Money, July 05, AU Edition

Customer service is an ugly joke in Australia.
Here’s what you need to know to not give up the fight

When I was a young lad, there was corner shopkeeper on our street that looked after our family. His name was Mr Cooley. He would see me (or my mother) and provide our family with the groceries, tell us about new products, order in specialised needs for us and simply update us on gossip. He provided exemplary customer service and treated everyone as an individual and as if each person was his only customer. In today’s jargon, that’s called ‘one-to-one marketing’.
Back in the 1990s, ‘one-to-one’ was all the rage. Very few people understood it, but most organisations and associations wanted to do it, somehow. And there are still a number of companies who claim that is happening today, but overall, I do not believe that Australians are currently getting good customer service. What’s worse is the concept of one-to-one marketing is now all but extinct.
Corner stores used to do one-to-one marketing consistently – they had no choice. Understanding the uniqueness of each customer was what kept them in business. They knew the difference between customers who had a large or a small family. Those who worked longer than others. Those that ate more meat than others and so on. Sadly, large companies seem not to want, or perhaps are not equipped, to practice these philosophes of customer service.

Over the past six months I have been keeping a log of bad customer service stories that have come across my desktop; they include everything from run-ins with bureaucratic overseas call centres to companies that require someone be home sometime between 9am and 5pm to take a delivery or let in an installer. Perhaps somewhat surprisingly, loyalty seems to count for next to nothing in the corporate customer service stakes. Regular readers of this column will know of the plight of a Mr J who had been corresponding with the National Australia Bank to try and get some answers to some very reasonable questions about a problem with a credit card transaction. After more than three months of e-mailing back and forth, each one sending Mr J’s complaint up to a higher level of management, he finally got a note stating, ‘I have no details as to what your enquiry is about. Should you have any further queries do not hesitate to contact us’. Looks like Mr J, a long-time and loyal customer of the NAB, was escalated right out of the bank.
A similar thing has happened to another gentleman, one Mr P, who has been a long-term, card-carrying ‘preferred customer’ with AVIS Car Rental. On a recent trip to the United Kingdom he hired a car for two weeks, and dutifully filled it with petrol and cleaned out the inside before returning the car. The AVIS employee who received his car at Birmingham Airport even remarked what good condition the car was in, stating, ‘I wish they were all returned like this one’. They jointly went over the outside and inside of the car and gave it a very clean bill of health.
So imagine the surprise that Mr P received when he received his credit card statement and found that the rental was about $500 more than the agreed price – with no explanation why it was so much over the contractual amount. And, you guessed it: the monies had already been deducted automatically.
Mr P quickly rang and wrote to AVIS Australia. His complaint was escalated from Australia to the USA, then to New Zealand, on to the UK, back to NZ, and back to Australia. Three weeks later he found out that there had been some sort of damage to the car. Now this was a real surprise. Mr P knew that the car was in showroom condition and asked what the damage actually was, and could it have possibly happened after he returned the car. Again: Australia to the USA, then to New Zealand, on to the UK, back to NZ, back to Australia, and then off the planet. Six months later and he still doesn’t have an answer. It is still unresolved! Needless to say, he doesn’t like the way AVIS prefer their customers.
Why is this so?
If a customer goes to the effort of making a complaint it is because they care. They are committed and involved with that organisation. They are loyal and they are probably the company’s most valued customers. So why lose them? A customer who is handled correctly will become the biggest advocate instead of the biggest detractor of an organisation, providing the sort of priceless viral marketing no money can buy. We all respond viscously if we believe our loyalty is being abused. I believe that currently our loyalty with many organisations is misplaced – it is not reciprocated and the customer is not rewarded. And, marketers please note: reward points do not automatically buy loyalty.
I am an adjunct lecturer at Sydney University and I teach my students that the gap between reality and expectation equals anger. The bigger the gap the more anger there is. Organisations cannot promise something that they cannot deliver. It sounds simple, but it is rarely practiced. Why?
Richard Batterley is a thirty-year veteran in what is now called relationship marketing. He is the chairman of Relationship Alliance, a Sydney-based firm which helps companies build stronger relationships with their customers. I asked him what should companies be doing to better service their customers?
‘It is important that all big organisations have customer feedback loops’, says Batterley. Instead, he says, ‘most large organisations have procedures in place to block you and your complaint.’
‘Bad customer service affects the brand and reduces integrity, and destroys brand essence. This has serious financial implications. Yet the easiest way for big organisations to behave is to ignore complaints’, explains Batterley.
julymoneyart2.jpgInterestingly, Batterley had his own recent run in with bureaucracy. When ringing Telstra he asked to be put through to their complaints department. The call centre said they could not do that because the Privacy Act required him to give his full name and the number he was calling from before he could be transferred. He said that he would be more than happy to give his details to the complaints department but not the call centre, but he was still not put through. He researched this and according to him, there is nothing in the Privacy Act that prevents someone from being transferred to a complaints department. It seems that customers of all sorts are being managed out of existence.
What can they do?
Even if it takes more effort – and maybe causes a short-term hit on the bottom line – it is to the benefit of an organisation if they provide stellar customer service. If one organisation does it better than another then they will grow at the expense of their competitors. They will reduce churn, increase retention, and attract new customers.
So what do companies need to do?
1. Practice active listening. Reading from a script and a page of a standard-operating-procedure manual is the worst type of customer service there is, yet most organisations do exactly this to their customers.
2. Say sorry. This means the most to most people. But this is only true if it is a real apology and not a scripted, condescending, patronising way of getting someone off the phone.
3. Understand what is being said and be empathetic.
4. Respond in an understanding manner which treats the
customer as a human being and a loyal person with whom they have a relationship.
5. The simple question a service person needs to ask is: “Would I treat my mother/father/son/daughter/brother/sister/wife/husband like this?”
6. And a radical suggestion: If a small amount of money is in question, say anything up to $200, just give it back to the customer. This will strengthen a loyal relationship beyond belief. It turns a negative into a positive and, really, in the greater scheme of things, for most large companies it is a fraction of a fraction of a decimal point somewhere in an annual report.
What can we customers do?
1. Firstly, you must complain to the organisation. Even if they block you, at least you have started the process. Don’t be apathetic and just take it, you will feel better if you take control.
2. Don’t pay the bill. Yes, this is fraught with danger and could get you on the list of a debt collector or in court. Strangely though, many accounts departments provide better customer service in this instance than front line customer service staff. But I would not recommend this action unless you have an agreement from the organisation that they will not act on you not paying.
3. Write to the ombudsman. In the case of banks and tele-
communications companies, there is a specific ombudsman that investigates these complaints. It is time consuming but is usually
fully investigated.
4. Tell the media. This is becoming increasingly more popular and unfortunately in many instances the only way that customers can get noticed. Be warned though, some companies close up tighter than Scrooge’s wallet if the press is involved.
5. Take your business elsewhere. This will make you feel better but most large organisations don’t really care.
6. Send them a bill and be prepared to follow it through. If you believe you have given an undue amount of your time and your own service to an organisation then send them a formal invoice requesting that you be paid. It may not work, but I have heard of people getting positive responses to this sort of action.
7. The action I have had the most luck with is to write to the CEO or even Chairman. Mark your letter (not email) private and confidential. Be factual, honest, objective, and admit if you have made a mistake yourself, but explain to him how the poor service of his organisation has displaced your loyalty and damaged their good name.
But it’s a big company…
In the 1976 milestone movie “Network”, evening news anchor Howard Beale, played by Peter Finch in his Oscar-winning performance, felt the same way that many of us are feeling now about how we are being treated by large organisations. His response?
‘You’ve got to say, ‘I’m a human being, Goddammit! My life has value!’ So I want you to get up now. I want all of you to get up out of your chairs. I want you to get up right now and go to the window. Open it, and stick your head out, and yell, ‘I’m mad as hell, and I’m not going to take this anymore!’
Have we seen the death of customer service? Being a glass half full kind of person I am hoping that large organisations learn how we want, and need, to be treated. But as Howard Beale said, we have to get out of our chairs. We cannot let good old Australian apathy get in the way of what we deserve. Be as mad as hell and let organisations know that you are not going to take this any more. Perhaps they could learn from the corner shopkeeper. The spirit of Mr Cooley must live on as a benefit to all of us. See you around the traps.