Should we add Customer Relations to the PR family?

Dealing with Customer Relations is not as easy or as satisfying as it should be.

You can either be met with great service and have your issue resolved to your satisfaction or it can be akin to Hercules cleaning out the Augean stables; the more you are drawn in, the more horrible the experience.  Unfortunately, I have my share of the latter but how can you ensure that Customer Relations is not the working against you when it comes to engaging with your audience?

On a 2015 trip to India, both my wife and I had our own Herculean experience when dealing with companies.

For me,  it was dealing with Swissair. It started small as many issues do with an issue with their website’s seat reservation function and should have been resolved quickly but unfortunately it snowballed.  lt led to a tortuous call to Customer Relations and being told after 20 mins that a) the website was actually down and b) that I had to call several numbers including one in Germany to resolve it!

At least it was not potentially dangerous as was my wife’s treatment at the hands of her bank, Barclays.

Despite popping into two branches and telling them, she was off on holiday in India, buying travel insurance from them re same and actually phoning from India with an account query, they put a block on her card because of unusual  spending activity i.e. she was using her cash card in India!

They have since apologised for the ‘embarrassment’ but as she rightly told them it was nothing to do with embarrassment. She was 11000km from home and her main method of payment was stopped; because her bank did not listen to her.

How many have had the experience that Customer Relations is not listening to their issue?

I contacted adidas Customer Relations for maintenance advice on a pair of Gore-Tex boots. They asked me for details of when I bought them (and if I had the receipt) telling me they could not help me until I find it.

I went back through my bank account and found the details and they said that they could not give me a refund or exchange. What???   I did not ask for a refund or exchange but maintenance advice.

So five days after my initial request and back and forth between adidas and myself, they responded by answering a question I hadn’t even asked, even though I had said to them during the process why a receipt would improve the chance of getting advice on the upkeep of my boots!

Outcome.  No apology for the waste of time but a curt response saying that they were unable to help as they could not find details of the boots.

This might sound like a catalogue of whinges but there is a serious point to all this. My views of the above companies are now not just based on my experiences using their products/services but also how I rated their response when I contacted them to say those products/services did not meet my expectations.

If I feel that I am not being listened to how can my experience be anything but negative?

As a communicator, my role is to build constructive two-way engagement between an organisation and its audience using all the channels at my disposal.

However, how often do PRs consider Customer Services as part of that range of channels?

If a product fails, the public won’t contact the sales dept., marketing dept., the press office or the R&D department. They will contact the Customer Relations team;  and they will rate their experience of your company on the response they get from Customer Relations.

If the Customer Relations team is not part of the communications function, then the interaction between the public and the company might not be a strong and positive one. I see a two disciplines running along parallel lines, with the same goals but how often do they interacting with each other at the corporate level.

If the answer is rarely, that is a major issue for your organisation.

Imagine a product being launched across Europe supported by an integrated communications plan but customer relations, your accessible public face, is not part of the planning. What if there is an issue with the new product? By the time, a plan is pulled together to handle the situation, customer relations have already been talking to your customers … and those customers have been speaking to their own network.

Elena Verlee, founder of Cross Border Communications wrote an article in her PR in your pyjamas blog, which looked deeper into this. Of particularly interest were her observations on:

  1. PR and Customer Relations Departments should be actively involved with each other.
  2. Customer Relations and social media manager roles are merging.
  3. Reiterate that PR and Customer Relations are part of everyone’s job description.

Much of PR is reaching out to your audience; the Customer Relations team has the public banging on their door every day.

I feel that a trick is being missed by not having Customer Relations formally considered a part of Public Relations.

Cornelius Alexander

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