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Time to get PR more involved in the customer experience

By Kim Harrison

Author and Principal of www.cuttingedgepr.com

If you are a customer like me, almost every time you deal with a big organization, you get frustrated by their poor communication. They communicate badly with you and badly between their own departments, which also affect you directly. Just think of banks, telcos, insurance companies, airlines, or government at any level.

This is not just me griping. Recent research found that companies suck at listening to customers. More than 90% of business executives know that listening to customer feedback is vital to the bottom line and 89% believe instant customer feedback is critical, but more than a quarter (27%) don't set up processes to respond in real time.

Poor follow-up is the biggest complaint. A European study found 41% of companies do not respond to customer service emails. The result is that around 65% of customers are likely to speak poorly about the company on social media and in online communities and forums, and 48% of customers go on to tell 10 or more people about their bad experience.

Recognizing this, some of the world’s smartest retailers are acknowledging that fundamental change is emerging as household consumption patterns in advanced economies start to change.

For example, a senior IKEA manager, quoted by CEB Marketing and Communications, believes sales of home furnishings will start to level out in the future, and therefore retailers are starting to focus more closely on the customer experience, which they see as a main source of future differentiation between firms rather than merely offering different products. Consumers will not be seeking more goods, and so retailers will need to improve the customer experience they offer.

Focus on the whole journey

To improve customer outcomes, McKinsey consultants recommend firms change their customer focus from touchpoints to the whole journey. They find in many cases different departments deal at separate points with their customers and don't coordinate the whole customer journey. The consultants recommend six crucial actions to manage the whole customer experience:

  • Step back and identify the nature of the journeys customers take—from the customer’s point of view.
  • Understand how customers navigate across the touchpoints as they move through the journey.
  • Anticipate the customer’s needs, expectations, and desires during each part of the journey.
  • Build an understanding of what is working and what is not.
  • Set priorities for the most important gaps and opportunities to improve the journey.
  • Come to grips with fixing root-cause issues and redesigning the journeys for a better end-to-end experience.

This is discussed further in the article "The CEO Guide to Customer Experience" in the August 2016 McKinsey Quarterly. You might need to register to access the article.

Implications for communicators: The customer journey is critical to the organization. Take the initiative to become involved because all of these customer contacts involve communication as a key part of the process - even if this type of involvement is not in your formal job description. Stick your nose in and point out all the communication aspects. You will be surprised how many there are and how much you can help to improve the customer experience.

(Just be careful and tactful about showing up the operations and customer relations people in your organization! Firstly, get buy-in to your involvement from appropriate senior management, and secondly, don’t start blaming people. Just deal use the facts to make your case and try to say something positive about the current staff.)

Enable employees to understand the customer viewpoint as much as possible

Leading US PR and digital media communicator Shel Holtz advocates that communicators should get as many employees as possible to review the whole customer journey and see where they fit in along the path shown below.

Holtz recommends:

  • Hold customer forums. Bring in customers in as a group to talk with employees in a forum. Many customers would be thrilled to come and talk with employees as a group.
  • Produce features on customers, especially B2B. Feature stories, dossiers on key customers, curation – items that help paint a complete picture of the customer, customer Q&A.
  • Connect employees with sales reps. Few employees apart from sales reps have much contact with customers, so get the sales reps to brief employees.
  • Seek and promote employee posts about customers.
  • Find employees who are also customers.
  • Publish customer comments.
  • Get leaders talking about customers.
  • Keep employees informed about progress with customer relations projects.

If you take the initiative to make communication central to the customer journey, you will make an impact for your organization.