Bitter winter yields case studies on customer service opportunities (Column)

Can your reputation weather a customer service crisis? Daniel Tisch is CEO of Argyle Communications, one of Canada’s largest independent public relations firms. It’s so very Canadian: 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 […]

Can your reputation weather a customer service crisis?

Daniel Tisch is CEO of Argyle Communications, one of Canada’s largest independent public relations firms.

It’s so very Canadian: 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.

Daniel Tisch

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?

Having counselled many organizations with large and complex customer and stakeholder networks, I see several predictors of success.

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 the crisis itself. For example, many airline customers were furious in December about being grounded for hours and unable to leave their planes at Pearson International Airport—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 e-mail 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.

Daniel Tisch is CEO of Argyle Communications, one of Canada’s largest independent public relations firms. He is a Fellow of the Canadian Public Relations Society and was the 2011-2013 Chair of the Global Alliance for Public Relations and Communication Management. He

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