Recently, I had to make one of those dreaded trips to the garage to get my car repaired. It was a simple enough issue: one of my taillights had gone out, and I had to order a new one. The last time this happened, I went to a local shop, and they had to order the taillight. When it came in, I just swung by, and they replaced it. This time, I knew to plan ahead, so the taillight was ordered. However, they told me I couldn't just swing by to get it pick it up and have it put in this time: I would have to make an appointment. No problem. I made an appointment for shortly thereafter and went by the garage.
When I dropped my car off, I went back to the waiting room with my (then) 18-month-old. As I settled down with my little girl and my iPad, I looked at the room full of fellow detainees. Some were cheerful; others looked a little weary. After we had been sitting there for a few minutes, one of them motioned to the television, where an Animal Planet show was airing. "This might get a little violent," she said. "What do you think she would want to watch?" I thought about it for a second and then said, "Just turn it to whatever you want to watch. We're just here to get a taillight replaced, so it won't be long."
She smirked, as did a couple of others, and I found myself muttering, "At least, I hope..." Looking back at my 18-month-old, I recollected a story a preacher once told me about a father and his little girl waiting at the entrance to Walmart Supercenter while mom shopped. Someone turned to the father and said, "How old is the little girl?" And the father responded, "Well, she was two when we came in." I began to fear that my fate might end up like the father in that not-very-funny joke.
After 30 or 40 minutes, Emma got restless. I had long given up on any iPad perusing, and Emma had grown tired of entertaining herself with the various people in the room. Instead, we turned our attention to the stack of magazines.
And then I saw it. It was like in one of those pandemic virus movies, where everyone is holding out hope that one of the characters isn't going to get sick, but then you see the first lesion. For there, amongst the reading materials left for us as we waited for our taillight to be replaced, was a paperback mystery novel.
Someone sitting next to me followed my line-of-sight to the novel, shrugged in a resigned manner, and said, "Doesn't bode well, does it?"
I ended up waiting for an hour for what had taken 5 or 10 minutes the last time I visited. Turns out, they tried replacing one of the bulb, only to find out it was the socket that needed to be replaced. They didn't have one in, so they had ordered another, and I would have to come back. In actuality, since it wasn't as easy a process as I'd imagined, it justified my sitting there for awhile (although perhaps not an hour). But I probably could have been kept a lot happier if I had been given an update somewhere along the way as to what was going on and why it might have taken a little extra time, especially as i was struggling to keep a toddler happy in the waiting room.
Most inexcusable of all, though, was the novel. I'm not sure how it ended up there. Perhaps someone in the waiting room had left it behind in the distant past...I do know that the novel's presence was a symbol for me and some of the others in the room. And, for that, the novel's placement in the waiting room is actually a significant public relations problem.
Too often, we think of communications or public relations as coordinating with the media or reaching out to audiences online. But public relations needs to be closely aligned with customer service and with the communication experience that customers have with every touchpoint a brand offers them. That mystery novel was my takeaway from that day: not the nice TV lounge they offered, the friendly woman who escorted me to that lounge and (eventually) told me what was happening; and not the reasonable pricing I had been offered. Car dealerships and repair shops are too often among the worst offenders for not thinking through the communication experience of their customer.
As I write this, I'm headed back to the auto shop later today to finally get the tail light replaced. I just hope the mystery novel isn't replaced by Dostoyevsky or Joyce.
Sam Ford is Director of Digital Strategy for Peppercom, a PR agency, and a research affiliate with MIT's Convergence Culture Consortium. Ford was previously the Consortium's project manager and part of the team who launched the project in 2005. He has also worked as a professional journalist, winning a Kentucky Press Association award for his work. He also blogs for Peppercom's PepperDigital. Ford is co-editor of The Survival of Soap Opera with Abigail De Kosnik and C. Lee Harrington and co-author of the forthcoming book, Spreadable Media with Henry Jenkins and Joshua Green. Follow him on Twitter @Sam_Ford.