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Customers are not things

Oct 22 2012 07:00 * Mandi Smallhorne

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“And sin, young man, is when you treat people as things.”

(Granny Weatherwax, in Carpe Jugulum by Terry Pratchett)

FOR the last three or four weeks, I’ve been escaping reality by re-reading Terry Pratchett. But funny and off-the-wall as he is, Pratchett has such a powerful and clear-eyed morality that I soon found myself relating each book to daily life.

I happened to dig into Carpe Jugulum (vampires launch a takeover bid for the kingdom of Lancre, foiled by witches) while I was engaged in a titanic battle with Telkom. It soon came to seem very appropriate, as the life was slowly sucked out of me, and I started to feel less and less like a human being and more like a thing – and an irritating one at that.

Few indeed are the South Africans who don’t have their own Telkom story, so I’ll avoid getting into incensed detail.

In brief, my ADSL modem had to be replaced and the new one I bought at a Telkom shop turned out to be faulty (we think). When I tried to swap it, I discovered that due to the truckers’ strike, there were none available. As I write, I am using a dongle to communicate from my office, because the issue is still not resolved.

Anyone who’s been there will fill in the picture for themselves: the hours spent trapped in what I call the Telkom Moebius loop (“Good morning" - three-second pause - "Welcome to Telkom Online…”, followed by interminable options, punctuated by regular, strangely-accented warnings about “onnecessary call-outs”); the emails that repeatedly bounced back; the attempts to find phone numbers for Telkom shops (there are none on Telkom’s website); the time wasted driving from shop to shop; the desperate attempts to lodge a complaint with Telkom (of four different numbers given me by Telkom’s own staff, none were operational – two directed me back into the 10210 Moebius loop).

The truth is that the Telkom experience is just the purest distillation of something that happens every day when we call other private, government and parastatal organisations for service other than sales.

Last year, I was almost driven to apoplexy by the company that provides the data for my dongle (I never did get to speak to a living human being); I have literally, and to my everlasting shame, burst into tears of rage while hanging on for my medical scheme; and then just this week there was the hour I spent stuck in a permanent phone queue while calling various consumer bodies.

The whole experience of trying to get customer service makes me feel "thingified" (as Petrovic defines reification, in part: “transformation of human beings into thing like beings”.)

Pick up the phone to any service provider and you enter "thing-world": you are a small piece of data to be shifted from line to line, not a human being with deadlines to meet, feelings and concerns, and bladders that fill up – a particularly painful experience refers!

Of course, when your customer base numbers millions, you need to put some kind of filter in place; what I don’t understand is the way organisations and companies handle complaints, specifically. They don’t seem to be prepared to admit they exist.

Pick at random someone dealing with the public in numbers – I just did the exercise with a cellphone company, a medical scheme and a retail chain – and search their website contact details for the word "complaint" alongside a phone number.

You’ll find lots and lots of mention of "customer care", but that means being filtered agonisingly through a zillion irrelevant options (“Press 1 to check your balance or 2 to change your postal address.”)

Of course, there’s a purpose to this: organisations believe (I think) that if they make it difficult and time-consuming to lay a complaint, you’ll give up and go away.

But  sucking dissatisfied customers into the Twilight Zone of Customer Care telecoms only makes the wound fester: you end up with customers who feel something akin to hate for the brand concerned. And believe me, they talk about it – to all and sundry who will listen.

The Brand of the Decade Award would go to any organisation which understands that a customer with a complaint is already in a state of, shall we say, heightened emotions?

They don’t need to follow a tortuous process before they get to speak to a human being – and when they do, they want someone who is trained to deal with those heightened emotions, not offended by them.  (“There’s no need to talk like that, lady!”)

They primarily need someone who has the knowledge and authority to initiate action immediately and effectively. Let me fill you call centre managers in on something: just saying: “I’ll log a fault”, or sending a text that reads: “Be assured that your complaint is receiving our full attention,” does not hack it for more than a fleeting wisp of time.

Something has to HAPPEN to CHANGE, to satisfy the customer.

So instead of trying to wish them away, why not acknowledge that complaints do occur, and set up a special, separate process to deal with them?

Train and capacitate dedicated staff so they can take action fast. Make resolving complaints a heroic and lauded thing, and see how your brand profile goes from tarnished to glittering.

- Fin24

*Mandi Smallhorne is a versatile journalist and editor. Views expressed are her own. Follow her on twitter.

Follow Fin24 on Twitter, Facebook, Google+ and Pinterest.

telkom  |  mandi smallhorne  |  consumers
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