PR Should Have a Hand in Customer Service

    April 12, 2007

I’ve had two customer service encounters today that have me pondering—again—the link between PR and customer service. If public relations is the management and maintenance of relationships between organizations and their core audiences, customer service should be considered a linchpin. Customers have to be considered a vital audience, and in today’s world, word-of-mouth from customers is worth more than dozens of expensive, traditional PR, advertising, or marketing campaigns. Yet many companies continue to blow it on this most fundamental of activities.

The first experience was actually my wife’s; she told me about it while I was sitting on board a 757 at Oakland International Airport, waiting for a wheels-up time for my flight to Chicago, which was on a ground hold.

Michele is in Los Angeles staying with one of her best friends who is recovering from breast cancer surgery performed yesterday (Tuesday). Ellen is highly regarded in an organization to which she belongs; she had informed many of her friends in the group of her impending surgery. Knowing the surgery had been performed, dozens of these people sent Ellen emails offering their best wishes. Unfortunately, Ellen couldn’t get any of these emails because her Internet connection, supplied by Time Warner Cable, had died.

Ellen’s husband took the modem to Time Warner’s office, but it checked out fine. They scheduled an in-home appointment for Friday.

I know that this is the typical response to an outage; companies like Comcast and Time Warner are loathe to hire enough help to be able to respond to a problem in anything like a timely manner. So we get used to it. But under these circumstances, Michele felt an extra effort was warranted. She called Time Warner, explained why the Net connectivity was needed and asked for an accommodation.

“Sorry,” she was told; “that’s the best we can do.”

“Did you get the part about the cancer surgery patient?”

But the customer service represented insisted nobody could get to the house today. So Michele asked if she could speak with the rep’s supervisor. And he said:


Excuse me?? No???

Eventually, the rep claimed to have spoken to the supervisor himself and got the appointment moved to Thursday, at precisely sometime between 9 a.m. and 7 p.m. Of course, there is no alternative to Time Warner Cable in this part of Los Angeles. This is the kind of customer service we can expect when there is no competition. Even so, it doesn’t do much for Time Warner’s reputation when people like me spread such stories.

There is, on the other hand, plenty of competition to United Airlines, which brought me to Chicago today. The flight was scheduled to depart at 6:30 a.m., and at 6:35 a.m., the passengers were still sitting in the boarding area, no gate agent had appeared, no announcements had been made. We were all left simply to wonder, which led several passengers to approach the flight crew, but they were equally clueless about why we hadn’t boarded.

To be fair, there was a problem: The computer systems at the entire airport had failed. No video monitors displayed gates or departure times and ticket agents were writing tickets by hand. But nobody could have come to the gate to explain? Eventually, a ramp agent came and boarded the plane without an explanation, but in his defense, he looked pretty shell-shocked. It’s not often a ramp agent takes tickets.

I have a bad taste in my mouth about both United and Time Warner. Both companies could have avoided that reaction—and this blog post—by offering decent (not even stellar, just decent) customer service.

It’s time PR departments insisted on playing a part in company customer service operations. Bad customer service can undermine the best PR efforts, and at the end of the day, it’s all about reputation.