Saturday, 25 January 2014

Consumer apathy

Probably the biggest reason we don’t always get decent customer service is that we can’t be bothered to demand better.

Think of all the times you’ve had a bad experience in a store, when someone’s either ignored you, charged you the wrong price or just been rude to you, all of those occasions when you vowed you’d complain, raise hell and not let the issue lie. All those occasions when in fact you did nothing and just put it behind you.

We’ve all done it, I know I have. I’ve come home fuming, promising revenge or at least accountability and once the adrenaline has worn off I just wondered to myself, what’s the point? Why should I bother writing that letter, sending that fax or composing that email when it’s almost certain that it will have no effect? It will probably be ignored, perhaps even thrown straight in the bin so why waste my time?

The truth is actually very different. With a few exceptions, most companies DO take complaints seriously. Some do it because the people in charge really care, they really want to fix problems because they’re decent and honorable people. Obviously they’re a rarity. More common are the companies where the people in charge realize that, even though it’s a real pain, fixing problems is just good business. They realize that most of their income is from repeat customers, people who bought from them before and chose to buy from them again. They’re the last people they should insult or treat poorly.

A third group do it because they are doing their very best to make their brand synonymous with good service. It’s a core part of how they want to present themselves. Think of companies like Apple and Virgin Atlantic who make good service a central part of their brand identity.

So far there are three groups of companies, the benevolent, the pragmatic and the brand-conscious, who will all respond positively to a complaint and will do their best to sort it out. They’re the easy ones. A simple, polite complaint is probably all you’ll need. Either that or an email to us and things tend to get resolved more often than not.

Then there’s another group, a slightly trickier group to handle. These are the wimps. They’re often not the best at responding to initial complaints, probably because they don’t know how to manage them. They’ve never thought of complaints managements before and simply don’t know what to do. The commonest reaction you get from complaints wimps is silence. However they very often respond well to a second approach that threatens them with hellfire and damnation, otherwise known as “the press”. A hint that they’re going to be in the papers or on the radio very quickly encourages them to spring into action and fix things.

Then you get into the trickier types of supplier. We’ll start with the deniers. No, they’ll say, it can’t possibly be our fault that something went wrong. In fact the customer is wrong, an idiot, perhaps even lying. These suppliers need to be taught a simple lesson. No, not as some people night suggest, that “the customer is king” because clearly the customer is NOT royalty, he or she is just an ordinary guy who bought something that doesn’t work. He or she is actually just a customer with rights, rights that can be enforced. This group of suppliers needs to understand that customers have a right to get what they paid for and to products that do what they said they would do. They also have a right to buy products that will last a reasonable length of time if they are treated correctly.

There is, for instance, a certain chain of footwear suppliers whose standard response to any product fault is to accuse the customer of mistreating their shoes even though there is precisely no evidence. It’s their normal response to deny that there could possibly be anything wrong with their products and the customer should just put up with shoddy goods.

Then there’s the most difficult type to deal with. They are the Seriously Horrible Intimidating Traders. I’m sure there’s an acronym that can be developed for them. They’re just nasty, horrible people. They don’t listen to reason, they don’t respond to courtesy and they will only resolve your problem when you, or someone you ask for help, is prepared to get nasty with them. They’re bullies and the only way to respond to a bully is to look them in the eye and punch them in the face. Metaphorically I mean.

Unfortunately, it shames me to say that a significant section of this group are pale-skinned people from across the border who still have a distinctly pre-1994 mindset. The sort of people who, in conversations with me, thinking that because I’m also pale-skinned I might share their outlook, have quietly said things like “Well, you know, these people…”.

The only way to deal with such companies is to get rough. You stand up to them, you complain forcefully and repeatedly to them, write to Mmegi, call Consumer Watchdog, call the Consumer Protection Unit, engage every possible regulator and never, ever give up. Stores we’ve dealt with like this have told us after the dust has settled that they lost business because of the fuss that was made. Others haven’t been able to give us feedback because cellphones aren’t allowed in police cells.

So the lesson is simple. Apathy won’t change anything for the better. Only action will. Taking action is almost always easy, almost always successful. Apathy achieves nothing.

A simple example. Go to our blog or Facebook group and follow the link to our banking survey. A little action from you will help us put pressure on banks to get a bit better. Surely it’s worth a try?

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