This may put some PR professionals on alert but — if companies put customer care genuinely, squarely at the center of their business model, there’d be less need for traditional PR. Word-of-mouth is the cornerstone of PR and, frankly, how better to get positive word-of-mouth referrals than truly taking care of your customers?
There will always be exceptions or opportunities to move beyond pure word-of-mouth (influencer and media relations, social media, etc.) but those would be much more campaign based if you built an army of faithful fans who would defend you to the bitter end.
For companies trying to get ahead, here are some examples of how other businesses have used customer relations to win the public relations battle before it ever begins.
In the Northwest, if you need wheels, brakes checked or just your quarterly tire rotation, you go to Les Schwab. Born out of cattle country in Central Oregon, Les Schwab is that tire store where employees run out to greet you and work to meet the customer’s needs nota bottom line. The key, it would seem, is their code of conduct and their trust in their management team to carry it out. Their culture and management style is vital for brand loyalty in a company where customers may not come in for years (most people don’t buy tires but every few years).
Speaking of tires (it will make sense in a second)… Nordstrom is known for its customer care. Have an item that’s just worn out or doesn’t fit like you thought it would (even if you bought it six years and six Thanksgiving-New Years ago) – take it back. Nordstrom believes in taking care of its customers even if it means taking back a set of tires that were never even purchased at the apparel store. They are not looking for a quick sale purely to see their ledger grow in the short term. Nordstrom is focused on building brand loyalists and long-term customers.
Another apparel company that has built its legacy upon accepting all reasons for returns is LL Bean. I listened to This American Life recently as they detailed LL Bean’s endless return option including a shirt that was returned for full in-store credit because it was worn out. It was 40 years old! The company bases everything off what they call the “guarantee” to take back anything that doesn’t live up to the customer’s satisfaction. What satisfaction means is left entirely to the discretion of the customer. For a company founded in 1912, that’s a long time to back up guaranteed satisfaction but it seems to be working after 104 years.
We work within the financial sector, and it’s one of the least trusted industries out there – just look at Edelman’s Trust Barometer. That’s why a financial institute like USAA easily stands out. USAA is a bank but operates much like a credit union with its more selective group of customers – military members and their families. We’ve talked about the power of word-of-mouth. Ask any military member about USAA and I guarantee 99 out of 100 times you’ll get positive feedback. Trust me, I’m constantly badgered to make the switch myself. Need more proof? Look at how many listings they have on the first page of the Temkin Ratings – a company whose sole job is to assess customer trust and service.
So where does this leave us? PR is huge for communicating – but if you want true brand loyalty and longevity for your company, center your business on customer service. Not just a tagline or employee packet statement. Truly and honestly understand and serve your customers. They’ll return the favor.