A version of this post appeared on February 11th in Marketing Magazine
A bitter winter shows where communication can make a difference
In much of the Northern Hemisphere, an unusually brutal winter has wreaked havoc on travel schedules, paralyzed airports, shut down electrical grids, strained customer relations, and created reputation management challenges for many organizations. Unlike a crisis that affects health or safety, the primary risk in a customer service disaster is to the organization’s relationships and reputation.
What makes some organizations so rigid, and others so resilient?
In earlier posts, I have highlighted the Global Alliance’s three dimensions of successful reputation management: a clear conception of organizational character and values; a culture of listening and engagement; and a deeply embedded sense of responsibility.
Let’s look at how these principles can work for customer service organizations – particularly during times of stress or crisis.
First, smart companies are guided by a clear set of customer service values — and communicate them both internally and externally.
This can be difficult during a crisis. For example, many airline customers were furious in December about being grounded for hours and unable to leave the plane at Canada’s largest airport. The airlines’ challenge was explaining that another value — safety — had to take priority, while doing their best to improve the unhappy experience.
Some airlines’ reputations were well-equipped to weather the storm. WestJet, for example, had made a longstanding investment in building a customer service brand with creative PR tactics such as the WestJet Christmas Miracle. When your customer service brand is both well-defined and employees have a role in articulating and implementing it, you are far more likely to earn fast forgiveness.
Second, a culture of listening and ‘empowered engagement’ can help minimize relationship risk and maximize reputational opportunity.
Great customer service organizations have sophisticated systems of stakeholder and public engagement — from listening and responding to customers in real-time on social networks to engaging key stakeholders in regular face-to-face dialogue. This winter’s weather showed us that major airlines have become adept at answering the ‘social phone’ on platforms such as Twitter; it also showed us that electricity providers and regulators alike now see social engagement as fundamental to the protection of public safety.
The key, however, is consistency between a customer’s online and real-world experience. For example, while stuck on the tarmac during a long flight delay, the lack of communication from the flight crew drove me to engage the airline on Twitter. The Twitter team responded quickly, informed me of the length of the delay, and was empowered to book me a new connecting flight… in a better class of service, at no extra charge. This experience stood out because many complex organizations are better at chatting and commiserating with customers online than at actually solving their problems.
Third, great customer-service organizations take responsibility — at the highest levels.
A cautionary tale in customer communication came from the Greater Toronto Airport Authority in January. Despite inconveniencing thousands of customers by halting all incoming flights for 11 hours during a storm (while other airports remained open), the organization’s CEO waited three days before speaking publicly. By that point, the stakeholder and public criticism — including from prominent politicians at the local and national levels — had created a reputational storm that has not yet blown over.
Compare that with the CEO of Porter Airlines personally calling an angry customer following a 6:00 am email about a flight cancellation. The angry customer became a grateful one — and blogged about the experience.
Like the WestJet story above, such actions are small; but in both communication and customer service, it’s often in the domain of the small and symbolic that great brands are born and sustained.
How can your organization improve?
Make sure you have a strong Chief Communications Officer with an effective public relations strategy; and ensure your communications team is spearheading interdisciplinary collaboration between everyone who touches communication — from marketing to human resources to public affairs to customer service and more.
Great organizations recognize that when customer relationships are at stake, operational improvement alone can’t solve a reputational crisis; that’s why they strive to be great at communication, too.
Customers don’t expect anyone to be perfect. The bad news is that an operational failure is compounded by a communications failure. The good news is that an operational failure can be mitigated — and often transformed — by a communications success.
About the Author:
Daniel Tisch is the President and CEO for Argyle Public Relationships. He is one of Canada’s best-known communicators, having worked at senior levels in government before embarking on a 20-year consulting career in which he has advised CEOs, boards, government leaders and marketers for some of the world’s biggest brands.