Public Relations 101 - customer service
When you want to buy a new product or service, you usually do some research first. The more expensive the product, or the longer term the service, the more research you are likely to do. This "research" is of course influenced by various factors, many of which are of a psychological nature. And not all are rational. But it does usually involve one thing: you consult people you trust that have either first-hand experience with the product, service and the company or are considered an "authority" on the subject. The main element however is that you trust these people.
A commercial or an advertisement might have made you aware of a product or service but more often than not it is word of mouth that guides the decision. Consider this - all too common - scenario: you are persuaded by sales people to buy a certain service, let's say you need a new internet / telephone / televison provider. And as soon as the service is installed, the trouble starts: not as many television channels as were promised, the internet connection works intermittently and because of that, so does your phone. In itself this should not be a big problem. Just a few errors made during installation - that can happen to anyone. It happened to friends of mine quite recently.
The real problem started when they contacted the provider. I won't go into any details here, as you probably know them from your own experience. What I do want to talk about here is what happened to the attitude of my friends regarding the company. In two weeks flat they went from recommending the service to actively warning other people about the company and the service. Now things like this have happened in similar ways over the years, regardless of the internet. And as my friends are not really active online, the impact of all this to the company is minimal. Only a small number of people are involved in this scenario. But now let's look at an example of how the online communication has changed the ball-game:
I am sure that most Public Relations professionals with an internet connection by now know about the YouTube video about how United breaks guitars. Last time I checked, this video had been watched almost 5 million times with over 20,000 text comments. Talking about a Public Relations nightmare... And it won't go away easily either. For example: by putting up that link to the video here, people that read this and haven't seen the video are quite likely to do so now. And it gets even worse as you will see below.
The thing that strikes me most of all about this, is that the whole song is really not about a broken guitar. It is about indifferent and rude customer service. If United's customer service had better handled this, the song and video probably wouldn't have happened. And that is the real point here. How many times have you been treated like a king by salespeople, only to be let down by customer service as soon as you were "hooked"?
While not everybody has the talent, time, skill and resources to create a video as remarkable as this, it still serves as a good example of how things can go wrong when customer service employees have the wrong attitude. How a single person with a complaint can reach an audience of 5 million people with it. An example of how a proper, involved customer service attitude could have prevented a public relations nightmare.
These days people are more likely to investigate a product or service using the internet. So they are also more likely to find opinions like the one mentioned above. If you enter 'united airlines customer service' (without the quotes) in Google, the reference to the video is in position 7 of the search results. But things can get even worse: suppose you are a musician and consider flying United. So you enter 'united airlines guitar transport' in Google. In this case 9 of the first 10 results refer to the video mentioned above. Would you consider trusting your guitar to them?
All of this could probably have been prevented if their customer service had handled the initial complaint better. Things break during travel, that happens. It is the way in which these things are handled that matter. This is why customer service employees are basically members of the Public Relations department. Or to put it in different, more formal words: every interaction of each individual within an organisation with any individual outside the organisation can now have an effect on the image (and thus the results) of the organisation on a potential global scale.
In large organisations: if you are a Public Relations manager or executive, you're first priority should be to make management (and shareholders) aware of this situation. It is the reality and likely to gain traction over the years to come. If your organisation is small, you probably have no Public Relations department. In this case you might as well forget about marketing altogether for now and make Public Relations your main priority. Don't waste money on marketing campaigns as long as you haven't decided on how to relate to the general public. And act on it. Consistently.