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Sunday Times STLive By Megan Power, 2012-02-19

Cell C fails to get service message

Megan Power
Image: Sunday Times

Even disregarding Trevor Noah, matters have gone far beyond a joke

The greatest product counts for nothing if customers are poorly treated.

Hardly rocket science, is it? But you'd be surprised at how many companies don't get it.

The more I handle reader complaints - and challenge the incompetence and neglect that sparks them - the more I realise just how low down on the list of priorities customer care really is.

Offering a satisfying customer experience to the people who keep businesses afloat has little to do with establishing 24/7 call centres and online complaint portals.

It's about putting as much effort, time and money (if not more) into listening and responding to customers as it does into innovation, marketing and infrastructure. It's about ensuring competence, integrity, and a can-do attitude where it matters most - at the coal face.

It's about trust and respect. It's why Cell C's controversial "Tell Trevor" advertising campaign, where comedian Trevor Noah was touted as the network's outspoken customer champion, offended those duped into believing he was the genuine thing.

I still get e-mails from readers who've sent complaints to Noah and been ignored. The reality is that he is neither able nor available to solve customer problems. And it seems this also applies to most of Cell C's call-centre staff. With or without the comedian, the treatment of customers is beyond a joke.

When the network recently announced the appointment of former Vodacom chief Alan Knott-Craig as its new CEO, the talk was all about better network quality and products - with little focus on consumer interaction.

Knott-Craig has the opportunity now to start a new chapter in Cell C customer service. I would urge him to take it.

Pilot Leon van den Berg had to threaten to subpoena Cell C executives before an admin blunder, costing him time and money, was resolved. He spent nearly 10 months trying to get Cell C to investigate an error that saw his monthly credit card payments go unreflected on the network's system. Despite numerous pleas for help, Van den Berg got nowhere and instead endured regular suspension of his line. Even a registered letter to the network's financial director, with proof of his card payments, made no difference. The company's legal department hung up on him, management at Cell C's Garden Route Mall store refused to deal with him and he was eventually handed over.

Spokeswoman Karin Fourie said the matter had been "escalated" by the customer's attorneys in December and resolved in January.

"Unfortunately, the customer made the decision to involve his attorneys when other platforms were available for him to raise his concerns," she said.

I pointed out the huge but futile efforts made by the customer to resolve the issue - along with the fact that Cell C had gone the legal route first, by handing him over.

Fourie said: "In terms of the number of interactions between Mr Van den Berg and Cell C [and reason for the delay in resolving the query], we could only pick up the call-centre entries ... and one query logged at the Cell C store. Unfortunately I have no way of verifying if this is in fact a true reflection of the events or if the store was negligent in terms of logging the correct amount of queries and escalating the matter."

In addition to its "goodwill" writing off of R1762.06 owed by Van den Berg, she said Cell C would give him three months' free subscription.

Too little, too late. Said Van den Berg: "I would have expected a year.

"This has been a complete nightmare and has cost us money. I have a different idea of 'goodwill'.

"Cell C did absolutely nothing except hand me over to an attorney. When will companies realise that it all depends on how problems are solved? We just want to move on from this now and when our contracts expire, that's exactly what we'll be doing."

Reader Gerritt Venter signed up for a Cell C R100x24-month contract after a "persistent telesales person" convinced him to do so. When he received the phones, they were not what he expected and he cancelled the deal the next day. Cell C collected the phones a week later. But despite this, and repeated pleas to Cell C since September, the network ignored him and continued to debit him each month.

After I took it up on Venter's behalf, Cell C apologised, immediately cancelled the contract and refunded Venter the full amount.

Pensioner Colin Radford had his contract subscription discount terminated without warning.

His bill, which had averaged less than R40 a month, shot to R100 and R171 for December and January.

"They just stopped my discount and debited my account," Radford said. "I have phoned them at least six times starting from January 3 ... I am waiting for a credit but nothing materialises.

"I find their service shocking ... I don't know who I can go to."

Cell C said a system error had caused the discount to fall away. It had now been reloaded for the remaining 12 months of Radford's contract and a credit of R212 had been passed.

The City of Johannesburg, accused of breaching the Consumer Protection Act, will argue its case before the Consumer Tribunal this week. The city has objected to a compliance notice from the Consumer Commission following various complaints. The hearings, open to the public, will be held at the Braamfontein Recreation Centre, Harrison Street, from 10am.

Sunday Smile

At Multichoice in Umhlanga, which runs a highly effective queueing system. Depending on service required, customers are issued with computer-generated numbers and streamed accordingly. An automated voice guide then alerts you to your turn. I was in and out in less than 15 minutes. Slick.

Sunday Snarl

At the SA Post Office for encouraging customers, like Riviersonderend resident Stephen du Toit, to pay their postbox rental online via the new "virtual post office" but then failing to communicate such payment, resulting in postboxes being locked. So much for "real-time" account updates.