Padraig Colman

Rambling ruminations of an Irishman in Sri Lanka

Category: Consumer Affairs

Does the Customer Care about Customer Care?

This article appeared in the July 2008 edition of LMD (Lanka Monthly Digest) with the strapline: Demand Better Service! The customer has to care enough to benefit from quality customer service, Michael O’Leary points out.

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Max Hastings wrote that Margaret Thatcher would be forever remembered as the warrior queen who toppled the Argentinean junta and castrated the British miners; John Major would be remembered for one little thing: Major’s big idea – which, to Hastings, was a little thing, was the Citizens’ Charter. The mechanisms of initiatives such as citizens’ charters can be mere rituals to be endured to receive a badge.

 

Some years ago, this writer was planning to move home from London to rural County Cork. I arranged an appointment with a removal firm festooned with customer-care accreditations. Its representative was two hours late and said he couldn’t take my goods all the way to my new home, but would drop it off somewhere for me to collect. I suggested that there was a disparity between performance and accreditation. The response was a phone call saying I was talking “rubbish”. I asked the caller to puts me on to the managing director. He informed me that he was the managing director!

 

More recently, I had an exchange with one of the largest banks in the UK. I had been given the same incorrect information in two letters and the staff at the call centre teetered on the precipice of insolence while conveying an indoctrinated message through gritted teeth. The response from the ‘Senior Customer Advisor’ was: “Our staff are trained to deal with all customer queries as efficiently as possible.”

 

Hastings was wrong. The concept of a Citizens’ Charter is a profound and noble idea. It involves the very essence of ethical philosophy going back to ancient times. The ‘Golden Rule’ is the best guide to living, whatever your religion. It is about empathy – do unto others as you would have others do unto you. In the words of Joe South: “Just walk in my shoes.”

 

Major was not being grandiose when he talked about the concept of a citizens’ charter being the “central theme for public life”. According to the BBC, his attempt to establish measurable and accountable public services was his most important legacy.

 

The problem is how to prevent the ritual substituting for the substance – gritting the teeth and going for the accreditation.

 

Dr. Madsen Pirie of the Adam Smith Institute, a pioneer of the Citizens’ Charter concept, said: “It is all too easy for the idea to be absorbed and neutered by the civil service. The trick is to ensure that the system does not dissolve into a set of vague objectives couched in the language of management-speak, which helps nobody.” In any organisational set-up, one has to have a framework to translate a mission into practice- but if individual workers do not understand or feel the core values, they will merely pay lip service and perform the rituals.

 

Major’s concept was about better quality for consumers through the publication of service standards, establishing the right of redress, performance monitoring, penalties for failures by public services and tighter regulation of privatised utilities. Published charters set out the standards of service in many sectors of provision – both public and private – that consumers have a right to expec and in some cases, compensation could be claimed where performance is found to be deficient.

I have detected a certain degree of cynicism about whether the concept of citizens’ charters can ever flourish on Sri Lankan soil. In a speech at the opening of a special Consumer Court at Aluthkade recently, the Chief Justice said that the cause of the consumer had become utterly hopeless. He said that those who rob the country would end up in hell.

 

Citizens have written to the newspapers that government officials do not show the simplest courtesy of acknowledging receipt of any correspondence. A toxic miasma of sloth and arrogance permeates some offices.  Controllers see themselves as technicians, not managers, so departments are not managed.

 

One correspondent wrote: “Will the ministers do something about this situation?” The answer is that they won’t – if the customer remains passive. The customer has to care enough to insist on real customer care.

 

A citizens’ charter should make it easier for the customer. Perhaps, those sufficiently interested could

try to see to it that the provisions of Section 7 of the Consumer Affairs Authority Act (No. 9 of 2003) are observed. The CAA has among its responsibilities the duty “to protect consumers against unfair trade practices and to guarantee that consumers interests shall be given due consideration”. One of the CAA’s functions is to “promote, assist and encourage the establishment of consumer organisations”. It takes a mere 15 members of the public to set up a consumer organisation which can register with the CAA. You can contact the CAA at caaoffice@sltnet.lk.

 

In the UK, customers have achieved great victories in curbing the rampant profiteering of banks. Philip Cullum of the UK National Consumer Council wrote: “This isn’t about being anti-business. At the National Consumer Council, we want the good guys to make profits and the bad guys to lose out. The challenge is to create markets where companies are fighting for consumer attention, which in turn leads to efficiency and innovation. The days when British consumers were reluctant to say boo to a goose are gone.”

 

Persevering customers will prevail. Passive ones will be persecuted.

Bad Shop Days at Cargill’s

This article appeared in the Gripe Corner section of The Nation on Sunday September 2 2012

In the two years since I wrote this, things have got worse rather than better. The fundamental problem is that there is no “management” in the sense of awareness, supervision, monitoring towards the main objective of pleasing customers. To take our nearest branch as an example. There used to be a named individual responsible for the branch. He was on site most of the time. He was welcoming and approachable. One could tell him about any problems and he would be responsive. Have Cargill’s adopted a new policy? For a few years now, there has been no manager of the branch. There are four or five management types who appear at the store from time to time and mainly keep out of sight. When they do put in an appearance, they wander about with a clipboard checking the shelves. This does not prevent items going out of stock. They are strangely blind to the fact that a queue is stretching to the back of the store and only one till is open.

 

Why does every branch of Cargill’s have a notice prohibiting photographs? Are they afraid that someone would capture the lengthy queues, or the wet sacking under the freezer, or the rodents running around or the aisles blocked by boxes, the general filth. A camera could not capture the awful smell from the meat counter or the drains outside which encourage flies.

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A camera did capture the disgusting toilet.

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There is rarely anyone serving at the pharmacy. There used to be a complaints book near the pharmacy counter. I had a look through it and saw that other people shared my concerns. Obviously no one in authority has done anything about this, apart from removing the complaints book.

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I have had many bad days in Cargill’s supermarkets. One lingers strongly in my mind as particularly hellish. A queue snaked its way from the checkout to the back of the store and around the aisles. The beleaguered girl working the solitary checkout counter kept desperately ringing her bell but no-one came to her aid.

On another occasion, a member of the “management” team was busily staring at the shelves with clipboard in hand while a huge queue had built up at the check-out and aisles were impassable because of boxes and trolleys that had not been removed.  On another occasion, an ugly mood was developing because only one checkout counter was open. After persistent pleas for help from the checkout assistant, a female management person emerged from the recesses of backstage and opened up a counter herself. She was heard to remark, “Sir hasn’t prepared the rota”.
One of the company’s stated values is: “Customer focused: Focused on customer delight”. This customer is rarely delighted in Cargil’ls these days.

The frustrations I describe here may appear to be minor cavils but they do represent common failures which blight many areas of business and government.  Staff and “management” have slipped into an attitude of mind where the retail outlet, hotel or government department in which they spend their time exists for their benefit rather than for the paying customers.

This is not a gripe solely about our local branch. Lack of awareness is a systemic flaw that I have noticed at many branches of Cargill’s. Friends wrote to one manager to complain about foul smells of rotting meat and pools of water under the freezer. They strongly believed that the freezer was switched off at night. I bought a packet of cheese slices. It did not surprise me that the packaging was filthy – I had become used to that. It did surprise me that the packet was over a year past its sell-by date. When I returned it, I was promptly and smilingly refunded but no-one seemed to appreciate the seriousness of selling ancient food. At another branch, an item I had intended to purchase had been nibbled by rodents. At my local branch, I often see mice running about. On my last visit, flies were swarming everywhere and the floor was filthy.

One often feels that one is being intrusive and spoiling the social life of Cargill’s staff; they are too busy chatting to each other to notice customers and managers don’t seem to care. Recently, I left my bag with the security lady in a Colombo branch. I paid for my purchases and when I tried  to collect my bag the security lady  was not there. I spotted her in a huddle of staff laughing and joking, all of them ignoring the customers. After some time, one of the group broke away and approached me. In a very arrogant tone, she directed me back to the end of the store and said I had to approach the security desk from the outside of the shop.

Bruce McClendon, in a 1995 issue of the Public Management Journal wrote that customer care must start “at the top of the organization and be communicated to every employee. Managers must demonstrate a commitment to customer service and lead by deed and example.” At Food Cities, managers do not seem to understand that they should manage.

McClendon writes: “if the service is not accurate and dependable, then it does not matter how courteous and friendly the employee is”. He told a story of a US government office, where so many employees were engaged in hanging banners announcing Customer Service Week that a huge queue built up at the service window. When an irate customer asked about customer service, a clerk responded, “Oh that starts next week.”
When will ‘next week’ come, for Cargill’s, one wonders.

– See more at: http://www.nation.lk/edition/undo/item/9891-bad-shop-days-at-cargills.html#sthash.vjUbVbDd.dpuf

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