I had to call a company this morning whose employees almost invariably treat me like I'm an idiot.
It's not that there's one cranky employee, or that I happened to catch one normally friendly employee on an off day: every single interaction I have with the (multiple) staff in this business is unpleasant -- and has been over the course of a few years. And it's not just me: friends have reported the same experience. These staff talk down to their customers in a way that leaves a bitter taste... and a lasting, unfavourable impression.
Customer service issue, or PR?
In some organizations, the PR department is charged with managing relationships with certain key stakeholders and the media, and customer service is left to the "customer service" experts.
And while there are plenty of aspects of good customer service delivery that require the attention of the customer service experts, your stakeholders' experiences in dealing with front-line employees have a huge impact on your organization's public relations.
In PR, our responsibility is to build and nurture healthy relationships with people and groups who are affected by what our organization does: customers, employees, community neighbours, donors, beneficiaries, government, interest groups, investors, mainstream and new media influencers, just to name a few.
We work in a wide range of environments, for a wide range of causes, to deliver on a wide range of objectives. But fundamentally, it comes down to this: our job is to give people reasons to want to do business with our employer/client in some way.
What makes you want a relationship?
It's not beautifully-written and designed annual reports, it's not flawlessly-executed special events, and it's not entertaining and informative speeches -- though, for some audiences, those can help.
At their core, good relationships are built on respect -- whether they're between two people, or between a person and an organization of some kind. So if your company's various audiences don't feel respected, anything else your PR department does will fall short.
How do you recognize respect when you see it, hear it, or feel it? It looks, sounds and feels like consideration.
And how do you show consideration?
You listen, and you respond based on what you've heard in a way that shows the other person their experience matters.
When someone listens to you and responds in a way that aims to improve your experience, you feel respected.
In companies, good PR starts on the front lines
Front-line staff (store clerks, helpline operators, volunteers - anyone who interacts with your publics day-to-day) have the ability to affect your audiences' impression of your organization every minute of every work day. Their handling of your audiences' concerns/business/issues/opportunities will have far more impact on how people feel about your organization than many of the corporate communications materials you produce.
For the PR department, that makes front-line managers and staff key partners in the organization's public relations function. You want to know what they're hearing from your audiences, and you want to ensure they're equipped to deal with issues and opportunities alike. You want to know what their personal job-related issues and ideas are, and you want them to know their issues and ideas matter.
Well, first of all, because it's nice. But secondly, because it's good for business. Your front-line folks are an audience too: and they need to be respected if they're going to want to contribute to positive relationships -- with the company and with its customers.
Sour employees = sour customer experience
It so happens that I'm stuck with the company that motivated this post, for the time being, at least: they provide a particular product I've become accustomed to and don't want to give up. But my behaviour as a customer has changed as a result of the poor treatment I get at their head office: I access the product in a different way, which cuts into the share of my spend the company gets.
The difference between the company getting all my investment and getting only part of my investment is literally the cranky attitude of the employees who answer the phones.
That's a clear bottom-line impact of customer service on my relationship with the company, and that company's bottom line.
If I were in that company's PR department, I'd want to get on that. One cranky employee is one cranky employee; but a whole staff of them, to me, suggests an organizational problem.
Bitterness doesn't just turn up overnight, and it isn't dispelled overnight, either: but as anyone who has had relationship troubles can tell you, the best place to start repairing an injured relationship is to listen.