Incidents underline the importance of customer service training for all

Motor industry
Motor industry
Image: Reuters

“One thing that is becoming very apparent in this ‘new normal’ is that the post-Covid winners will be those [companies] which, as part of their broader retail strategy, focus on meeting the needs and expectations of their customers. 

“The best way to arm yourself against future economic shocks is to ensure that you champion your customers every step of the way.”

That’s what the Ombudsman for Consumer Goods and Services, Magauta Mphahlele, says in her organisation’s latest newsletter, and, not surprisingly, I couldn’t agree more.

In these extraordinary times, companies are telling us more than ever how much, or how little, they value us as customers. 

They’re telling us whether or not we should trust them with our custom in future.

I really feel for the motor industry now. It’s been a brutal year, with lockdown making a mockery of its sales projections for 2020 and massively restricting its servicing operations, especially during hard lockdown.

Back in April many car owners began stressing about being forced to miss the deadline for their car’s annual or mileage-linked services, and having their car warranties cancelled as a result, as their contracts allow for.

I did a quick whip-around with several car manufacturers at the time, all of which assured me they’d be extending the service intervals on cars by the number of “lost” lockdown days. After all, how can you penalise a customer for something so utterly out of their control?

Well, sadly, that’s just what happened to Charlene Moore of Cape Town.

The two-year service plan on the Tata Indica she bought in April 2018 expired in April — she’d had every intention of getting the car serviced before the plan’s cut-off, but lockdown put paid to that.

And when she took her car to the Tata Car Smart dealership for its service when lockdown restrictions eased, she was told — only when the service was complete, mind you — that she’d have to pay R2,600 because her service plan had expired.

“Surely I shouldn’t be penalised for not being able to have the car serviced during lockdown?” she asked me.

Of course not. 

I took up her case with Berenice Francis, corporate affairs executive of Motus, “South Africa’s leading automotive group”, who confirmed that Moore’s service plan had, in fact, been extended because of lockdown. She will be getting a refund.

“We will also reiterate our extension of plans to our partner dealership groups as this matter should have been escalated at the time of the service to prevent Ms Moore from having to pay directly, as service plans are meant to provide peace of mind, especially during these trying times,” she said.

“I sincerely apologise for the angst Ms Moore would have experienced and we will be discussing the additional customer concerns raised with the dealership, which is an approved service provider for the Tata brand.”

Francis said she’d also be providing feedback to the company’s financial services division to ensure that customers know who and how to contact if a dealership won’t honour a service plan or other product.

“We also need to ensure that consumers are aware of what the policy does cover — it is a continuous journey, and I believe that responsible consumer journalism also plays an important advocacy role.”

I totally agree. 

The reality is that the consumer doesn’t get to interact with Angela or Thami in the financial services division. They deal with the person opposite them at the service desk at the dealership.

And if that person can’t grasp that it’s wrong to charge a woman R2,600 for a service because their service plan expired in hard lockdown, customer service training is sorely needed. Treating customers fairly is not only the job of the customer care department.

René Burger’s email landed in my inbox a week after Moore’s.

The subject line read: “Rust spot on new Suzuki, ignoring my complaint”, which turned out to be a fitting summary of her situation.

“I feel like I am fighting a losing battle with Suzuki,” she began. “I bought an Ignis last May, from the Thorp dealership in Blouberg, and after a few months I started noticing rust spots on the boot.

“In February this year, I took my car for its first service and pointed out the issue, and asked that they please sort this out as my car is under warranty — it was less than a year old.”

Since then she phoned the dealership many times, leaving messages which weren’t responded to and attempting to engage via email, to no avail.

On June 30 she tried to get Suzuki SA involved — the manufacturer is obliged to honour the corrosion warranty on the car.

She attached a photo of the rust streaks on the car’s boot and it was not pretty.

Repeated emails begging for feedback from the manufacturer’s customer relationship management (CRM) team were met with a similar response: “Waiting for feedback from the dealership.”

Finally, on July 23, Burger turned to me for help.

I took up her case with the manufacturer and received a response the same day saying Burger’s claim had been approved and the dealership would be contacting her to arrange the rust repair.

If a customer needs the intervention of a journalist to get what they’re entitled to, even in the most uncomplicated of situations, a serious interrogation of “CRM” is clearly, urgently, required.

 

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