We all know the story because we’ve all been there. Your agency gets hired by a new client. There’s much celebrating, and tons of potential energy. You have the first meeting where you go over expectations, both theirs of you, and yours of them. They want press, you want ammo for stories to tell. It’s a fair give and take.
Then you go back to your office and start working. You line up lists of reporters to call, and ideas of stories to tell. Then you call the client and ask that one simple question.
“Can you give us some clients who we can use as case studies, or maybe some happy customers, or even just examples of awesome things your company has done recently?”
There’s silence on the line, and you wait. They promise to call you back after “talking to customer service,” and hang up. And even though each subsequent call starts with “Have you gotten us those clients or amazing experiences yet?” you never actually get the answer.
Six months later, you’re in their office again, but this time you’re explaining why they shouldn’t kill your contract and fire you for lack of performance.
Sound familiar? Perhaps it’s time someone stood up and said:
If your client doesn’t have a clear line of communication between their marketing department and customer service department, they’ll get, at best, one-fourth the positive press they could get, and at minimum, four times the negative press they could avoid, and you’ll wind up unfairly taking the blame.
Unfortunately for you, in corporate America today, marketing and customer service are like Justin Bieber and good music: unrelated and unaware that the other exists. This needs to change.
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If marketing doesn’t talk to customer service, how can you, as a PR person, possibly do your job? All your best stories, trends, and as important, chances of heading off PR disasters before they occur, are stuck in customer service. Simply put, if a company has marketing in one silo, and customer service in another, they will fail, and you’ll fail by default.
Fear not! Here are some ways to help mitigate that, and look like a superhero in the process.
In your initial contract with the client, make it mandatory that one person from customer service be put on the PR team. Make sure this person has his or her ear to the ground, and include this person in all meetings and emails. Make sure the customer service person has all your contact information, and knows that they can reach out to you anytime. It’s through this person that you’re going to hear about the problem the company seems to have with their new widget, long before your client’s marketing person calls you and says “So, there’s an article out about how bad our widget is, what are you going to do to fix it?”
If you can work on the problem before it becomes public, or at least before it becomes major, your chances of fixing it and turning the negative into a positive or at least a neutral skyrocket. But remember, you’re not going to hear about these problems from marketing until it’s too late. The customer service division hears about it from customers the second they start to happen, and that’s the best time to start working on a fix.
Ask to have one person on your team be added as a bcc on every fifth inbound and outbound client customer service email. This is a good one that very few companies do—the more you know, the more you can respond—and this goes for both the good and bad. If you can find happy customers, you can use them to create a story, a story of happy customers of a great company that you can pitch to the media. Same thing on the negative side. If you notice the problems and can help fix it, you’ve got a client hater into a client lover, and as we all know, reformed haters make the best lovers.
Be the bridge. Remember, most marketing executives see customer service reps as call center drones with earrings in their noses. (As a former call center rep, I know that’s not accurate, and I apologize on behalf of all marketing executives.) But sadly, that’s more often what marketing people think than not.
As such, the lines of communication between marketing and customer service are blurred at best, and non-existent at worst. So you can be that bridge. Be the communications channel, so that when your customer service contact tells you something on which you can take action, you can go to marketing and let them know. That gives you not only something to bring in as a project-in-progress, but also makes you super-valuable to the client. You’re not just the PR team, but rather, you have all this great info for them! (While that sounds incredibly simplistic, trust me, this is how a lot of companies work. Sometimes all it takes is one person to become that bridge to become the most valuable consultant in the company.)
Finally, keep your customer hat on at all times: Buy the products. Call the returns center. Bring a product in for repair. Tweet at their support staff with a compliment or complaint. See what they do. The ability to see how things happen as a customer allow you to come up with a ton better ideas that you can implement for the client, that will constantly amaze.
Let’s face it, being able to do something is a hell of a lot more enjoyable than just waiting for the damn phone to ring.
Peter Shankman used to run a PR agency. Then he sold it. Then he started HARO, which changed how PR worked. Then he sold it. Throughout all of that, he tried to be awesome at customer service. He’s now the Shankman in Shankman|Honig, a customer service strategy firm based in NYC. In his spare time, he writes bestsellers and trains for Ironman Triathlons, yet strangely, never seems to lose enough weight.