Life, Business & Coffee # 18: That call centre…

This story I’m sure everybody will have experienced in their own way. It started off with a bill from City of Jo’burg.

Ordinarily, a bill from the City of Jo’burg would have been as uneventful as pouring a cup of tea, but this week, my bill featured a balance from last month that wasn’t there before. I checked and double checked, and just as I thought, there definitely wasn’t any leftovers from last month’s use of the City’s services. If anything, there should have been a credit for the non-service of Piki-tup, and some money back for the idiot who drove into my bin as it stood, alone and unattended outside our gate for weeks.

So I steadied myself for the call. Surprisingly, I only waited three minutes to get through to a human person, but he soon hung up because my new cordless phone somehow managed to get itself on mute and none of the children were home to help me figure out how to unset it so the guy could hear me. On the second call, which I made using my cell phone because iPhones are just easier, albeit 5 times the cost, I got through to a guy to whom I explained my problem. He asked me a whole lot of questions to verify that I wasn’t a criminal who had been overcharged (for what exactly, I wondered? The hourly rate of having the cops chase you?), and then he spent a long time trying to open my latest statement, but said he couldn’t. 

I offered to send him my one but he said that one had been deleted and replaced with a new one. A very long one. One which he couldn’t open. I asked him if the City of Joburg owned a printer, but he said he wasn’t allowed to print anything. Useful, I thought, wondering why they’d even bothered to print the call centre number on top of the statement they sent me which even I could open, but which apparently had been deleted and replaced with a new, more top secret one which the guy on the phone couldn’t open. He even tried on another computer, which took about fifteen minutes not to happen while he played me the same 30 second music loop that has since become an ear worm and the reason I lie awake at night trying to think of anything else unsuccessfully so I can fall asleep.

I asked to speak to his supervisor hoping he would have a computer that would be able to open the top secret document. “He” turned out to be “she”, and she turned out to be as ineffective as the first guy, but a lot more officious.

Me: “So what you’re saying,” I said to her, “is that I must just pay the extra even though I settled everything on the last statement, or you’ll cut off my services?”

Officious one: “Yes.”

Me: “But you won’t tell me where you got this surprise extra bit from?”

Officious one: “No. You’ll have to go to a walk in centre to get them to give you a print out.”

Me: “You’ve just magically drummed up an extra charge, and now you’re expecting me to write off an entire morning to drive to a walk in centre to get a printout of how you got this extra charge? You’ve never heard of email?”

Officious one now turning defensive: “We can’t help you here, you’ll have to go to a walk in centre.”

Apparently the officious and defensive one was also deaf.

Me: “Have you ever eaten in a restaurant?”

Deaf, defensive and officious one: “I can’t say.”

Me: “You’ve never eaten in a restaurant??”

Deaf, defensive and officious one, who now also appears to be ignorant and deprived: “I’m not at liberty to say.”

It appears that there’s a lot more that’s top secret than just my bill.

Me: “Just imagine that you were one day to go to a restaurant and after eating your meal they brought you the bill, which you settle. But just as you get up to leave, the waiter takes your keys and says, ‘sorry, you can’t leave, you owe us for something else, but I can’t say what that is. To find out, you’ll have to take a walk fifteen blocks to the owner’s house and he can tell you'”

Deaf, defensive, officious, deprived and ignorant one: “As I say you’ll have to go to a walk in centre …”

I hit the red button, which was the only color I was beginning to see, and I now understand why they make that particular button red.

I went to calm myself down by pouring myself an uneventful cup of tea.

There’s a lot to be learned from this.

  • Don’t give your customers a number to phone when they have a problem if you’re going to tie the hands of the people you leave to answer the call. If you offer a call centre to your customers, staff it with the most highly security-cleared people who have the keys to everyone in the organization and have the power to do everything for the customer
  • Don’t change anything on your customers bill without closing the communication loop. Most customer dissatisfaction can be avoided not only by sending out a communication when things change, but by getting your customer to respond too.
  • The City of Joburg doesn’t have email, and  they employ deaf, defensive, officious, deprived and ignorant people who can’t even say if they’ve been to a restaurant or not.
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