Customer service was created to solve problems, not be a source for them. But too often today, customers view the departments established to help them as the place where their problems are destined to die. They are angry even before they reach out, whether by phone, text or on social media. Their attitudes show it.
This often isn’t fair—not to the brave and beleaguered customer service representatives on the front lines and not to the companies that put them there. Today’s world—rocked by pandemics, climate change, and unrest—is highly unpredictable, and its unpredictability touches every customer-facing industry. Add to that people’s expectations (often unrealistic) that their logistics, service or quality concerns be addressed and solved instantaneously. Then add on top of that the reality that even the best customer service representatives are only human and can only do so much.
So, what’s the solution? Our experience helping customer service professionals communicate better in the middle of massive crises has shown us that every consumer-facing organization needs an integrated communications and marketing program for its customer service department, one designed to reassure customers they’ll get what they need and helps them get it.
For example, we represent a major public utility for whom—thanks to climate change—record-setting power outages due to unprecedented storms have become commonplace. Expecting paying customers to simply understand the utility is doing its best isn’t an option. Expecting people to be patient isn’t an option either.
Instead, clients must adapt to the new world and the new customer service reality that comes along with it. This means transforming customer service into a vehicle for transparent overcommunication. Regardless of your clients’ industries, their customer service departments can do the same.
The following communications plan fundamentals can be applied to any organization, helping you help your clients bring to the customer experience true satisfaction:
1. Get your clients’ messages out front and out fast.
Even before your clients hear from customers, they likely know why they’re calling, whether it’s related to COVID-19, the weather or negative employment numbers. But clients who wait to hear the questions before formulating the answers are already behind. PR pros can help them plan by anticipating, asking, answering, and addressing the following:
- What are the hot-button issues that cause their customers to engage? Meet with their internal team and work through all potential scenarios. Write them down and begin mapping them out. Prioritize them.
- What is the critical information customers need to know? Think about those questions the customer service team is sure to receive and craft messages addressing each one.
- How and when is the best way to deliver these messages? Develop a plan that is multi-faceted and identifies the appropriate communications tools to amplify and repeat messages. Include a content calendar that maps the timing for each communication.
2. Use multiple platforms to reinforce your clients’ messages.
A good marketing communications plan to support customer service will reach out with answers before customers reach out with questions. Once you’ve helped your clients anticipate the concerns customers are likely to have, don’t wait for them to call. Push the answers out by means of a targeted, multi-channel campaign that can include:
- Traditional media. If your clients’ issues tend to attract media attention, make sure they take a proactive rather than reactive posture toward the press. Notify media in advance. Then think beyond a statement or news release. Could a feature story or opinion article help your client convey its news effectively as well?
- Social media. There is no better place for clients to communicate directly with customers than on their social media platforms. Plan with your client to develop and constantly update a social media content calendar that not only includes organic posts, but targeted, boosted posts for that convey critical information to customers’ feeds at specific times.
- Advertising media buys. In many cases, paid media is an ideal way to relay information to your clients’ customers. Consider a range of paid platforms to ensure they find their audiences, including digital ads, radio, print, direct mail and outdoor signage.
- A rapid-response website. Ensure your clients’ plan includes a microsite that can be quickly populated and activated when necessary if they anticipate communicating with the public about major issues, from product upgrades to climate emergencies or logistics issues. These sites are ideal for giving all stakeholders, from customers to media to suppliers, the totality of information they need in one place, conveyed exactly as your client prefers.
3. Be ready to engage when crisis strikes.
No matter how proactively you and your clients communicate with customers, unforeseen issues that cause concern, anger or confusion are certain to arise. Communications teams must be ready to spring into action when this happens and create content that genuinely alleviates problems. Help your clients prepare for this by instituting the following guidelines:
- Be direct. Don’t sugarcoat information. In times of crisis, people crave direct, concise instructions. Be prepared with a comprehensive list of FAQs to address every possible question customers might have.
- Be transparent. Share how many customers are being impacted and what steps the organization is taking to resolve the issue. This type of information provides context and scale and helps set expectations. It also allows organizations to clearly demonstrate how they are going above and beyond to help customers.
- Be on same page with your team .Give as much attention to internal groups as you do for external audiences. When arming customer-facing employees with scripts and FAQs, make sure the entire organization is also informed, and continue to keep internal teams updated through an intranet, weekly emails or regular briefings.
- Be open to feedback. Two-way communication with customers is vital. They need to know you value their input, and are listening and responding to their questions, concerns and even criticisms. Showing customers they are being heard can diffuse contentious conversations. Sometimes the best way to communicate is to listen.
Lisa Button and Philip McGowan co-lead the Government & Environment Practice Group for Finn Partners’ Southeast Division. Together they have more than 35 years of experience in helping clients in the public utilities, environmental advocacy, nonprofit and legislative relations spaces navigate a range of complex issues through integrated communications.