Saturday, 25 June 2011


Anyone with kids will know that they can sometimes be a little reluctant to take responsibility for their actions. You’ll catch them red-handed in the midst of a childish crime scene and they’ll deny all knowledge, blame the cat and or use any excuse that springs to mind to avoid the blame.

Of course that all changes as children develop into fully-rounded human beings who are mature, sensible and grown up. Unless of course they become union leaders, BMW drivers or people working in customer service. These groups sometimes seem to think that they have no responsibility for the results of their actions, leaving a trail of impoverished, disempowered people behind them because they don’t understand the consequences of the activities.

We see this so often when dealing with complaints from customers. Many organisations seem convinced that it’s impossible that they could have made a mistake, at least that’s the impression they do their best to give to customers even when it’s blindingly obvious that they’re to blame. They’ll come up with a range of excuses to divert responsibility. It was lunch hour so nobody was here, I wasn’t at work that day so I can’t help you, the boss isn’t here to explain the problem. All are diversions from the staff member taking responsibility for the problem.

OK, you might argue that we shouldn’t blame the low-level staff member for not taking responsibility, surely the problem is higher up? You’re right, of course you are. It’s the leaders in an organisation who can authorise, enable, skill and empower lower levels of staff to take some decisions and yes, that IS a scary thing to do but it’s not impossible. I’ve known of companies where every customer-facing employee is entitled to make refunds up to a certain value. These refunds are recorded and analysed to make sure that nobody is going crazy and throwing away the company’s money but they’re a remarkably powerful way of saying to customers that the company values them.

What’s worse is that even when a company can be shown to be in the wrong and have a problem to solve they still make it difficult by not just diverting the blame but reflecting it back to the customer. Some months ago we heard of a sports store who told a customer who returned some fancy shoes that were falling apart after a matter of days, that it was his fault for going dancing in them. These shoes, he was told, were NOT for dancing. So it was his fault that they were disintegrating. The store owners were very unhappy when we got involved and threatened us with fire and brimstone for reporting on their failure. Well, you may ask, maybe the customer and Consumer Watchdog were being unreasonable? You might think so but Levi’s, who made the shoes, agreed with us. No sooner than we had sent them a cellphone camera snapshot of the shoes than they apologised for the fuss and offered him an entirely free replacement pair of BETTER shoes that the customer now wears and that he describes as “beautiful”.

Last week we had a great example of an organisation going out of it’s way to find a solution for a customer. It started when he bought some Mascom airtime from a branch of PEP stores and then forgot to take the airtime voucher away with him. Half an hour later, when he realised what he’d done, he rushed back but it was too late, the voucher had disappeared.

PEP did what they could but weren’t able to reproduce the voucher and they suggested that he contact the Mascom call centre directly. He did this and while they were very helpful they initially said that there was no way to help since this was PEP’s problem. As you can imagine this was frustrating for the customer as he could foresee himself being passed repeatedly between PEP and Mascom to fix the problem. That’s when he came to us.

I took a bit of a gamble and sent the full history of the problem through to a senior manager at Mascom and before I knew it I got an email from the consumer saying he’d had a call from Mascom. The senior manager I’d sent it to had taken this one personally. She did some digging, traced batch numbers, confirmed that the airtime hadn’t been used, supplied a new PIN number and advised the customer on what to do. A little while later she called him back to make sure this had all worked properly. She also promised to brief the call centre staff on this sort of issue so they knew the right procedure in future. She also apologised, saying she was really sorry that he’d been through all this inconvenience.

He then emailed me with a lengthy celebration of her efforts. His email said that she was:
“a convincing professional with a high sense of customer care. The manner in which she explained herself was easy to follow, non-defensive and solution oriented.”
I think that’s about as good as it gets. It’s been a long time since I came across an organisation that was prepared to go out of it’s way to fix a customer’s problem so well. There were no excuses, no pathetic explanations, no silly made-up reasons why this problem couldn’t be fixed. The interaction was, as he said, “solution oriented”.

And don’t forget whose fault this entire problem was. His. This problem was entirely the customer’s. He was the one to blame for losing his airtime voucher, nobody else could be faulted, but he was hoping someone would help him out. And they did, in style.

Why can’t more organisations react this way?

This week’s stars
  • She-Haam and her team at Mascom for going out of their way to fix problems.

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