Thursday, 27 January 2011

Taking communication for granted

For me, communication is a vital part of any organisation. It never ceases to amaze me when companies get the basics wrong. I’m not talking about small companies on the whole, but companies who really should know better.

Sometimes it’s just a bug bear – the person who emails you from 5 yards away when it would be easier to talk. Other times it’s more serious.

Over the last three months I’ve had an issue with British Gas for a service which was spot on and well done. The problem? The communication was abject and showed a complete disregard for the customer.

I’m going to share the experience to highlight some of the pitfalls of communications as it seems to be a good case study of how things can go wrong and some advice on how to avoid these issues.

In late November I signed up to the British Gas Homecare service which offers free boiler repair and an annual service. Within a few days of signing up, I received a call and an appointment was made for 4th December. Here, the system was working effectively and well. An automated system had placed my enquiry in a queue and I was dealt with promptly.

The day before the appointment time, we experienced very heavy snow and, knowing my road, knew that British Gas would have to have a snow mobile to be able to get anywhere near my house. I telephoned British Gas and spoke to two different people. I was trying to cancel the appointment and rearrange for the next available date. As I’d been offered an appointment within a fortnight, I assumed this would not be too far in the future.

The first person confirmed I could get a reappointment, but it would be 27th December at the earliest. They couldn’t make the change and passed me on to the person dealing with the enquiry. The second person claimed there were no slots available for over a month and they could not give me a new date. They were incredulous at my suggestion that the engineer would not be able to get to my house and that the conditions in Leeds had affected any of their services. I was reluctantly given the option of waiting for the engineer the following day.

This shows two things. Different operators seem to have different information and that’s never helpful. Secondly, there is a problem with listening. Listening is an important part of the process and customers can be in a better position to know certain facts.
That evening I cleared out the cupboard under the stairs to ensure the engineer would have enough space and the next day I waited for my 8am-1pm appointment. I waited. And I waited. It was 3pm when I called British Gas. Failure to contact customers is unacceptable and the easiest way of losing trade. There is a saying “eat your frogs first” which means do the tasks that need to be done but you don’t want to do first, and your day will only get easier.

British Gas seemed not to have any information at hand and unsure what to say. The operator had no way of confirming what had happened and if the appointment was still going to take place, although this was doubtful. They blamed the engineer for not contacting me to let me know the situation. Twenty four hours later, I was now being told there were serious issues in West Yorkshire and emergency calls were being prioritised but I would be contacted to rearrange the appointment. The problem now is the company is in a crisis situation. They are getting a lot of calls but the systems have broken down and there is no understanding of what to do. This means they cannot advise the customer who just wants some help.

A couple of days later I sent a tweet annoyed that no-one had called me, as promised. I got a phone call from British Gas, or a call centre acting on their behalf. The person didn’t know anything about my situation but seemed to understand I had a customer services issue. On explaining the situation, the end of the conversation was” Oh! Right, erm there’s nothing I can do”. Again the machinery was working, picking up social media issues, contacting and trying to resolve. The issue was there was no help available and there were no slots available for an appointment.

The snow fell thick and fast and I thought it best to wait until the New Year to make an enquiry. I was sensible enough to realise they were having problems and it was an inconvenience I could have done without. A fortnight or so after the snow had gone, I called again. The advisor listened to my request for a new appointment and he said it was still busy but he would personally ensure I got an appointment within 24 hours.

Now over a month and half after my appointment had been cancelled, my main gripe is that I had made initial contact every single time and British Gas had not contacted me once. The operator said they were still making reappointments and those with a low priority call were being put to the back of the queue. Thousands of people were being affected, or so I was told. The policy was to NOT contact them as there were too many.

It’s great to be told your problem is being personally dealt with, a nice touch. But why weren’t the customers being told? It would take a day at most to draft a letter apologising for the situation and giving an indication of when normal service would be resumed. This was the biggest sin and preventable. I can only think someone was being a skinflint over postage costs.

A week past and the operator who said he’d ring me back in 24 hours had lied. Don’t give promises you can’t keep.

Finally, my boiler broke down a few days ago. I called and an engineer was sent out to my house within a few hours. I asked if my annual check could be done at the same time. I was told I had an appointment for mid February that I should be aware of. I hadn’t been aware of it. That said, it would be fine for the checks to be carried out.

So what are the learning points?

Listen so you can help rather than resorting to mechanisms
• The customer is normally right
• Be first to contact your customers when things go wrong; don’t wait for them to come to you
• Ensure everyone is delivering a consistent and accurate message
• Ensure the left hand knows what the right is doing
• Ensure that there are crisis management systems built in so when the proverbial hits the fan, at the very least you have a holding statement or position
• If you can’t communicate in your normal way, think how you can get messages sent out
• Don’t over promise and be honest about the situation
• Don’t lie

Were you affected during the bad weather? Let me know if I was the unlucky one or if you also suffered from poor service.

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