Opinion: Telcos talk nonsense on customer service

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Opinion: Telcos talk nonsense on customer service
David Havyatt.

Customer service won't improve until telcos acknowledge the problem.

Everybody agrees that telcos too often fail to offer customers a good experience, except the telcos. David Havyatt asks whether we can ever expect them to change.

The telecommunications industry is braced for the release of two important documents in May – both of which deal with whether there is a requirement for greater regulation to ensure better outcomes for consumers.

First there is the release of the report on the Reconnecting the Customer inquiry by telecommunications regulator, the Australian Communications and Media Authority (ACMA), which is likely to make recommendations on what needs to be done to clean up the industry. 

The second is the release for public comment of the revised Telecommunications Consumer Protection Code by Communications Alliance. 

As revealed exclusively in iTnews, this code is expected to place new restrictions on the way products and services are promoted and new compliance requirements on industry.

The depressing part of recent telco and industry submissions to the ACMA inquiry and the Government’s review of the TIO scheme has been the presumption that there really isn’t a problem. Australia's telcos attribute growing numbers of  complaints down to statistics gathering, complexity or strategic customers.

From where the telcos sit, they all compete on customer service, and competition will improve it.

Independent observers dismiss this as nonsense.

David Jaffe, Consulting Director from LimeBridge Australia, told the recent IQPC Customer Experience Event that “the whole way telcos think about product is customer hostile”. 

David Howarth from CHOICE took a similar view when he made a presentation to the public hearing for the ACMA’s Reconnecting the Customer inquiry. 

Telcos make it impossible for consumers to understand offers, he said.

Howarth labelled telco language “Orwellian”, based on the concept of DOUBLETHINK in Nineteen Eighty-Four. He demonstrated that the term “Unlimited Caps” met the definition just as well as Orwell’s BLACKWHITE. 

He concluded:

The genius of the term “unlimited cap” is that it reveals nothing about whether the plan is good or bad and it takes full advantage of the hollowing of language which means that the representations are now so content-less that consumers are denied any information whether misleading or not. 

The leaked report of the new TPC Code suggested the industry is going to outlaw the use of the word “cap” unless the plan really has a hard cap. With that challenge out of the way, the question is how the Code will deal with the next piece of language gymnastics from telcos.

The practice is well entrenched. As far back as 1990, Telecom Australia was scolded in a report by the Communications Research Institute of Australia (CRIA) on A New Language for Telecom concluded that Telespeak was a sub-language but that it was “not readily understood”, noting: 

“The current Telespeak is a melee of ordinary language, technical terms, pseudo-technologisms and acronyms.  The language is not widely shared, not easily understood nor easy to use.”

Searching for solutions

Those in the industry hopeful of staving off more regulation - and those with foresight into what an NBN world might look like - claim to be investing energy in what marketers call ‘Customer Experience Management’.  

The recent IQPC Customer Experience Event gave some insights into the state of play.

The first observation: no one can agree on what to measure when it comes to customer experience.

There are three ways to measure what customers think of you – attitudes (e.g. customer satisfaction surveys), behavioural intention (e.g. Net Promoter Score, how likely are customers to recommend you) and actual behaviour (e.g. churn, complaints to external bodies). There was some heated argument as to which metric mattered. (I would note that the only one changing is the latter - complaints to the TIO keep growing).

Second, while everybody agreed that improved customer service makes good business sense, most companies found it hard to make a quantified business case for improvements.

For some, providing a better customer experience is about organisational culture and empowering the front line staff. For others it is all about processes and mapping the customer’s journey through various touchpoints. 

Nowhere is the confusion in customer experience management more evident than in dealing with “social media”. 

Everyone in the industry has a different theory on how to engage.

Telstra’s Jules Scarlett said social media is monitored by the telco's traditional media relations team, while Lachlan Burns from Primus said social media was handled by the “traditional correspondence” team. Health insurer BUPA meanwhile regards social media as the province of the e-commerce team in marketing.

Nigel Dews from Vodafone earlier in the year noted that “the company had originally approached social media as another means of selling; however, now the company had taken the approach of "service first rather than selling first".

To my surprise, it was Gary Wheelhouse from Harvey Norman who really showed how it should be done. For a firm better noted for its antagonism to the online world, he presented a picture of a retailer very active in both staking their presence in social media, and reacting to it. 

His two messages were that it was better to leave a negative comment up and show how you’ve reacted to turn it around than to delete the comment, and that the key was a fast response. 

He gave an example of ringing a store to get a sales assistant to approach a customer who had just made a Facebook comment about not being served.

We have started to see telcos take this approach and it is a small step in the right direction.

A forecast

The ACMA report will likely recommend a closer monitoring of telcos and again threaten more direct regulation if things don’t improve. 

The Communications Alliance code will probably fix many of the things that are currently broken, but not slow the inventiveness of telcos to make products “customer hostile”.

What the telcos regard as differentiation, their customers increasingly find is merely obfuscation. Customer perceptions will continue to decline until telcos acknowledge the concerns of their customers and are prepared to act differently. 

Otherwise they just fulfil the definition of insanity – doing the same thing over again and expecting a different result.

Do you have any suggestions for how telcos could lift their game?

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