People & Performance: March 1998                                back to articles menu

Life with Punter

"Chaos and Order"

The title of our National Conference has special meaning for me right now. I have just been through a period of major chaotic change, and according to the Holmes and Rahe stress scale, at around 600 points my partner-in-life and I should both be dead. Or at least crouched in a corner buzzing away on Prosac, drooling and cuddling large bottles of gin. During this period of change we found ourselves at various times commenting on the standard of competency of the people we needed service from, and comparing against known or supposed training budgets. The people concerned ranged from pleasant & competent, pleasant and incompetent, and unpleasant and incompetent.

Being Customer Service Specialists (it’s a dirty job but someone has to do it) places a special burden on us. If we complain, are we secretly touting for business?

Without talking about my personal circumstances which would be inappropriate not to say boring, let me say that all my partner-in-life and I attempted to do was sell two properties, buy one, pack & merge two households and one business office into one, move across Auckland, run the company, create two Family Trusts, present training workshops, launch the new range of National Public Courses, cope with a pregnancy (not me – my partner) and three ailing elderly parents, organise phones, PO Boxes, Post, carpet layers, painters, fencers and a removal company, and prepare for a new daughter. And all this in Auckland’s hottest Summer. The trick was to remain sane, with the relationship still intact. The latter has been achieved.

During this stressful and uncertain time we needed to rely upon staff within certain organisations large & small, to follow simple written instructions and carry out routine tasks well within the usual and assumed competency range of people holding those positions.

The thing that surprised me was that the trouble occurred within organisations that are known to spend hundreds of thousands of dollars on training. The Fencing contractor, a one-man band, did the job (on a difficult site) excellently and without fuss. Well done, David Parker. If you need a fence job done, he’s your man. No huge training budget, no resources other than his craftsmanship.

But to provide two new telephone numbers, divert two existing ones, disconnect two others, and mount one connector block on a wall, with six weeks notice and complete, explicit, written instructions, proved too complex for the service provider concerned. Clients ringing our 0800 line were met with a disconnect signal. Ringing the business line, clients were advised by a warm female recorded voice that this number was no longer connected to an active customer (I disagree. I was highly active). It was an ominous portent of doom in the week leading up to D-day, when the contact person concerned refused to answer the phone or reply to my many messages seeking reassurance. Eventually (on D-day), I used a very naughty word that I reserve for private occasions where hammer contacts thumb. Stupid, eh. But forgive me – at that moment this so-called ‘service provider’ had driven me to the point that I didn’t know who (or even what) I was. (I never did hear from him. Perhaps he died and went to Customer Service Hell, where residents are subjected to careless and indifferent service, and forced to repeat the same story to endless new operators, for all eternity).

Then I remembered what it was like in the 70’s, when it took three months to get a phone on, even though all they had to do was put a fuse in at the exchange, and how, if you wheedled with just the right amount of subservient humility, you could play to the esteem of the little tin gods that had so much power, and they would condescend to help the poor mortal. Thinking hard, I carefully put my brain back into that time-warp, imagined it was 1970, and rang again. In my most plaintive voice, I wheedled. I begged. Yes, although my stomach rebelled, I wheedled, cajoled & pleaded. Eureka!

Over the next 24 hours, with four successive phone calls to two different operators, we got a basic service operating.

To quote a well-known TV advert, ‘It’s not rocket-science’. For this organisation, the hundreds of thousands of dollars in training budget would be better spent with CCF, or perhaps UNESCO. Donations are tax deductible, the kids will love you, and at least someone will benefit from the expenditure. I have yet to write to them. I’m trying to calm down first. I can’t keep hitting my thumb…

The removals guys were something else. I don’t know whether they spend anything on training – apart from ‘on the job’ stuff by supervisors – they too, did a difficult and tiring job without fuss and without losing or breaking anything. They even individually wrapped boxes of ball-point pens. Courteous, seemingly unflappable, they packed a home and office, stored it for 6 weeks, packed another home, and then delivered both to the right place at the right time. Well done Allied Pickfords. In terms of complexity, compare it to the job on the telephones…

Did you know there is no ITO that teaches carpet-laying? I know that now. I would have thought that with every home having carpet, the suppliers/layers might have got their act together. But no, it’s passed on from one to another. Anyway, now that the Supervisor (a thoroughly nice bloke) has been back to finish the job, give my partner-in-life a huge gift-basket to head off the throttling exercise she had planned, fix the mistakes, and organise the new bathroom tiles to replace the ones the ‘tradesman’ smashed, I can start to relax. Mind you, they’ve only got the 50% deposit, so they’re still attached by the proverbial short & curlies. What they will do with their employee who decided to do a vanishing trick at 2.00pm on the last available day with the job incomplete, having said twice that the job was finished, I can only guess. I know what my partner-in-life wanted to do with him, which involved severe pain and included utilising all the 8 or so sharp razor blades he so kindly left all over the carpet (buried in the piles of off-cuts) for our two Doberman’s to find. Customer Service training can only achieve so much. When employees just don’t give a damn, there’s not a lot you can do.

And now, the latest thing in sheer lunacy. You know how, when you change your phone number, you can get an announcement that tells people your new number? Well, we couldn’t. You see, the new contract has to be in exactly the same name as the old one. The old listing had only one set of initials. The new one has both our initials, which I’m sure you agree, is an important difference. When I was told this exciting piece of idiocy (late on the Saturday night), I actually laughed, because by then, I wasn’t really in control of my emotions, and also by then, nothing surprised me. This is 1998?

And that’s the note I will finish on. As external providers there are some things we can’t fix in customer service training: inadequate resources, inflexible policies, and employees who just don’t give a damn. To apply huge training budgets does not in itself mean you will achieve a result. I’ve mentioned two service providers by name in this story, because they deserve the praise, and I believe in credit where it’s due. The reverse is also true. Unfortunately, one organisation still has a monopoly, as at today there is no alternative, so you can’t withdraw your custom. But every dog has its day. That day will come. Remember how we finally got air-bridges at airports?

Carpe Diem

Steve Punter ANZIM, Dip Bus (PMER), FHRINZ
Staff Training Associates Ltd, Auckland, New Zealand. email:
© Steve Punter 1998 All rights reserved by the author                                                                                                               back to articles menu