If you read WUL regularly (what do you mean you don’t? Don’t you see that “subscribe” button to your right?!), you know that I love shoes.

Call it shallow, if you will, but we galz gotsta look good to feel good, do good and work good. And that means cool shoes.

The shoe fiend’s dream

In March 2010 (the 4th, to be precise), I signed up for a Groupon deal ($60 for a $120 value) for custom-designed shoes by Eidia Lush.

Once I got the official Groupon notification that the deal was on, I designed my shoes in April, after some hiccups with the deal code. The confirmation I received told me to expect my shoes around the middle of May. Yay!

So I waited.

June rolled around, and I still hadn’t received my shoes. I emailed Eidia Lush and was told that my shoes would ship in about three weeks.

I waited some more.

Cue the middle of July. You guessed it – no shoes.

This time, when I wrote in to Eidia Lush – to ask, quite sincerely, if I was ever going to get my shoes – I received an apologetic note, but one that got me steamed.

Because it was full of what I considered fluff.

Here’s part of it, with my mental responses in italics, and yes, they did begin with an apology – this is after that:

If you have visited the site to check on the status of your shoes, you may already know that we are currently backed up and running behind on orders. We are a new company that has recently experienced rapid growth, and are doing our very best to adapt to increased demand as quickly as possible without sacrificing the quality of craftsmanship we strive to maintain here at Eidia Lush.

Me: blah blah blah

When the company first started, two people were carrying the entire workload. After running a promotion, we received an unpredictable influx of orders over one weekend that we could not possibly have prepared for. We are, however, growing our staff, adding (and training) more designers and cobblers to our hardworking team as demand continues to increase.

Me: Don’t cry to me, Argentina. Where are my frakkin shoes?!

We have received some great initial feedback on the shoes from past customers and are continually working to improve the process, having in fact, already made some amazing improvements to our product line. Our goal is to ensure that every single customer is completely satisfied. For us, “It’s All About the Details.”

Me: Seriously? You’re going to get all cutesy when I’m already irritated?

As a small token of our gratitude for your support and patience, we will be giving you an extra 10% off coupon to use toward your next pair of Eidia Lush custom design shoes and the shipping on your current order will be upgraded to 2-day Priority.

Me: I don’t even know if I like the shoes – because I haven’t had a chance to test them – and you think I’m a slam dunk to buy my next pair?!

After about two weeks – because that’s how long it took for me to calm down – I emailed them back, asking when, if ever, I would receive my shoes. A couple of days later, I received an email telling me they would ship out in about a week.

More silence.

I was so irritated that I finally found Eidia Lush’s Twitter handle, and told them I was extremely disappointed with this entire experience.

Finally, some light

To its credit, I immediately got an email from the company’s founder, Nicole Tongson, apologizing – in plain English, no fluff – and offering me another coupon if I wanted to use it.

My shoes arrived a couple of weeks later (August 18), and I was. Blown. Away.

I love you, Eidia Lush!

I immediately wrote back to Nicole (which I had held off doing since I didn’t want to write a crazy-customer-letting-off-steam email), and told her how thrilled I was.

We started a very frank email conversation about the entire experience, thoughts I had on the shoes… and I was even more blown away when Nicole took them all in good spirit.

As a result, I ended up writing about her Groupon nightmare on my BNET blog… and here I am writing about Eidia Lush now.

And I hope to be writing more about how Eidia Lush has achieved an astounding level of success by bypassing “traditional” public relations altogether, instead depending on its community to power its outreach.

Lessons learned

Today, however, I’m sharing the process by which I was converted from an interested bystander, to a frustrated customer, to an ardent evangelist, as well as lessons learned along the way.

As she explained in the BNET post, Nicole saw only too clearly what a double-edged sword the success of her Groupon turned out to be.

And, frankly, had she not responded directly to my tweet, I may have never begun a real conversation with her.

Which brings me to four lessons for businesses, public relations and customer service professionals.

1. Your customers do not care what your problem is.

They are concerned with their problem. It could be shoes that didn’t get delivered on time; or that the fine print wasn’t clear enough; or that they had to throw out a ton of food because of a weather event.

If you are going to make it about you, and not about them, welcome to your own personal – or business – hell.

So suck it up, and deal with their problem. Not yours. And for heavens’ sake don’t cry about it to them.

2. Ensure your efforts to make amends don’t come across as up-selling.

What irritated me most about the email response I shared above was not that it seemed to make excuses.

It was that, when I was trying to get a problem fixed, instead I received what felt like a lightly-veiled sales pitch.

At the time, I could care less about the additional coupons Eidia Lush was offering me. Goshdarnit, I didn’t even know if I liked the shoes!

But once I established communication with Nicole, she successfully neutralized me, and I saw how great the shoes were, I was more than willing to accept them.

This is one of the cardinal sins of business snafus that public relations professionals are often expected to fix.

Customer has a problem? Throw more money/deals/fluff their way.

The trouble is that customers usually see through that. And PR pros, unfortunately, are often left to clean up the mess.

Note to business owners/CEOs/management: do not expect your PRs to mop up spilled milk until you have determined the source of the leak… and come clean with it.

3. No matter how skilled they are, all writers do not PR professionals make.

That email response I shared didn’t come from Eidia Lush’s PR department or representation. It came from someone who bore the title of the company’s “senior fashion writer.”

A lovely writer, but hopeless at adapting that writing to address customer issues.

How are PR professionals more qualified to do this? you might ask. And rightly so.

They’re not, always. But a good PR pro is finely-tuned to the emotions of the organization’s target audience, and responds accordingly.

So unless you have been able to train your thinly-spread team to adapt company-approved messaging to the needs of each individual situation, it is far better to leave “public” relations to the pros.

Because that’s what we do. Hint: it’s in our job description. “Public” relations.

4. Never underestimate the power of the CEO.

While I exchanged emails ad nauseam with the “senior fashion writer” and then with a terse “quality specialist,” it took the honesty and personal communication from Eidia Lush’s CEO to turn me around… to the point where now, far from being a vehement critic, I am an avid fan of the company.

I get that there are many CEOs who are uncomfortable dealing with the public. Heaven knows I’ve had to deal with my fair share of them.

But when push comes to shove, nothing satisfies your end-audience as much as hearing directly from the person at the top.

If you’re a good PR pro, you’ll be able to convince your CEO to respond directly when you think necessary. And when s/he demurs, you should stick to your guns. Because that simple act could mean the difference between bringing a customer back from the brink, and losing a customer forever (and, possibly, many more).

Customer service and public relations are more closely-aligned than most of us realize.

Never mind that they might sit in different departments, their goals are usually similar; to grow customer (PR-speak: audience) satisfaction, reduce customer (PR-speak: audience) malcontent, and develop beneficial relationships with customers (PR-speak: audience) for the benefit of the organization.

All of us: business owners, PR pros and customer service pros, need to start understanding that.

Good reads on the nexus of public relations, social media and customer service: