An integrated approach to PR and customer service is essential for reputation management, says Raju Kane, Edelweiss Group

A few years ago, one of India’s largest banks faced a major crisis that had its origins in faulty customer communication. In a medium-sized town in the state of Gujarat in Western India, several of its ATMs ran out of money at the same time. The reasons were mostly trivial ranging from a technical hitch to delayed replenishment of cash in the machines. But because the bank failed to communicate properly to its customers, a rumour spread that the bank was running out of money. Soon long queues formed outside bank branches of people wanting to withdraw their savings. By the next day, panic had spread to neighbouring towns and the bank faced a classic run. It took over three days of Herculean effort by the management and intervention by the Reserve Bank of India to calm the situation down.

This was in the pre-social media age and world was far less connected. Today, thanks to the power of Twitter and Facebook, a crisis like this could get magnified a hundred fold.

In nearly two decades of my experience as a PR professional, I have had the privilege of counselling some of the biggest Indian and global brands across verticals. Invariably, almost every year, we have also had to battle severe reputational crises that have originated in either incorrect customer communication or just plain old bad customer service. Over the last few years, the nature and severity of these crises has increased thanks to social media.

The origins of the issue are almost always mundane. Mis-selling by an over-enthusiastic sales force, over-promising of benefits, lack of attention or wrong advice by customer service people, promising to call back and resolve the issue and not keeping that promise. A majority of the customers who are treated in this manner get angry and frustrated. They may continue using the product or service, but the image of the brand is almost permanently sullied in their minds. Others decide to turn to competing service providers; resulting in precious lost revenues in an ultra-competitive market. There is, however, always a small band that is so upset by the treatment that they decide to get even by approaching the media. And if the case they make is compelling or if it is a slow news day, heaven help the PR professional who has to tackle the situation.

To be perfectly honest a couple of times, when I have been extremely upset as a customer, I have also taken the help of friends in the media to teach the service provider a lesson. In these digital days, you don’t even need access to the media. Angry customers could just post their grievances on Facebook, Twitter or other specialised sites like Mouthshut and sit back and enjoy watching the storm that they have unleashed. By the time the company reacts, not only has the issue gone viral, but has often found its way into traditional media, which magnifies the reputational problem.

In my experience, one important way in which companies can deal with the situation – apart from having a robust social media strategy, which of course is a given – is to ensure close integration between its PR and its customer service functions. In a sense it is harking back to the old days of PR as public relations and not just media management.

What are the key steps to this process? It begins with intelligent customer data acquisition and management. While most companies have a database of their premium and super-premium clients (read highest paying); they often have no clue about which clients can cause the maximum reputational damage in case they are dissatisfied. There are a variety of parameters by which you do filter the data. Here are a few simple examples – address (e.g. any one with a listed billing address as a traditional media house), profession – you don’t want to mess with a lawyer – behavioural patterns and past history (just how often does the customer complain? People who regularly complain but still stay on are less likely to go public) – frequency of calls to resolve the same issue (if a customer is calling for the nth time to resolve the same issue, you have a crisis brewing). Most customer service software in use today has these capabilities; it is a question of thinking in reputational terms and not just customer service terms.

The next step is a building in a system of escalation and flagging. If anyone from this high risk category is repeatedly calling with an unresolved issue, you need to escalate the matter up the customer service chain, as well as flag it off to the PR team so that they are prepared and if necessary can take pro-active steps to avert a crisis.

In all reputational crisis management, but especially one which originates in the digital realm, what is of critical essence is the speed of response. This is where the robustness of your digital media strategy as well as the tools that you or your digital partners are using really gets tested. You want to reach out or at least be seen to be reaching out to the customer before his or her complaint goes viral. A speedy response will pacify most irate customers. Even if actually resolving the issue may take time, they feel at they have been heard.

Lastly, of course, is the age-old adage of customer service. Be careful of your promises and ensure that you deliver on them within the given deadline. This is even more important for the high risk groups.

None of this, of course, is rocket science. Yet, because in most organizations customer service and PR are in different silos, you rarely find them following these simple steps to avert reputational crisis. As for me, I would rather talk to an irate customer 20 times then explain to 20 reporters why his or her problem was not resolved.

Head of Corporate Communications at Edelweiss Group, Raju Kane has over three decades of media and PR experience during which he has counselled several marquee Indian and global brands.

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