Ye Old Way
I'm starting to think all PR education begins with the creed "keep the customer as far away from the company as possible" since most companies I contact have elaborate systems in place to "streamline" the communication out of existence.
Enter a new marketplace: The social web. Suddenly recommendations are worth double their weight in gold, but companies are still struggling keeping up. They start Facebook pages with no idea of what to do there. They start Twitter accounts that only tells tweeps to call customer service.
The new way
But then there are the other companies. Companies that have embraced the tribal culture online and depend upon customer interaction for their business. They are no less motivated by profit than the other sort of company, but their strategy makes them a very different sort of animal.
Yesterday I downloaded an app to my iPhone. The app was supposed to show me my Google Analytics numbers quickly and beautifully. I was thrilled I finally found an app that looked like I might use it. But it didn't work. I couldn't log in.
I immediately browsed over to the company's site and looked for any information of the problem. When I couldn't find any I emailed them a question, expecting to never hear from them again.
Within ten minutes I had a response.
Someone from the company read my message and sent me a quick response. Short, to the point. Solving my problem. Apparently the guys and gals at Google had changed the API and while the app had been updated the new version wasn't in the AppStore just yet.
They even offered to buy me coffee while I waited:
Sorry about that. It sucks. We can buy you a coffee while waiting for the new version ( we'll PayPal you the money for Starbucks if you want).
Since it was late at night in Sweden I declined. But I was also a surprised and happy customer, not only had they solved my problem (or at least, explained what the problem was and had fixed it), but they had given me relevant information, a schedule, and a coffee!
When was the last time a bank or a telephone company did that?
Because of this short communication, not only am I inclined to tell people about my experience. I'm also more inclined to recommend the product. The cost of this interaction for the company is negligible but the worth of a happy customer advocating the product is huge.
The take away
Invest in communication. Realize that all interactions with the customers are chances to turn them from faceless consumers to happy ambassadors of your company. Keep them close. Keep them communicating with you. The costs might be high, but compared to losing those customers to the competitor this should be a no-brainer. If you're in a huge corporation, try finding customers who became ambassadors and use them as arguments that the model does work.