Customer calling – is anybody listening?

I tried a new way of getting help from my energy supplier this week, but ran into familiar hassles. I wanted to move from a standard tariff to a fixed tariff. Not so difficult, surely? I thought I’d try having a webchat. I found it a touch irritating that every other sentence was answered with “that’s fantastic, Fiona!” but a bigger problem lay ahead.

Absolutely no one could grasp the fact that my house used to go by a different address. It is still the same house, but its identity has changed. My chatmate gave up, and passed the buck. “I suggest you call customer services and explain your problem Fiona.” Could they call me, perhaps? “No Fiona I’m afraid not, they cannot make outbound calls.” OK, so the webchat was a waste of time. I continued my quest via email. Emails punctuated with “good news!” and the inevitable “bear with me” just went round in circles as the query was passed from assistant to assistant, with each new agent asking questions that had been answered earlier in the email trail. If the webchat was purgatory, the emails were surely customer-service hell.

Where’s the Customer Relations?

It grated because, in a previous life as a customer service agent, I enjoyed dealing with unusual queries, which I usually found myself able to solve. So why couldn’t anyone think outside the fusebox, and try to work with me, the customer? Eventually someone did have a brainwave (albeit to gain information I had already given) and the mystery address was ascertained. Now we can all move on and choose a better value tariff. Hooray! But why make it so hard for us?

It happens like this all the time. A while ago, when a package was lost (delivered to the wrong address, and then signed for) the courier, credit-card company and merchant all refused to accept responsibility. I didn’t get my package, or a refund, or an apology from anyone.

I’ve also met the webchat robot before. I once tried to cancel a subscription continued in error. Almost everything I typed was met with “that’s great!” even when I said things like, “Don’t you understand? This subscription should have been cancelled.”

Good complaint handling makes all the difference

If organisations did their research, they would discover that the three things that matter most to customers are that someone listens to their complaint, that someone takes responsibility, and that they make a genuine effort to solve the problem. Most of us aren’t after money.

Based on my recent experiences, I can give energy suppliers and other organisations a few simple tips:

1. Listen. Far too many customer-service agents seem only to read from scripts, and simply can’t give an honest reaction to a genuine query.

2. Don’t allow more than one agent to share an email account; this just causes duplication and frustration for the customer.

3. Don’t put people on the job whose English isn’t good enough. Some of our problems are hard enough to explain anyway.

4. Don’t use stock phrases. We can smell them a mile off, and we know they have nothing to do with our complaint.

If you value your corporate reputation, you can’t afford to make these elementary errors. We customers will tweet about you, we will tell our friends, we will tell the regulators; and one day we will destroy you.

Listen to us. And if you want to learn to use customer-friendly language, try talking to my colleagues at Clarity.

The truth about complaint handling

Can energy companies really improve their complaint handling? Currently, customers typically have to contact their supplier six times before their issue can be resolved. With Ofgem breathing down their necks, Energy UK, which represents the industry, insists:

“Handling complaints well is a must. Suppliers are committed to improving and a programme of change is under way.”

I wonder. Having worked with complaint handlers at many different organisations, including one energy company, I can reveal where the main problem lies. It’s not with the complaint handlers, overwhelmingly conscientious and decent people who will do the right thing nine times out of ten, given a chance.

The problems start at the top. Company bosses find it almost impossible to empathise with their customers. This is hardly surprising, given their preoccupation with brand identity, reputation management and, of course, the bottom line: all of which they view from a corporate perspective.

But reputation management begins with the understanding that your reputation is not in your hands; it is in your customers’ hands. So listen to those customers, understand their complaints, work out what you can do that might satisfy them, and respond accordingly.

Very few organisations do this. Instead, they establish complaints procedures, risk management policies, and work out what to do from there. Aggrieved customers are then told about policies and procedures that have nothing to do with their complaint. I recently worked with a bank where the unfortunate complaint handlers were so weighed down with cut-and-paste material of this kind that they would waffle for six or seven paragraphs before telling the customer whether they had upheld or rejected their complaint.

A word to the bosses, then. Ditch the corporate claptrap. Don’t let your lawyers hobble you with caveats. Start with the customer, and give your complaint handlers the training and support to do the job they are longing to do.