Behold, the Customer Stands at the Door

A week ago, I participated in a new program dubbed “In Your Shoes”. This initiative requires each manager to spend two days at a customer-facing point in order to see for oneself what our customers are going through. I thus spent one day at our retail centre in Nairobi CBD and a second day in a town about 50 kilometres from Nairobi. A few weeks ahead of the retail centre visits, I was at the call centre and listened in to some of the calls coming through. To be honest, I was at first sceptical about this whole idea. It struck me as a feel-good opportunity where one spends time commiserating with customers only to get back to the desk having done little and intending to do even less. Some folks, in companies I will not name, have made careers out of market visits, raking up enough per diem to buy villas and Ferraris. Surely, there are better, efficient ways of getting to know the pain points of our customers, I reasoned. I could get a data dump from the CRM system and also look at the trouble tickets escalations that are coming through the support teams. That would give a network-wide view now, wouldn’t it?

I came out of these visits with appreciation of what our retail team goes through. Their jobs are tough, to say the least and it is amazing how well they handle the challenges. Everybody else in the company can mess up and hide in the offices (even Call Centre staff connect to customers from afar) but the retail agent, who is the very face of the telco, stands in for us all). She is engineer, accountant, counsellor, cashier, salesperson, marketer, PR expert and when all else fails, she will do for a punch bag.   It is a shame that we do not always have processes and systems to back this fine team. A slight CRM system downtime, even occasioned by normal connectivity issues, has a very big effect on the queues at the retail centres. Suddenly, the queue stretches to the entrance and starts snaking its way up the street. Voices go up. Tempers flare. A general atmosphere of hostility from the customers starts building up.

The experience also challenged my notions. Seeing peasant farmers who are well advanced in age asking about internet challenges the assumption that some of these services are for the youthful category of the market. The two days also provided a suitable opportunity to pause and ask myself, “Why are we here? Really.” We sell services that do not work as they should. We run systems that make it difficult for retail staff to serve customers. We make promises that we do not keep. I suspect a number of people working for telcos are probably guilty of these transgressions as well. In Nairobi CBD, I witnessed retail staff cowering behind security guards as they informed customers that the system is down hence the customers’ issues cannot be resolved and would the customers please come back after two hours. From the pained expressions and the anger that registered on the customers’ faces scenarios of actual bodily harm came to mind. The program is not called “In Your Shoes” for nothing. In my case, it was more like “Quaking in Your Boots” as I imagined tempers reaching a boiling point – may I add that I was not entirely positive that the company insurance scheme would compensate my family if I happened to be a victim of bare-hands-strangulation by an unidentified customer hence my apprehension is excusable.  I imagined my epitaph:  His demise, while unfortunate and unjustifiable, is wholly understandable. He came, He saw, He got clobbered.

Apparently, some customers have been through this drill so many times that when you approach them and ask if you can assist, they first ask, “So your system is up today?” One lad pulled me aside and suggested that since the customer-facing systems always seem to have a problem, we should consider borrowing the system that our competitor is using – you have to admire this kind of out-of-the-box thinking!  I nodded and considered replying that we are giving serious thought to this idea but decided not to push my luck. Radical ideas aside, one begins to come to terms with the frustrations that the customers and the customer-care team are going through. The sad summary is that the tired customers who are queuing with the hope of having their problems solved are an indictment of the CSP’s systems, processes and people with regard to the promise of one or more products. We can achieve 99.99% billing accuracy by use of sophisticated Online Charging Systems but if one customer-facing system or process is not OK, the 99.99% accuracy rate counts for little in deed.

To avoid the program becoming an exercise in futility, I think it is advisable to use it as a learning opportunity that re-evaluates some of the monitoring points that RA is looking at. If 3 out of 5 customers are at the retail point because of a provisioning-related issue affecting prepay data SIMs, it certainly makes sense to spare some effort for this area. If 2 out of 5 customers are bitterly complaining that they cannot exit a daily subscription service that is “eating” their airtime, there is a problem right there. Even without going granular, trends start to emerge. Step by step, some things become clearer and one starts to question even the efficacy of some of the controls that are in place. Some customers are also on the queue because of processes that have excessive controls. Are the controls all necessary? Red tape is danger – if something requires back-office approval by 2 or more people, the flow of service soon breaks.

During encounters with customers, the logic of some of the processes becomes reproachable. Take the case of a customer who has returned a handset for repair. He is issued with an acknowledgement form and has to wait 14 working days. That is the SLA. Sometimes it takes 2 days to repair the handset but since the customer was told to wait for 14 working days, he will only come on the 14th day (more likely, the 15th day). Perhaps a mechanism to notify customers once the handset is ready through a designated contact number would be helpful. Recall that not many customers have the luxury of 2 handsets. The handset is now intricately linked to the socio-economic lives of the customers and 14 days without it translates to hell. For a population that is largely living below a dollar a day, those 14 days may now be a zero-dollar-a-day hell. Consider the case of a customer who has visited the retail centre to inform the CSP of some fraudulent activities being perpetrated by a few rogue dealers downtown. Do you really want to ask this person to queue behind 50 individuals in order to get to the point where this information will be keyed into the system? Dare you suggest that and he promptly stomps off. Can you blame him? Wouldn’t a well-publicised toll-free number for reporting such frauds work better?

Truth be told, you can look at the CRM system reports and analyze all the tickets you want but if you want to have an inkling of what your customer thinks and feels, perhaps you should, every now and then, also face the customer across the counter and really listen. It is during such times that one realizes what misery results from skipping one provisioning step and not detecting in good time. It is during such times that one notices the queue building up because there is a customer identity vetting process that requires the retail agent top open two screens and painstakingly copy details from 10 different fields across. It is during such visits that you realize the customer is really patient and has given you a second chance, a third chance, a fourth chance… and you wonder if the nth time is round the corner before he lunges across the counter with the intention of squeezing you by the neck until your eyeballs pop out.

 It is also during such times that you realize that the revenue assurance team, with its wealth of experience in data quality and process reviews, can apply some of those skills to make a difference to at least some of the people standing in front of you.

If you have the will to take the necessary follow-up actions, rest assured the customer is talking. Is anyone listening?

Joseph Nderitu
Joseph Nderitu
Joseph Nderitu is a consultant who specializes in revenue assurance. He is currently contracted as Head of Revenue Assurance and Fraud Management at Vodacom's operation in Tanzania, having previously served in the same role at Vodacom Mozambique.

Before his work with Vodacom, Joseph was an internal audit manager for Airtel, with responsibility that covered their 17 countries in Africa. Whilst at Airtel, Joseph led reviews of the Revenue Assurance, Customer Service and Sales & Marketing functions.

Prior to his stint at Airtel, Joseph was an RA manager at Safaricom in Kenya. He holds an MSc Degree in Information Systems.