It is international customer service week right now [5-9 October]. A South African journalist recounts an unfortunate tale of extremely bad customer service. And suggests ways of fixing the mess.
One of the most fundamental principles of marketing is that it costs far more to acquire a new customer than it does to keep an existing one. Unfortunately, based on my recent experience with Webafrica, I’m starting to wonder whether some companies want to acquire new customers at all.
It all started when I decided to sign up for fibre at home. I’ve been self-employed for over five years and have so far been able to rely on standard internet access by using my phone as a wireless hotspot. But even though this has given me the added benefit of being able to connect from wherever I am, Cell C’s increasingly unreliable service has made it impossible to stream all the Zoom calls, webinars, and other miscellaneous whatnots that seem standard these days.
So I signed up with Webafrica, happy in the knowledge that it would take a week to get everything set up. Alas, one week turned into over one month of waiting. What went wrong? Let’s recap the customer service mistakes Webafrica made as a cautionary tale for what brands should do if they want to drive new (and old) business away.
1. Make your customers work
Nobody likes filling out online forms, especially when they include increasingly difficult captchas that sometimes make you question whether you’re human after all. Fortunately, there was none of that with Webafrica. Instead, the sign up process was quick and easy. So you can imagine my surprise when, two weeks later, I still hadn’t heard back about the progress.
I emailed them to find out what the problem was and got a reply to say that they were “struggling to locate my address”. This was strange because I’d specified it in the application form. In any case, what they now needed was for me to send them a municipal account or other documentation to tell them where I lived.
Here’s an idea: why not ask for all this information upfront? For example, the online form could say: “Sometimes it’s hard for us to figure out exactly where you live. To speed up your application, please upload proof of address just in case we need it. We promise not to stalk you.” That would have saved us both the hassle.
Key lesson: Make things as simple as possible for your customers and clients. Even if it means adapting your systems upfront, the time you save in the long term makes it worthwhile.
2. Break your promises
Once they’d confirmed my location, they passed the installation request to Openserve to complete the connection. Unfortunately, that turned out to be a mess that involved several missed (and consequently rescheduled) appointments, as well as them being “out of stock” in terms of the required cabling.
The technician I dealt with was friendly enough and did his best to keep me updated every day. But there were only so many times I could rearrange my entire schedule to make myself available for him to show up. All that did was make me wonder whether the actual service would be as dependable.
Worse, the fact that it took so long to get me connected meant that the promotional deal I signed up expired. I only figured this out when I noticed that my debit order amount was set to go off at a higher price. Did Webafrica have any intention of letting me know about this change? Or were they hoping I wouldn’t notice when extra money went out of my account?
Incidentally, when I asked the sales department to honour the original price, they said it wouldn’t be possible unless I talked to the “Provisioning team” as “they will know what happened about the status of your installation”. I’m still waiting for that team to get back to me, much like I’m still waiting for the Operations team to contact me after saying that “you should receive a call today” more than a week ago.
Key lesson: Only make promises you can keep and keep all the promises you make. This is common sense trust-building advice that applies to life in general too.
3. Be unreachable
After all these delays, my faith in Webafrica and Openserve was at an all-time low. So I went to Twitter to ask if anyone could recommend alternatives. Almost immediately, Webafrica replied to say that they’d “escalated to the Operations department to assist with an urgent update on your order”. Soon after that I got a series of phone calls that I didn’t hear and therefore didn’t answer. Webafrica’s response? “Our teams have attempted to give you a call on the mobile number listed on your profile but you were unreachable”.
Here’s what I don’t understand: what’s the point of calling someone three times in a row and then concluding that they’re unreachable? If someone doesn’t answer when you first try to get through, it’s possible that they were in another room and rushed to reach the phone but got there on the last ring. In that case, calling them a second time makes sense. But calling over and over again when it’s clear that they’re not available is just silly. In other words, why call three times in three minutes and then give up when you have a better chance by calling three times spread over three hours?
Also, why not leave a message? I don’t know why so many companies and people seem to have a vendetta against voicemail – maybe I didn’t get the memo about that – but I’m not in the habit of returning random missed calls from unknown people who don’t bother to leave details about who was calling or what it was about. In Webafrica’s case, a voicemail with a direct number I could contact (rather than the generic call centre number that would force me to go through a maze of responses just to talk to a human being) would have helped.
Another option would have been for them to send me an email. And yet this is another area where so many companies fail. So many brands send out communication from addresses like firstname.lastname@example.org, making it hard for people to reach them. Then there are those who ask people on Twitter to “send us a DM!” but don’t follow said people so that they can do just that. Why not have real email addresses that people can respond to, or set up your Twitter account to accept direct messages from everyone? Yes, it does mean you might get a flood of automated responses every time you send out an email and possibly get hit with social media spam. But maybe it’s worth it if it means your customers can reach you.
Key lesson: If you want to build a relationship, you have to be available. Otherwise you might as well be walking around with your fingers in your ears, all the while wondering why nobody wants to be your friend.
4. Give staff the wrong incentives
My experience with Webafrica and Openserve speaks to a growing problem with customer service. Specifically, it seems that many departments are measuring and rewarding their employees on efficiency instead of effectiveness. It’s all about how quickly they can close cases instead of how well they do so. Unfortunately, in the rush to deal with as many customers as possible in the fastest possible time, many companies are failing.
That’s why you often get such generic responses to your questions that you wonder if they were written by a robot. Yes, there are times when a standard suggestion to reboot your computer or log out and log back in fixes the problem. But sometimes it’s like customer service people aren’t even reading your questions and are just throwing ideas at the wall to see if one sticks, or else asking you to do so many things – send a screenshot, confirm your operating system, provide the blood type of your unborn child – because they want you to just give up.
Fortunately, there will come a time in the not-too-distant future when artificial intelligence will be able to understand exactly what we’re asking and reply in an accurate (and timely) way. Until then, customer service agents need to be better than mere chatbots who regurgitate responses just because one customer’s problem is kind of almost nearly like another’s.
Key lesson: If you’re in a rush to fix a problem, it could end up taking longer than if you just slow down to understand it properly first. It’s all about sharpening your saw before you cut down the tree.
5. Do the bare minimum
If there’s one thing to take from this article it’s that being human means being human. Some of the best customer service I’ve experienced has come from places where it’s clear that the individuals are empowered to respond in a way that makes sense, no matter how long it takes. (There are so many great examples of this from Zappos, including a customer service agent who once stayed on the phone with a client for over 10 hours.) The worst customer service is from people who you can tell are just following the scripted rules and can’t take the initiative to think or act for themselves.
For example, I placed an online order with Clicks a few months ago and, because it took a while to arrive, later got an apology together with a voucher for a future purchase. Contrast that to my experience with Loot, where I had to pay to return an incorrect item (unlike Takealot where returns are free) and where it took thirteen days (13!) to respond to my query about a recurring payment error with a one line “kindly contact your bank”. Similarly, instead of going the extra mile to make it up to me (for example, by offering the first month free to compensate for the delay), Webafrica didn’t seem bothered.
It’s a pity that things didn’t work out the way I expect them to; I’ve always liked the simplicity of Webafrica’s offering and their quirky marketing. Maybe they’ve just become too big to care, much like many of the other providers I reached out to on Twitter to ask if they could offer their services instead. (Only a handful of smaller companies replied.)
Ultimately, even though we’re all feeling drained by the emotional mess of the last several months, now’s a great time to stand out as a brand that shows a genuine interest. Who knows? Maybe you’ll end up with a customer who sings your praises rather than one who regrets ever giving you a chance.
Key lesson: At a time when so few people seem to care about their work, this is the perfect opportunity to stand out as someone who does. Yes, it takes effort. But all worthwhile things do.
Eugene Yiga was born in South Africa and has lived in this amazing country all his life. And even though he studied finance, accounting, and classical piano at the University of Cape Town, he now works as a copywriter, journalist, and blogger with two and a half years of full-time experience in branding, communications, and market research.
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