It has been an interesting year for public relations. The recession has affected how businesses communicate. Reputation and issues management have been the watchwords as companies throughout the world battled to safeguard their image and reputation during what could be described as the first major downturn in this globalised era. And it has taken no prisoners as it spread across sectors and continents, highlighting how interconnected we all are today. What’s been interesting is that while the recession was causing havoc around the world, consumers became better connected. Issues that once might have only affected reputations in a small geographic region spread like wild fire thanks to social media and networking. Media outlets across the world wasted no time in reporting issues that were trending online.
While this was happening companies continued in their monologue culture, dictating at consumers while they engaged and networked online – sharing feedback and their experiences through websites, blogs and real-time platforms such as Twitter, Facebook and YouTube
And that is the point. Social media and networking has empowered consumers. It has given them a platform through which they can share knowledge and experience. It has also raised their expectations with regards to what they want and how they want it. They expect good service and that expectation crosses sectors. Today, if you have outstanding service when buying a car, you expect the same level of service when dealing with your bank or utility company. Social media has unified the expectations of people and it is now up to companies to realise this.
The fear that the business community has is that it isn’t able to control the conversation. Entering into a conversation with current or potential consumers on a digital platform “entails considerable risk” as the Accenture report says. Risk because if your levels of service do not meet the expectations of your empowered audience, said stakeholders will amplify their displeasure and share it with others, may others. In fact, the Accenture says that “one-quarter of respondents have used these channels [digital] to relate their negative experiences to others.” In fact, nearly nine in 10 consumers globally told the people around them about their bad experiences. And this is not what businesses want during an economic recovery.
You just have to look at how Eurostar created a rod for its own back by behaving in such as detached way from what was affecting their customers. A lack of empathy and the use of corporate language only helped turn an issue into a crisis. Such was the reaction to horrendous customer service that customers turned to Facebook and other online sites to vent their anger at how they were treated.
And let’s not forget how Rage Against The Machine became the UK’s Christmas Number 1. Tired of being fed ‘pop-tastic’ fodder, people joined a Facebook group that attracted over 1 million supporters who wanted to break the monopoly of X-Factor. People power at it’s best.
So, what should businesses do in order to meet the ever-increasing expectations of consumers? Accenture rightly says that companies should dump the ‘one-size-fits-all’ customer service model and “embrace a service model that provides differentiated service experiences based on the expectations and requirements of individual—and closely understood—customer segments.”
Businesses in the so-called emerging markets have become more vulnerable to the power of people. One could argue that it’s because consumers are keener on making the most of their new found wealth, while customers in mature markets are more patient and will only as a last resort take their business elsewhere.
For quite some time consumers have had customer service that’s been designed for them rather than with them. With the speed at which the public can create a backlash it is going to be essential that businesses learn to listen and start developing models that can be customised by customers. Collaboration and prompt attention and the understanding that each consumer is unique will help businesses succeed as the economy climbs out of recession. This culture and philosophy will work to turn consumers into advocates, turn people into an invisible word-of-mouth and online sales force.
I believe that 2010 will be a year where public relations forces businesses to take note of what customers want. A year where cultures will need to change, because if they don’t and consumers ever increasing expectations are not met reputations will suffer. Businesses will start noticing that their customers are now critics that will make their opinions known not just through word-of-mouth but online, to a much wider audience.
In 2010 consumers that share their positive or negative thoughts and experiences will attract cult following. Of course on issues such as banking we already have this with MoneySavingExpert.com’s Martin Lewis. Just think of what he’s achieved and wonder what others could do in sectors in which they are customers.
We are witnessing a change and social media is the platform through which consumers will fight for the service that they expect.
But as Niccolo Machiavelli said, “whosoever desires constant success must change his conduct with the times.”