Customer Service vs the Aberdeen Angus Philosophy


Today was another busy one in the call-centre  with some of my customers telling me they had been waiting on the line for upward of 20 minutes to get through. On days like these I  sense the tension as soon as my auto-answer kicks in and the first words I hear are a gasped ‘finally’ or ‘at last’. Most people leave it at that, just happy to have finally got to the front of the queue, but some go into full-on rant mode releasing like some overwound clockwork chattering teeth. As I told one customer today I’m really not the person to be having a go at as I’m the one desperately trying to get through all the calls as quickly as possible without taking a breath. I’d dearly love there to be more operators too and in any case having a rant at me is only causing the queue to back up even further. In the meantime as this was all going on management were breaking open the sandwiches and lemonade for some visiting dignitaries.

Thankfully, unlike yesterday, things did quieten down by late morning. Around 11.20 my call display was empty save for the time and my name which it always shows as long as I’m logged in. One of my supervisors, who unlike the more senior management is always there on the front-line, unhooked herself and handed round piles of mail for us to start responding to. It was optimistic as the island of calm didn’t last long and soon I was pitched back into a melee of disgruntled customers.

I only managed to respond to two letters, both using the standard templates we are encouraged to use – writing a bespoke response being seriously frowned upon as being a waste of time and in any case it’s hard to keep track of in the short gaps between calls. This means that even though customers will often  write voluminous tomes explaining their circumstances we without really looking at them will just send a short nondescript letter with a statement of account attached and that’s if they’re lucky as some just get shoved in the bin. It hardly seems like customer service to me.

The third letter I picked up, but didn’t get round to dealing with, was one which was achingly familiar – similar ones have been coming in as long as I’ve been at the firm and you will find several in each bundle of letters we each received. It concerned a dispute over an account. The customer pointed out that previous letters they had written to resolve the issue had not been responded to and that they had got nowhere by calling us. They believed they did not owe us the money we said they did and that furthermore they felt our administration systems and customer service was appalling. They will never use the company again and if we do not resolve this issue they will also go to Watchdog.

The customer right when they question the administration. The company in question has appalling accounting systems and is constantly sending out items to people who didn’t order them (by mistake I must point out here) or else upselling people without them being fully aware (the jury’s out on this one)  then sending the unpaid disputed accounts to a debt collectors so I wouldn’t be at all  surprised if the customer was wholly in the right and did not owe anything. In its defence the company would probably eventually clear the balance, but only after the customer expends a huge amount of energy. Some people I’m sure just pay up to end the hassle.

If you’re shocked by this you may think that if not karma then the law of market economics would catch up with a company so determined to upset its customers, but still new orders pour in and the company which operates across Europe has been going for decades. It all reminds me of a recent column by comedian David Mitchell who wrote this about the Aberdeen Angus Steakhouse chain:

These restaurants are unique to British culture and yet they’re under threat. Not for them the business model of repeat custom, these steakhouses’ fortunes rely on the much tougher technique of trying to dupe everyone once. It’s harder and harder for them to do, as the British tradition of culinary incompetence is eroded by pressures from abroad. When even Little Chef is recruiting Heston Blumenthal, these restaurants, now rarer than the Siberian tiger, are all that we have left of a proud heritage of serving shoe leather with Béarnaise sauce to neon-addled out-of-towners.

This made me laugh as I remember my first ever visit London sometime in the late 1980s ending in one of these places and my parents being very unhappy with the fayre we received for the huge amount of money they parted with. Maybe as the Aberdeen Angus experience shows the market does catch up with firms eventually, but to me its scary how firms can survive for so long whilst treating their customers so badly.

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