Things that make you go hmmmm

It saddens me to make this distressing announcement, but here it is: customer service standards in Australia are slipping.

I believe that I am qualified to comment on customer service, having spent all my working life until I was in my mid 30s, in customer service roles. That’s including my very first part-time job at the local fish and chips shop/milk bar when I was 15. I can assure you that our service at “Cosy Corner” Milk Bar was always top notch – polite, efficient, and we only took a matter of minutes to add up the total cost for your Koolmints, TaB, pack of cigarettes and Chicko Roll™ – using a pen and paper and a calculator if lucky – enter the total into the cash register that looked like a large version of a toy cash register, and then manually figure out the change we needed to give you.

Exactly what that cash register looked like.

Exactly what that cash register looked like.

Pic: Turtles Treasures

In the 4 years that I worked there, I only once spilled someone’s fish and chips all over the floor in front of all the waiting customers, when my up-until-then flawless execution of the quick wrap-up in butcher’s paper went horribly wrong.

Ah yes, the late 1980s, perhaps the heyday of customer service in Australia. I got my first role as an official “Customer Service Assistant” when I determined that the arts degree I had started at Melbourne University was useless, and walked into Myer Melbourne’s Employment office – yes, believe it or not, in 1989, the retail empire devoted a whole building on Little Bourke Street to Recruitment and Training! – and filled out an application form. Lo and behold, two interviews later (!) I had my very first full-time job as a customer service assistant in the photography department. That seemed incredibly exciting, for about the first 2 months. But before I was allowed to set foot on the floor of the photography department, I had to undertake two paid weeks of training in customer service!

How utterly novel that seems now. Back then, Myer hired staff so consistently, that there was about 15 of us in this training group. Compare this to now, when you could shoot a cannon through most Myer stores and not hit any staff. In the last few years I’ve had multiple experiences of attempting to buy things at Myer but finally giving up because there were simply no staff around to process the transaction.

Anyway, back to our training in customer service. In a classroom set up, for two weeks, we were trained in everything from how to use the cash register to how to interact with customers, and the tone and professional manner that was expected of staff, what to do when someone made a complaint, or wanted a refund, etc.

Gone are the days when a large company considered it worth spending two weeks of pay on training staff to provide excellent service. These days, shareholders are outraged if profits drop from a billion in one quarter to only a couple of hundred million the next*, so how can they possibly be expected to spend money on training staff in how to be professional?

The tactic which works quite well for a lot of phone customer service (not so well in a physical store where, if you are going to get rid of staff, you need to put in Point of Sale scanners and make the stock easily accessible to customers, as supermarkets have been doing for years. Just a tip for any Myer executives reading this) – is to provide a minimal service that amounts to telling a customer what they will need to do to fix the issue themselves.  And, because that’s all that’s expected of them by their employers, the attitude of most customer service staff has drooped, (yes, drooped, not dropped) to a nonchalant response that still just manages to be polite, but conveys a distinct lack of any sense of responsibility on the part of the company to do better, or on the part of the employee to represent the company in that endeavour. This is often conveyed through a show of complete surprise at your request – as if they’ve never encountered this question from a customer before and your request deals with topics outside of what they are there to help you with. Examples will follow.

Of course, anyone who has been reading this blog for a few years now knows that the outright winner in the Total Absence of Customer Service Awards goes to whitegoods manufacturer Fisher and Paykel, so I don’t need to go into detail about their unsurpassable accomplishment in in having a 24/7 customer service line staffed by people who are briefed to offer no service at all. I’ve already written a 3-part saga about it, and if you are researching your thesis on customer service and you make it through part 1 and part 2,  you’ll agree that this company have set the bar extremely high for any other companies hoping to beat them at this game.

Most companies take a softer approach, recognising that it’s better not to totally enrage their customers. They know that the best result for them is obtained by giving all appearances of attempting to help but putting most of the work back on to you, making it clear, through a combination of incompetent processes and disinterested staff, that it would be a waste of your time to try and get them to assist any further.

Here are some recent examples of customer service interactions that were mediocre enough to prompt this post. Sadly, these are not from commercial businesses but from government organisations, where I guess the pressure to cut spending by retrenching positions has a price.

I wrote a post a while ago about old-fashioned technology for financial transactions. This was inspired by the move back into the Dark Ages by my local council, who used to accept credit card payments for Visitor Parking Permits. In the past, I’ve paid for a Visitor Parking Permit by emailing my application form back, or paying over the phone. This year, the form had a place to fill out credit card details but stated that the only way to pay by credit card was to go into the Council offices in person. How quaint. Just as if it was 1920. If I wanted to pay by post – just as if it was, say, 1964 – I could organise a cheque or money order.

One wonders if my local council are aware that people who own cars nowadays could have been born as recently as 1997, and that generation have never owned a cheque book, organised a money order, or gone anywhere in person to pay a bill – because the means to process financial transactions electronically has been around longer than they have been alive! Or that one of the main advantages of a credit card is that it enables people to pay for things without needing to be physically present at the point of sale.

In disbelief, I phoned the council to double check that I couldn’t pay over the phone. When told it was correct, I commented that it was a backward step in technology, given that they used to take credit card payment over the phone. The customer service person laughed merrily, although I wasn’t making a joke, and agreed that it did seem a bit backward.

In the face of that response, I moved on, and asked her if it was possible for me to email the form back to council rather than pay $1 to post it. (I needed to send it back to get my own Resident Parking Permit, which didn’t require payment since each household is entitled to one free permit). This option was notably absent from the form, and no email address was supplied. The customer service person seemed to find the question surprising, but once confronted with this incredible concept, she considered it, and thought that I probably could email it back. After a second or two had passed, I prompted her for the email address, since it didn’t occur to her to supply it, and then ended the call.

Needless to say, I still have not organised a Visitor Parking Permit.

With the technology that is commonly available these days, it should be possible for the council to store residents details so that I could just log in to a portal and tick a box to say that yes, my address and the car registration details are still the same as last year, and tick another to say please send out the Resident Parking Permit, thankyou. It seems council would rather print a letter for every car in the city and pay for postage to send the form out so that each car-owning resident can tick the box, sign the form and pay $1 to post it back. Maybe they have entered into some kind of service agreement with Australia Post.

This post would become far too long if I related the follow up call I made about a month later, to politely enquire as to whether they were close to processing my Resident Parking Permit any time soon, since my current one had expired. Let’s just say that interaction caused me to picture the person I was transferred to as a computer boffin in a cardigan, working in a basement with one DOS computer that was slowly disappearing under a rising sea of paper (the sort that is used in dot matrix printers and comes joined together with holes along the side of it).

Person at a desk, swamped with a mountain of paper.

Sort of like this, except my local council must have at least one computer somewhere amongst all the paper. And the desk would be smaller. And the person look more like a boffin.

Pic: Ego Friendly

I was reminded of this today, when I rang a State Government organisation, Consumer Affairs Victoria, the state’s consumer affairs regulator. I work in the Non-Profit sector, and they regulate our processes for holding Annual General Meetings and reporting on annual finances, amongst other things. We need to apply to them for an extension on the date of our next Annual General meeting. I had downloaded the application form from their website, but then I called to make sure the version on their website was correct. Because on last year’s application, I was able to fill out credit card details to pay the administration fee, and email the form back. But this year’s form states that credit card payment can not be accepted via email, and if paying by credit card the form must be posted back!

I am starting to sense a pattern in local/State Government processes, which seem to be steadily marching backwards. Forget the paperless office – these Government departments must be cutting staff so that they can afford to hire out warehouses to store all these forms in.

The person who answered my call at Consumer Affairs at first said that emailing it back would be fine, but I read the point written on the form out to him, which then prompted him to read it himself, apologise and say that I was correct. He didn’t offer any explanation as to why that less-than-optimal change had been made since last year.

Although I could guess the answer to my next question, I then asked him about another change – last year, I filled in an electronic signature to authorise the application before I emailed it through, while it appeared that this year I would have to email the form to our Board Secretary so that she could print it out, sign it and send it back to me via email or post, before I could post it to CAV. It was no surprise at this point when he agreed that this was correct, yes, we would have to take all those extra steps to replace the one step process that was available last year.

To neither of these points did he perceive that there was a need to explain to a customer why the service had apparently gone backwards.

Wow! I spent years diligently providing the best service I could in various customer service roles, which included apologising when appropriate, giving an explanation for things that would otherwise appear to the customer to be deficits in the service provided, and where possible, offering another option or solution. “I’m sorry you’ve had to wait, the phones have been very busy because Bon Jovi went on sale at 9am”, or “I’m sorry, I can’t give you two seats in the middle of row C because they are already sold, but I can place you just slightly right of centre in row E, which is excellent seating, in fact in my opinion, it’s better than row C. Or we could look at another date.”

Surprisingly, the guy on the phone at Consumer Affairs did then volunteer some information: that I didn’t really need to worry about putting in the formal application form, because Consumer Affairs is not currently fining organisations for late submission of Annual Statements. That’s great, I said, could you send me a quick email so I have that in writing? Unfortunately not, was his reply, but it is the case, and it would save you time and the cost of the administration fee. I explained – somewhat crossly at this point – that if Consumer Affairs is giving advice that has implications for an organisation’s compliance with the regulations they oversee, but refuses to put that advice in writing, then I’m not willing to go against what the regulations require.

He didn’t miss a beat, but just politely responded that was fair enough, and was that all he could help me with today. Yes, I said politely in return, thanks, that is all.


*made up statistic that does not reflect any particular company’s profits.

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  1. Having abandoned the groves of academe, I worked in a book shop and then a public library. Customer service was a matter close to my heart. I deemed it right to give the service that I would myself like to receive. This not only made the customers happy but made my job pleasanter as well.

    When I was the customer, I found things very different. Surly shop assistants (it was possible to complete a whole transaction in a shop without the assistant uttering a word), unhelpful ‘help desks’, ignorant sales staff unable to explain the respective merits of competing items on sale… the list goes on. I think you are right: training in customer service has become a luxury that the larger firms in particular are not prepared to pay for. Not that one-man stores are necessarily any better: I know one or two where you are made to feel that you are a trespassing time-waster rather than a paying customer.

    With regard to your difficulties in paying for services. It may be that credit card payments by email have been discontinued for security reasons. Emails can be read between being sent and received and there is a small but finite chance of credit card details being used fraudulently. If that is the reason for those bodies discontinuing credit card payments by email then they should 1. say so, and 2. install a secure online payment system of the sort used for paying your credit card bill, topping up your mobile or buying from Amazon.

    I cannot imagine why they would not take credit card payments by phone. That is simply perverse. Maybe they have reduced staffing levels and no longer have enough staff to cope with the number of calls they would receive. Or maybe again, they have security issues they are not making public. Maybe you could ask your local councillor, or whatever is the Australian equivalent, to investigate and find out the reasons. Failing that, a letter to the local newspaper(s) might prompt an investigation.

    Liked by 1 person

    • I don’t think I’ll take matters that far, but you summed up my attitude to working in customer service: I always tried to give the service I would have liked to receive.

      I suspect the changes might be for security reasons but I think it’s poor not to provide the explanation so that even when people phone to query it, all the staff can say is, yes that’s right, and, yes, it does seem a bit annoying doesn’t it!


  2. I expect next year you’ll have to pay for these things using a barter system. Two chickens and 10kg of potatoes sounds about right for a visitor’s parking permit.
    Our council/government services are always years behind everyone else but I’ve not seen them go backwards (yet).

    Liked by 1 person


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