Customer Service and the Cost of Bad Service in SA

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Customer Service – The Cost of Bad Service in SA

Customer Service – The Cost of Bad Service in SA

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Dr Thommie Burger is the Founder of JTB Consulting


Customer service is a term that most companies reflect in their mission statements, yet, exceptional customer service is arguably one of the concepts that are seldom experienced by customers.

Customer service – to thousands of employees and employers in South Africa – is as foreign a term as trying to read and understand hieroglyphics. From receiving absolutely atrocious service from mammoth telecommunication companies to receiving no service at all from government institutions; we as South Africans have come to see a rapid decline in Basic Customer Service, i.e. Doing the Basics Good, Consistently, Without Fail.

I don’t need exceptional customer service … I just need some basic customer service. And yes, some readers may argue that other countries are the same in that they are also characterised by bad service or no service. Who cares about other countries? I am living in South Africa. I am buying a product or service in South Africa. I want to deal with a local representative on the other line … not a prerecorded voice, or absolutely incompetent representative that will transfer me from department to department just to be cut off after an hour on hold. I want to deal with a cashier or sales representative that looks me in the eyes and remains friendly when I am buying from their company. Not someone that looks and acts as if they are doing you a favour for shopping at their establishment. And what do we do as consumers? Most of us just accept it. “Ah well, this is what our country and its establishments have become”!

If I had to work for a boss again, or for another company in a management role, I would most probably fire every single person that does not provide basic customer service. Don’t bring your problems from home to the office. Don’t take your ‘bad day’ out on me as your customer. If you don’t want to be in a ‘customer-facing role’, then you shouldn’t have applied for the job. With the unemployment rate at an all-time high, there are millions of others out there that would be just so happy to take your job. To this day, I believe that customer service can’t be taught. Yes, you can teach a person the principles of engaging with customers, but to be good at dealing with customers, you need to have been born with it.

So, as this ‘fictional manager working for a boss’, I would rather get rid of everyone that doesn’t want to treat a customer as a ‘King/Queen’ and get someone that wants to. I would rather appoint someone with very little technical skills or qualifications but that have a natural ability to serve, love dealing with customers and have good interpersonal skills. The technical skills can be taught. But who wants a highly qualified, highly experienced person that is not inclined to deal respectfully with customers? Not me!

One of the key questions I often ask myself when it comes to the topic of customer service is whether customer-facing employees “either have it or they don’t.” Do some people just have the personality for customer service while others will never be capable of achieving the basic skills required for that kind of position?

My hunch is that procedures and policies in dealing with customers can be taught to a point, but star performers have something innate – an emotional intelligence – that enables them to better meet customers’ needs. There are those with an innate talent for handling customer service. However, my experience over the years is that most technical skills and product/service knowledge – given that someone has some ability and desire to speak with customers – can be taught.

My experience has also shown that most people don’t have the ability to speak or deal with customers. If they are ‘forced’ to be in that role or if they just take a ‘customer-facing role’ because they ‘need the job’, they are sure to do your brand much more harm than good. Beyond an innate ability, personality and rapport, the most important factor is to provide all customer service personnel with access to good information. While customers like to speak with friendly and personable representatives, their most important objective is to get the information they wanted, a reliable answer to their questions, and their problem resolved to their satisfaction … the first time they call.

I will never forget the words of Peter Cheales in his book ‘I was your customer’:

I never complain…
I never grumble at the poor service I get.
I’ll stand at the cashier’s window while she chats with the typist about last night’s date.
I don’t scowl when kept waiting, and if the salesperson who finally wanders over to see what I want is impatient or discourteous, I don’t complain, I’m very tolerant.
When I ask a simple question and get a curt answer, do I call the manager?
No, I just tolerate the situation.
I like to be nice to people because – well, that’s the way I am.
I never moan, I never fuss, I never criticise, I’d hate to make a scene like I have seen others do, I think that’s just awful.
No, I’m a nice customer.
But I’ll tell you something else too:
I’m the customer who doesn’t come back.
That’s my defense against being pushed around.
You don’t care? What does one more or less matter?
But multiplied …
I can ruin any business.
That’s why I can sit back and laugh when I see you spending all that money on advertising to get me back when you could have kept me in the first place with a smile, a few kind words, and a little service.

These days, companies underestimate the power of Online Customer Reviews, whether good or bad … the positive reputation that consistent ‘good’ reviews can create and the total negative image consistent ‘bad’ reviews can bring.

A positive reputation is one of the most powerful marketing assets a business has to convince new customers to contact them. The social proof contained within reviews and star ratings help consumers short cut their research and make decisions faster and with greater confidence than ever before. The growing quantity of online reviews and review sites covering more industries and services, provide huge benefits to both consumers and the businesses that fully embrace reputation marketing.

Take a website like

Search for any of the major services companies in South Africa and you will be inundated with ‘bad reviews’. Some companies don’t respond to or try and resolve these issues, while others have dedicated teams to respond to bad reviews. But here in lies the questions: “Why must companies appoint full-time employees with a sole purpose of responding to bad service reviews? Why not offer exceptional customer service from the onset and prevent, at all costs, the occurrence of such negative reviews”?

Why do these big companies in South Africa have this attitude of “We are too big to fail”? This infectious attitude of “With thousands of customers, losing a few here and there is worth it”. It is an attitude that is becoming entrenched in our culture. Youngsters are growing up thinking this is the way things should be. Bad service is OK. Instead of 80% of companies lifting the bar and creating a higher level of ‘what is acceptable customer service’, we have arguably fallen into a downward spiral where 80% of companies are just ‘going through the motions’. “Bad service is here to stay. We will just do what everyone else is doing”. It is easier to accept the status quo and be ‘pulled down’ to a lower level than pulling everyone up to a higher level. I will never forget the words of my father: “Treat every customer as if he/she is your only one”.

Read More: Dealing with Difficult Customers

With all this being said and without becoming too philosophical on this topic, here are 10 traits, that in my opinion, you cannot teach in customer service:

  1. Patience. Not only is patience important to customers, who often reach out to support when they are confused and frustrated, but it’s also important to the business at large: It is my opinion that great service beats fast service every single time. Yet, patience shouldn’t be used as an excuse for slothful service either. Derek Sivers explained his view on “slower” service as being an interaction where the time spent with the customer was used to better understand their problems and needs from the company. If you deal with customers on a daily basis, be sure to stay patient when they come to you stumped and frustrated, but also be sure to take the time to truly figure out what they want – they’d rather get competent service than be rushed out the door!
  1. Attentiveness. The ability to really listen to customers is so crucial for providing great service for a number of reasons. Not only is it important to pay attention to individual customer interactions (watching the language/terms that they use to describe their problems), but it’s also important to be mindful and attentive to the feedback that you receive at large. What are your customers telling you without saying it?
  1. Clear Communication Skills. Make sure you’re getting to the problem at hand quickly; customers don’t need your life story or to hear about how your day is going. More importantly, you need to be cautious about how some of your communication habits translate to customers, and it’s best to err on the side of caution whenever you find yourself questioning a situation. When it comes to important points that you need to relay clearly to customers, keep it simple and leave nothing to doubt.
  1. Ability to Use “Positive Language”. Sounds like fluffy nonsense, but your ability to make minor changes in your conversational patterns can truly go a long way in creating happy customers. Language is a very important part of persuasion, and people (especially customers) create perceptions about you and your company based off of the language that you use. Here’s an example: Let’s say a customer contacts you with an interest in a particular product, but that product happens to be back-ordered until next month. Small changes that utilise “positive language” can greatly affect how the customer hears your response. Without positive language: “I can’t get you that product until next month; it is back-ordered and unavailable at this time.” With positive language: “That product will be available next month. I can place the order for you right now and make sure that it is sent to you as soon as it reaches our warehouse.” The first example isn’t negative by any means, but the tone that it conveys feels abrupt and impersonal and can be taken the wrong way by customers. Conversely, the second example is stating the same thing (the item is unavailable), but instead focuses on when/how the customer will get to their resolution rather than focusing on the negative.
  1. Acting Skills. Sometimes you’re going to come across people that you’ll never be able to make happy. Situations outside of your control (they had a terrible day, or they are just a natural-born complainer) will sometimes creep into your usual support routine, and you’ll be greeted with those “relentless” customers that seem to want nothing else but to pull you down. Every great customer-facing role will have those basic acting skills necessary to maintain their usual cheery persona in spite of dealing with people who may be just plain grumpy.
  1. Ability to “Read” Customers. You won’t always be able to see customers face-to-face, and in many instances (nowadays) you won’t even hear a customer’s voice! That doesn’t exempt you from understanding some basic principles of behavioural psychology and being able to “read” the customer’s current emotional state. This is an important part of the personalisation process as well because it takes knowing your customers to create a personal experience for them. More importantly, though, this skill is essential because you don’t want to mislead a customer and end up losing them due to confusion and miscommunication. Look and listen for subtle clues about their current mood, patience level, personality, etc., and you’ll go far in keeping your customer interactions positive.
  1. A Calming Presence. There’s a lot of metaphors for this type of personality: “keeps their cool”, “staying cool under pressure”, etc., but it all represents the same thing: the ability that some people have to stay calm and even influence others when things get a little hectic. The best customer service reps know that they cannot let a heated customer force them to lose their cool; in fact, it is their job to try to be the “rock” for a customer who thinks the world is falling down due to their current problem.
  1. Closing Ability. To be clear, this has nothing to do with “closing sales” or other related terms. Being able to close with a customer means being able to end the conversation with confirmed satisfaction (or as close to it as you can achieve) and with the customer feeling that everything has been taken care of (or will be). Your willingness to do this shows the customer 3 very important things: (i) That you care about getting it right, (ii) That you’re willing to keep going until you get it right, and (iii) That the customer is the one who determines what “right” is.
  2. Happiness. A feeling of pleasure. I have come to believe that happiness is sometimes misused for the word enlightened. I know, now you think I am really out of my mind. Let me ask you something. Have you ever met a person who was happy? I mean really, really happy? Really, when? Where do you think “Happy Hour” comes from? My point is that when people feel happy, it has an ending. It leads to happiness or a state of unhappiness. I don’t think there can be a limit to enlightenment. Either way you think about it, it is not something you can teach. You can feel it. You can see it when another person really has it. You just can’t teach someone to be happy or enlightened. They have to find it themselves.
  3. Commitment. The feeling one has when one decides to do something no matter the cost or the journey. The ability to see it to the end. People who are committed are not easily swayed. They keep putting one foot in front of the other, keeping their eye on the prize, the goal, the end. Oh, they have trials and tribulations, and when you ask them about it, they shrug and say things like “That’s the way we do it” or “It needed to be done.” They have little concern or care for the thoughts of others who can’t see the world through their eyes. They shrug and say, “It’s got to get done, and I’m the person to do it.” You can’t teach that.
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Established in 2006, we have successfully written hundreds of bankable and world-class Business Plans for clients across 25 countries. As South Africa’s Leading Business Plan Company, we are confident that we would be able to assist you too. Kindly note that we also offer “Investor Pitch Decks”, “Excel-based Financial Models”, and “Proposal/Tender Writing Services” in addition to our Custom Business Plan Writing Service. Please visit our Services page for more information.

We look forward to being of service to you. Please feel free to contact our Founder, Dr Thommie Burger, on +27 79 300 8984 should you have any questions. He is also available via email and LinkedIn.

JTB – Your Business Planning Partner.

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