Post 17: When customer service meets PR

I’ve been thinking lately about the interface between PR and customer service, in the context of an event in which I was forced to play the “I’m a journalist” card.

Let me explain.

I try to run my micro-business like any other, despite the fact that journalists tend to be offered free support for the products they use even if they are using them in their private lives.

For example, when I tweet about feeling frustration with some software products, PR agencies representing the vendors concerned often contact me and offer free support. I decline, as I feel the way to understand what my readers are going through is to live through some tech support engagements. It is also useful to fix the problem myself, as I can learn stuff!

Occasionally, however, a vendor’s service is so dreadful and an acceptable outcome seems so remote, that I play the “I’m a journalist” card by contacting PR representatives of the vendor concerned to let them know about the trouble I am having.

In nearly every case, they escalate the issue and solve the problem very quickly, a response I suspect is honed by years of interaction with consumer advocacy columns in various publications that name and shame vendors who provide poor service.

I played the card recently when a vendor simply refused to put me in touch with the support team responsible for providing me with a replacement for a faulty product. I had already followed a support process that asked us to post the faulty product to a certain facility, but had experienced no response for several weeks. The incident number provided was recognised by the vendor’s call centre, but there was no information whatsoever about the status of the incident. The vendor concerned refused to provide a phone number for the facility to which we had posted the faulty item, leaving no way at all to understand the status of the faulty product.

At this point, having been denied any chance to understand how the vendor proposed to resolve the issue it had created, and feeling mightily and frustrated us mightily, we did what some members of the public would do and let the vendor’s PR team know about the incident.

They resolved it quickly and very satisfactorily.

Had I been a consumer, this incident could have resulted in some ugly press for the vendor concerned.

What I now wonder is whether vendors ever contemplate the fact that PR can be called in – by the general public or media – to explain failures in support and service processes.

In fact, I’d like to have a discussion on these matters on my customer service podcast, if anyone is interested.

Post 35:08 Publicity sluts

A few years ago I ran the editorial side of a magazine’s awards program.

Most of the entries were scrappy affairs.

A few were very professional productions, submitted in posh folders. Some even had PR companies listed as the source for any additional information.

As the awards process unfolded, I became aware that some of the companies with the very professional entries had won other awards at other times. Some had won several.

I mentally labeled these businesses as ‘awards sluts’ and tried my best to assess them on their merits, even though it was hard not to be cycnical about what seemed to be deliberate efforts to target awards and profit from the resulting publicity.

Fast forward to today, when I have seen an article in a business magazine about a very prominent Internet business. This company is one of a small number of all-Australian online successes. I don’t begrudge them that for a minute. What I do find disturbing is that the media keeps going back to this company for their success story.

I suspect use of PR is one reason these companies keep getting their story told. Lack of imagination (and maybe time/resources) from journalists is another.

I also wonder how valuable it is to readers to be offered the same, over-exposed, company over and over again.

I try, in my work, to spot awards sluts and publicity sluts and to make sure they do not find their way into stories I write. I think I do a better job for my readers and my editors by finding smaller companies whose success may not have been as spectacular, but whose stories are less likely to be familiar to readers!

Post 20:08 Reverse globalisation

I’ve been very fortunate to visit Vietnam twice in the last eighteen months and on our first visit we zeroed in on a chain of restaurants called Pho 24.

Pho basically chicken noodle soup and is the Vietnamese national dish. On the street in Vietnam you can buy a bowl for about 30 cents, but in the air-conditioned environs of a Pho 24 the menus are in English, the kitchen is visible and spotless and the Pho costs a whole $1.30. When you are travelling with young kids, as we were on my first visit, it just felt safer to go to Pho 24 than to eat elsewhere.

When I returned to Vietnam last year I “found” and patronised the chain again.

So imagine my surprise when I found one in downtown Sydney last week.

I’ve since looked up the Pho 24 story and learned that it was born out of an Australian business school, started in Vietnam and is now going global in what feels like a kind of weird reverse globalisation.

One of these days I must try their Australian Pho too!

Post 86: An update to my favorite statistics

I’ve discovered a more recent set of statistics on small businesses in Australia

You’ll find the ABS document here.

Long story short, there are now:

  • 1,156,326 businesses that do not employ anyone
  • 807,581 businesses that do employ someone

Of the businesses that do employ someone

  • 721,569 employ fewer than 20 people, the ABS definition of a small business
  • 227,373 of those small businesses employ 5-19 people
  • 80,215 employ 20-200 people, the ABS definition of medium
  • 5,797 employ more than 200, the ABS definition of large business

Another stat: 94% of businesses now turn over less than $2 million.

What does this mean for my work?

Seems to me that with 1,156,326 businesses having NO staff and 721,569 having fewer than four, the IT industry needs to realise that with 1.65  million businesses employing either none or less than four people, product pitched at anything over 100 employees that posit those companies as ‘small’ are very hard to take seriously as hitting the intended market.

I understand that different businesses have different needs and therefore different approaches to technology.

But I think the time has come to realise that in the Australian context, small businesses are much smaller than is generally assumed and that saying small is anywhere between 100 and 1500 users, as is often pitched to me, is simply a nonsense.