Australia Post and navigating the last mile

Over the years, Australia Post has featured in this blog. And here. And over here too.

You would think I had no more to say on the topic. (Believe me, I’d prefer to have something else to write about – but it’s the summer, it was a long weekend, the weather is frying my brain, etc.)

But Auspost just loves to keep delivering poor service (see what I did there?).

From direct personal experience, four times in about as many weeks Auspost have failed to meet their own service levels for parcel delivery. In short, on each occasion their drivers claimed to have attempted delivery, but did not leave any notification. As a result, the parcels were delayed, and it was only when I received the “Final Reminders” from my local post office that I had any idea these items were awaiting collection.

Each time, I have lodged a formal complaint. In fact, I was encouraged to do so by the counter staff, who indicated that my experiences were not unique, and that they were as exasperated as I was. They also suggested that the front line staff are not being listened to by management.

With each complaint, I have been advised that “the relevant people will be spoken to”, and I have been assured “it will never happen again”. But it keeps happening, and nobody at Auspost can adequately explain why.

OK, so once could be a genuine error. Twice sounds like poor performance. Three times, and it starts to seem like a regular occurrence. But four times, and it points to a systemic problem, a failure which Auspost seems unable or unwilling to address.

So pervasive is Auspost’s reluctance to engage in genuine, honest and open dialogue with their customers (remember the National Conversation?), that at one point, a supervisor I spoke with refused to confirm the address of my local parcel delivery office. During another call, when I asked for some basic information as to whether other people in my area had made similar complaints, I was advised to submit a Freedom of Information request to obtain that sort of data.

After the second occasion, and sensing that Auspost was not getting the message, I also submitted a complaint to the Ombudsman. However, the latter said that “twice was insufficient” for their office to take any action. Ironically, the exact same time as I took the call from the Ombudsman, the postie was delivering yet another “Final Reminder” card, in respect to a third parcel for which there had been no evidence of a previous “Attempted Delivery”. I’m still waiting for the Ombudsman to get back to me….

More importantly, I’m still waiting for Auspost to notify me of what specific steps they have taken to resolve this pattern of poor service.

Meanwhile, Auspost keeps boasting about all the parcels they are delivering, thanks to the boom in online shopping. It’s just a pity that (from my experience), they are doing a really poor job of it.

Next week: What should we expect from our banks?

 

 

Customer service revisited: Navigating The Last Mile

From time to time, I like to comment on the current state of customer service, because this is still one of the key areas where companies can differentiate themselves. So, based on recent experiences with a bank, an insurer, a telco and an e-commerce site, I’m sharing my thoughts on the Last Mile – where even great products and great companies can fall down due to their inability to truly understand the customer experience they create.

Image sourced from LinkedIn

Image sourced from LinkedIn

1. The Bank

After waiting over 30 minutes in a call-centre queue, I eventually spoke to someone who said she could help me with a query regarding the disparity in the amount and rate of interest earned on one of my savings accounts. But first, I was given a choice: either accept an instant $50 “goodwill” payment now, or wait for the outcome of her investigation. Because the amount I was querying was several times that offer, I requested she look into the matter further.

Leaving aside the fact that she failed to get back to me within her stated timeframe (I only managed to re-engage the bank when I queried the lack of response via their social media account…), it transpires that she gave me incorrect product information. This underscores one of my main complaints about customer service – inadequate product and process training. Her supervisor who picked up the query then offered me a $10 “goodwill” payment for my trouble (overlooking I had already been offered $50!).

It was only when I insisted that the amount I was potentially out-of-pocket was closer to $300, and following a protracted and somewhat terse negotiation did the supervisor choose to exercise her (undefined) discretion and settle for an amount in between $50 and $300. While the outcome was closer to what I had expected, the customer service process and experience were far from satisfactory.

2. The Insurer

My home and contents policy recently came up for renewal. I noticed that, even with a customer loyalty discount, the premium increase was far higher than current CPI. It seemed to me that a previous “special discount” I had been offered when I last updated my policy at a bricks and mortar branch, rather than by phone or online, was now being clawed back (and then some) with the latest premium increase.

So, I shopped around online and found a better deal. When I rang the original insurer to advise them I was cancelling and taking my business elsewhere, they said: “Is there anything we can do to keep your business?”. My response was, “Too late.”

I accept that premiums may have to increase. But rather than simply sending out a renewal notice asking for more money, I think the better strategy would be to provide an explanation for the increase, and demonstrate the additional value I would be getting for renewing my policy. I resent being taken for granted, because the insurer clearly assumed I would simply pay the increase on demand, and only attempted to offer a better deal when I rang up to cancel.

3. The Telco

Late last year, I switched telcos, because the service was increasingly reliable, and I had experienced poor customer service from the start of my contract. In the process of transferring my mobile, fixed line and internet accounts, I notified the telco that I was dissatisfied with their service, and was taking my business elsewhere. I also initiated the return of my telco-supplied modem, to avoid incurring any additional fees or expenses. 

However, the telco continued charging me for certain services, long after I had discontinued using them, and 2-3 months after they had been ported over to my new service provider.* I requested the refund of the overpayments. The telco refused, because they claimed they had not actually been formally notified that I wished to cancel the services. So I lodged a complaint via the TIO, but the telco still denied any liability, and refused to refund my money.

Eventually, a TIO Investigation Officer was assigned to my case, and he agreed that on any reasonable reading of my complaint, the telco should have concluded that I was cancelling the service. The telco continued to resist my request for a refund:

E-mail received May 31: “[We have] reviewed the complaint and have decided that we will not be changing our position on the matter.”

I believe that the Case Officer then suggested that the telco listen again to the calls I had made, and place them in the context of the other contemporaneous events and the full history of my contract. He also advised the telco that he was prepared to initiate a full and formal investigation of the complaint.

Only then (and in a remarkably speedy U-turn, worthy of a politician) did the telco respond:

E-mail received June 7: “Thank you for your time and patience throughout this case, it is really appreciated (sic). We apologise for the poor level of service you’ve received that led you to escalate to this point. This is not the kind of service we want our customers to experience and it’s very unfortunate that you have to go through this, especially after you cancelled as a result of the poor service.
 
We will be crediting the account with $XX for the period from the XXth December 2015 to the XXth February 2016 when the service was active after it should have been terminated.”

I’m clearly grateful to the TIO for their assistance, but frankly, it shouldn’t have to get to that point. For an organisation that prides itself on superior customer service, the telco in question clearly does not understand customer experience.

4. E-commerce

There are several reasons why I prefer to order online, rather than buy from local shops: convenience, choice, availability, service and often price as well. Speed of delivery is usually not a factor, especially when ordering from overseas (although in many cases, ordering from overseas can be quicker than buying from a local online store).

However, I’ve recently experienced some delays in overseas deliveries, and upon investigating the matter, discovered that, quite apart from a lack of knowledge on the part of some customer service reps (that old chestnut), the multiple links in the supply chain can result in mis-communication and mis-alignment of their respective operating systems.

For example, if the online retailer does not actually fulfill the order, or if they or their nominated carrier outsources customs clearance and/or the final delivery, there may be as many as 6 or 7 hand-off stages in the process. Unless all the back-end platforms talk to each other (and in the same language), the risk of stuff falling between the cracks is very high.  (The notion of same-day delivery by drone is probably some way off…)

What is particularly frustrating is when one part of the vendor’s website has the (overdue) ETA as one date, but another part of the same website shows a much later ETA – even within a single platform! Perhaps if retailers got their upstream systems in order, the Last Mile would be more likely to take care of itself?

*Footnote: My original provider is merely a re-seller, and therefore is subject to wholesale access provisions. According to some information I received from my new provider, it is illegal for a telco to charge for services over which they no longer have any control or access.

Next week: Field report from Melbourne #Startup Week

Why The Service Sector Lacks Self-Awareness

If you did a root cause analysis of companies that rate poorly for customer service, I predict it would reveal one or more of the following:

  • Outdated processes
  • Inadequate staff training
  • Poor product knowledge
  • Operational silos

What it usually comes down to is a chronic lack of self-awareness. (This is not helped if there is a failure of leadership, or a toxic culture within the organisation.) Despite all the customer feedback forms, platitudes such as “your call is important to us”, and the regular customer advocacy reports, unless service providers can truly put themselves in the shoes of their customers, they will never have sufficient knowledge or self-awareness with which to fully evaluate the “customer experience”.

Image: Customer Feedback Device (Source: Smarte Carte)

Image: Customer Feedback Device (Source: Smarte Carte)

Today’s customers are more knowledgable (because they have access to more information, they can shop around, and in some cases, they have more choice). Today’s customers are also actively encouraged to engage with corporate social media (by following, liking and sharing, and by becoming surrogate brand advocates). However, the increased levels of expectation that this “engagement” creates are not always matched by the post-sales customer experience.

I have written before about how companies can improve their customer service, using a practical 7-point scheme. I would challenge any organisation that rates itself highly for customer service, to assess its performance against those criteria, as well using the ubiquitous customer satisfaction scores (CSAT, NPS®, CES, etc.).

Nearly every time I have an interaction with a telco, utility, bank or other service provider, I receive an immediate follow-up customer feedback request. Once upon a time, I would have been quite willing to provide constructive feedback, as I used to believe that it was important for the voice of the customer to be heard. Nowadays, I am more hesitant, because I don’t believe this feedback is ever properly acknowledged, analyzed or acted upon.

So many of these feedback request forms are self-serving, because the person you dealt with is in effect soliciting personal feedback on their individual performance. And while that is important, it is rarely done in the specific context of the customer’s own experience, and is more concerned with the company’s internal policies and procedures.

I am also increasingly sceptical about feedback processes that are ostensibly used for staff training. First, time is valuable, so it would be nice if companies could reward their customers for making the effort to engage. Second, on the rare occasions where a company has contacted me in response to a complaint submitted online or via a feedback form, I never learn what specific steps the company is taking to rectify problems caused by operational or policy failings. Thirdly, why should I be responsible for telling you how to train your staff or improve your service – surely that’s your job!

In many cases, it is not the performance of an individual customer service representative that is the problem. More likely, it’s poor customer service training, inadequate product knowledge or a myopic perspective, reinforced by silo operations. When even the most pleasant and competent service rep tells me, “I’m sorry, but it’s the way the system is designed…”, they probably don’t realize what a disservice they are doing: a “system” is only as good as the people who design it, and the people who implement it. So, they are in effect criticising their own colleagues, and the organisation they work for.

This lack of self-awareness by customer service staff is reinforced by the limited discretion in trying to resolve customer problems. Along with the use of internal jargon and bewildering acronyms, there is nothing worse than having to complain long or loud enough in order to escalate a problem. It would be wonderful if companies could empower their staff by giving them (well-defined) individual discretion on problem solving, and incentivize them for taking responsibility for the end-to-end resolution process.

In addition, it’s really infuriating being handed from one specialist, team or department to another, especially due to labyrinthine help line service menus. Telco on-boarding processes are particularly notorious for having complex operational procedures, multiple hand-offs and ring-fenced communications. I recall one large service provider who told me that in-bound call-centre staff were unable to speak directly to their own web support teams, and even if they communicated via internal e-mail, they could not guarantee a response.

If I am beginning to sound a bit like a broken record, it’s because recent experiences only reinforce my belief that many companies still don’t understand what it’s like to be one of their customers. But there’s a huge paradox here: on the one hand, companies are trying to reduce customer churn, increase “stickiness”, and improve the share of wallet or lifetime customer value; on the other, the cost of new customer acquisition appears to be cheaper (thanks to social media tools and web analytics), so it doesn’t matter if they lose a few customers, because it’s not that difficult or expensive to find new ones.

If it’s no longer true that “the customer is always right”, because profit margins are being squeezed and companies are being told to “stop delighting your customers”, then service providers have to do a much better job of managing customer expectations. They also need to demonstrate genuine empathy and concern if things go wrong (which is difficult if they don’t have sufficient self-awareness). And if things do go wrong, they need to ask the customer “what could we have done differently to provide you with better customer service?”.

In my professional experience of product management and business development, understanding customer needs and identifying ways to improve service delivery (along with customer-centric perspectives rather than product-led processes), are genuine sources of competitive advantage. But it takes considerable self-awareness to engage customers beyond the level of a single transaction, to develop genuine rapport, and to build sustainable long-term relationships. If your organisation is challenged by poor customer service, and if you recognise this is in part due to a lack of self-awareness, please get in touch – I’d be very interested to understand your problem.

Next week: Idea over Form – Gehry vs Ando

It’s OK to say “I don’t know”

Thanks to the example set by our media-groomed politicians, it seems that nobody is willing to admit when they don’t know the answer to something. Rather than reveal a gap in their knowledge, they prefer to fudge their way to a non-committal, irrelevant or even incorrect response, by trotting out a favourite policy slogan or party catchphrase. Wouldn’t it be refreshing (and more honest) if they just said “I don’t know”, and then figured out how to find the appropriate answer?

Image by: Alexander Henning Drachmann

Image by: Alexander Henning Drachmann

In previous posts, I have commented on my frustrations at poor customer service, and in particular, the inadequate customer service training given to front-line staff. My latest run-in with poor customer service training came at my local supermarket. Owing to an innocent misunderstanding at the checkout, I asked the checkout assistant to reverse the payment on my credit card payment and debit it instead from the cash balance on my store loyalty card.

“No, that’s not possible”, I was told. “It’s already gone through on your credit card. You’ll have to use the loyalty card next time.”

“Surely,” I replied, “it’s a very simple process to reverse the transaction, and process it again?”

My request was further denied as being “impossible”. Eventually, the checkout assistant admitted that she “didn’t know” how to do it, so she would need to ask her supervisor to do it. “Fine,” I replied, and suggested she could have said this in the first place.

Problem was, the supervisor had no idea either. “I’ll have to re-process your transaction by scanning and reversing each item individually, and then put them through again.” By this time, I was wondering why I chose to shop here, and seriously considering why I would ever do so again.

“There must be an easier way,” I suggested. “I can’t be the first customer to have had this issue.” After further hesitation and prevarication, the supervisor said she would have to ask her manager to show her how to do it, as she herself didn’t know the process.

Turns out, it took one transaction code to reverse the credit card payment, and then reprocess it on the loyalty card – and without having to re-scan my shopping.

I don’t blame the checkout assistant, as clearly she hadn’t been trained how to do it (although she should have admitted as much in the first place). I’m a little surprised that the supervisor didn’t know either (how did she get promoted?). But the real blame must lie with the manager (or his manager) for not making sure the staff working under him knew the process, or knew who could perform the transaction.

To me, leadership (in politics, in business and in the service industry) is about making sure people know how to do their job, that they have the right tools and information to perform their duties, and that they know what is expected of them in the role. In cases where they may not know the answer, then it’s better to admit “I don’t know, but I’ll find the answer”, rather than fumbling the issue.

Next week: Updates on Apple Health, AusPost, eTaskr and Slow School of Business