the mistake of accepting a free trip, thinking I would be very objective in reporting on the new destination hotel I was reviewing. When I was finished, I even patted myself on the back for pulling it off and writing a well-balanced, conflict-free review. Then, my publisher read it and asked what we got for it. “I sure hope you got a trip or something out of that, since they should be paying for such a fluff piece,” he said.

His comment hit me right between the eyes and I never accepted anything gratis again.

I asked on Twitter the other day whether bloggers are following any kind of ethics code about not accepting freebies. One blogger commented that she never keeps anything she takes in for a review. She either gives it away as an act of charity or returns it to the manufacturer. But another person commented that several bloggers at a public-relations meeting she attended expect freebies if a company wants coverage.

As I said before, I believe in the sentiment that power corrupts. As you’ll recall, the entire phrase is “Power corrupts, and absolute power corrupts absolutely.” It’s a great phrase that bloggers and tweeters and their counterparts need to remember, lest they become blinded by their own self-proclaimed importance.