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Consumer Affairs
Tuesday, May 1, 2007
Is anybody out there?

There’s a clutch of articles presented here around the vague topic of call centres, customer care and automated answering systems. They are published not to solve anything, but just so you know you are not alone in the frustrations of dealing on a daily basis with all this nonsense.

Thousands of companies in South Africa are using automated answering systems. The menus presented are sometimes obscure, at best so long-winded it takes five minutes just to get the phone to ring at the other end of the line. Even then, as often as not, the person answering the call has to pass you onto someone else. It is also remarkable and bewildering how often, when you ask a detailed question, you get the response, “Just a minute please.”
Well, what does that mean? Just a minute while I find the answer, or just a minute while I blow my nose? Or what? Often it means you are being transferred to another person of unknown identity in an unknown department, sometimes it is just another switch-board.
The bewildered consumer is left asking, “Well, where am I now? To whom have I been transferred?” Invariably the consumer has to go through the whole detailed ream of questions again. Nor will it take him long to remember such exasperating experiences to the extent that a growing number of callers are simply putting the phone down the moment an automated recorded voice starts to ramble.
Is the automated answering system a genuine attempt to help customers, or rather to create an obscure buffer zone between those responsible and those needing help? It is a real mystery. No one knows how many calls are abandoned but it must run to hundreds of thousands a week, leaving frustration, unsolved problems and huge amounts of lost business in their wake.
A couple of months ago a firm used the following: ‘We are experiencing an unusually large volume of calls at the moment, please be patient, your call is important to us.’
The question is, if it is unusual, how come they have managed to put together a recording to that effect and load it onto a system that isn’t coping with the calls? Sounds pretty fishy to me. And if the ‘call is so important’ why isn’t anyone wanting to respond to it?
As we said last month (see Insurance Times & Investments Volume 20.3 April 2007 page 17), it is surprising in South Africa how all sorts of things go wrong and, when they do, no one is able to fix anything. To avoid ‘all our lines are busy’ messages they should use more people; and , if they want to help they should not close their call centres at 17.00, about the time people get home and are free to engage in polite conversation with call centre representatives with a view to solving their problems.
Things do go wrong. That is not s much the complaint. It is when they fail to provide quick and efficient solutions that makes the consumer upset.
Comments Wynand Schutte, general manager of the Carphone Warehouse in Cape Town, “Our rule is that 80% of all telephone calls must be answered by one of our personnel within 15 seconds.”
It is really quite simple. You must:
• Answer calls quickly;
• Deal with enquiries efficiently; and.
• Keep the promises you make.

Yet it is amazing how the majority of South African businesses have completely missed the point. They have failed to acquire and utilise their resources properly.
“It takes a lot of insight to train staff and plan properly,” he observes. And while call centres are expensive to run, they are nevertheless the most efficient and cost-effective way of communicating. For example, correspondence by email is more expensive, and by post prohibitively so.
Mr Schutte adds that South African companies have to understand that if they don’t deal with calls quickly and effectively, the customer will resort to an alternative means of communication, such as by letter or email, or may even escalate his complaints to more expensive staff in management, for instance.
Trying to avoid talking to customers is a no-brainer. In the UK he says that from research it has been found that if a customer can’t get hold of you by the fourth or fifth attempt, he walks away. He is no longer a customer, and this is very damaging to business.
Carphone Warehouse is a UK-based business with six call centres in the UK, three in India and three in South Africa. The Indian presence derives from past acquisitions of telephony companies, while the SA businesses have been established because of the quality of staff (once trained) and the relative lower costs of operating here.
As a matter of technical interest the SA centres go through Telkom initially, which links them to their dedicated international bandwidth – essentially Voice Over Internet Protocol (VOIP).
As Mr Schutte has intimated, when a client fails to achieve service from a customer care line, if possible he will try other means. Take the experience we had with eBucks, for instance.
In response to our call about a complaint to its help line this is what the automatic answering system announced. We have used this example because it probably summarises every mistake in the book: “Thank you for calling eBucks. Your call is important to us. A consultant will be with you shortly.
“Your patience is appreciated. While you are on hold why not visit our ebucks shop at www.ebucks.com?
“We apologise for the delay; we will attend to your call as soon as a consultant is available.
“It must be peak hour at eBucks at the moment. We are experiencing a large volume of calls; you may need to wait longer for a consultant to answer your call. We will try and find a consultant for you.
“If queuing is not your thing, please call back later.”

Quite astonishing, that last line. In other words, “Go away.”
Instead of following the useless advice, we sent an email outlining the complaint. And this was the automated response.
“Thank you for contacting us. Your suggestions for improving our service are most welcome. Your complaint has been forwarded to our agents who will respond to you within 48 - 72 hours. Should you need to follow up on this query in the interim, please contact the eBucks HotLine on 086 123 3000, quoting the reference number provided here.
“Your Call Reference No is: 1079384209.”

To date we have not had a reply. That was over four months ago. In other words not one single human being from eBucks has been involved in our dialogue. Do they really think that is the way to do business?
If nothing else this proves that all the soothing words employed in automated answering services are completely meaningless.
‘Please stay on the line for further options,’ in reality means you are going to be faced with choices that will be of no use to you, and will waste more of your time — and increase the cost of your telephone call still further.
One wonders what this one really means, too, ‘Please note that all calls are recorded for quality and security purposes.’
Whose ‘quality’ and whose ‘security’? Sounds fishy enough to suggest it is because they either don’t trust their customers (bad message) or don’t trust their staff (a really bad message).

Finally, let’s close off this miserable article with some meaningless words from television, you know the ones you get preceding ad breaks or whatever:
‘Be right back, so stay with us……’
In levels of vacuity this is probably the grossest violation of intelligence I have ever witnessed.. After all I am not stupid enough to think that when a programme is interrupted by advertising that it will simply truncate. I know very well they will ‘be right back’. And the line, ‘so stay with us’ is so patronising and contemptible that I almost always take it as my cue to switch off.
Likewise, do automated telephone answering systems make you switch off? I bet hundred of thousands of like-minded people do so every week. By Nigel Benetton

Copyright © Insurance Times and Investments® Vol:20.4 1st May, 2007
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