The Long Silence

First appeared in ‘Marketing N.Z.’ (N.Z.)

On August 1st 2004 I wondered how great the customer care was for New Zealand companies. I had carried out a number of these projects for UK, US, Canada, South Africa and Australia so thought I’d give it a go.

I, very unscientifically, chose the top 25 companies from a web page by typing in “top 100 companies New Zealand” on Google, got the list (www.webrank.biz/top100nz.htm) and started contacting people. These results were from 2002 but I figured this would give me a good idea anyway as it contained a mixture of retail, energy, meat, food, finance, telecom. As I said not the most scientific method – but this isn’t a thesis.

I sent the following email;

“I am writing a customer care article looking at how large Organisations handle complaints. I believe there will always be complaints and that the best Organisations can turn complaints into something positive. I would dearly like some examples from New Zealand of customer complaints you have dealt with effectively to produce a positive result. Obviously I would not want you to infringe on any confidentiality issues with individual customers.

Many thanks

Byron Kalies”

(The article is real by the way and hopefully will be published towards the end of the year.)

The websites were generally extremely good, well developed and most had had a fair amount of time and money spent on them.

Usually it’s fairly straightforward to find a contact email – usually. In a few cases it was impossible. Well the few cases were really one case; Foodstuffs Co-operative. This co-operative boasts that “the collective turnover of the Foodstuffs companies ranks the Organisation as the third biggest business in New Zealand“. The website is excellent. There is even a lesson plan for teachers. Yet they couldn’t supply an email contact address for Wellington and South Island. There was an address (and a name, and a photo) for Auckland. So, I sent the email. Fourteen days later – no reply. I sent a reminder.

On the subject of names I have a particular pet gripe about this. I want to have the name of a person to write to. It’s almost become the law in other customer care contacts, e.g. telephoning; “Hi, Diane here how can I help?”. However of the 25 companies I contacted only 5 supplied a name (Foodstuffs, AGL NZ, FletcherBuildings, Methanex New Zealand and Carter Holt Harvey). Of the other I usually got an email address I could contact, nzcustomer@…. or services@… but not a name. Fonterra supplied lots of names for Investor Relations questions but nothing for customer service. Some of the companies had phone numbers, addresses and fax numbers but not always email addresses. It’s not difficult to supply an email address. Email is my preferred form of communication for this. It suits me and being half way around the world it’s by far the best method, so give me a choice.

Some companies only supplied a form. Again, give me the choice. The standard of the forms were mixed. Some of the questions left you wondering; “Are you a customer” Meridian Energy (were they planning to be more / less helpful?). Shell offered to send me a copy of their Business Report – thank you. This ranged from the superb Air New Zealand – just the 2 fields – email address box and query box, to the not so good Caltex New Zealand. Caltex had a long form for me to fill in. They even wanted to know my occupation – I’m still wondering what they do with that information. They were redeemed though as they were the only organisation that recognise that UK is actually not a country and that Wales is (I’m Welsh by the way). I forgive them.

Only 3 of the companies sent an automatic immediate reply. I was disappointed. I like to be acknowledged. I really like to know that my message has got through. It costs the company virtually nothing and keeps me happy.

Anyway, I sent the emails, filled in the forms and waited for the replies to flood in. The began trickling in the following day;

One of the very first and very much ‘go away, don’t bother me’ was Alliance Group Ltd – high quality meat products. I’d seen the website and read the statement from the Chief Executive talking of strong commitment to quality and customers, “It is the reason we have always maintained such strong relationships with our business partners and customers within New Zealand and around the world.”. So the reply to my query “We acknowledge your enquiry. We do not wish to participate” was a bit of a blow. I suppose technically I’m not a business partner, but how did they know I’m unlikely to be a customer – being a vegetarian? Lucky guess.

BP (“…dynamically led company that never stands still. In touch with customers”) replied and asked if I’d chosen the wrong website. I replied that I hadn’t. They replied that they’d contact their Media manager and get back to me. Fourteen days later – no reply. I sent a reminder.

AGL sent a nice reply saying that they were Australian and didn’t have examples from New Zealand. “Fine” I replied “that will be great. Fourteen days later – no reply. I sent a reminder.

Woolworth’s had quite a bit about customers on their website and in their Guiding Principles; “You should be responsive to their enquiries and ensure they are not misled when you are providing information”.

They’re response was polite but… “The information you have asked for is sensitive and we are unable to share it outside of the Organisation. Also we do not have the resources.”

Interestingly enough they seemed to have the resources and seemed less coy about sensitivity when they quoted 4 testimonials on their web site; “I cannot express how brilliant this service is (online ordering)” – Kim, Christchurch… “I rang my children in Wellington this morning (Monday night NZ time) and they confirmed that the groceries had arrived. They were absolutely rapt.” – Matthew, London

Meridian Energy (“Meridian Energy is committed to providing you with a quick, courteous and efficient service”) forwarded my enquiry to their Customer Service team. Fourteen days later – no reply. I sent a reminder.

Telecom Corporation of New Zealand (“Providing service and support is what we’re here for. “) forwarded my email to their Customer Resolution team. Fourteen days later – no reply. I sent a reminder.

Fletcher Buildings (“Our business exists to meet the needs of our customers”) suggested I contact some of the companies within the Fletcher Building Group – “why couldn’t you do it for me?” I thought “you know them”.

Methanex (not a great deal about customers on this website) sent me a nice reply but I’d obviously asked the wrong question; “With regard to the community, we have Community Advisory Panels in our areas of operations, and you can find out more about them on our web site”

Shell (From 9 Business Principles… “Principle 9…… Communication …”Shell companies… provide full relevant information about their activities to legitimately interested parties, subject to any overriding considerations of business confidentiality and cost” ). “After consideration we would rather not.” Maybe they decided I’m not a legitimately interested party. Well I’m interested so does that mean I’m illegitimate? Or are they concerned about business confidentiality?

Contact Energy (“How can we help you today?”) wrote a nice email explaining their customer care procedure but “Unfortunately we are not able to provide you with specific examples, as the disclosure of this information would breach the Privacy Act.” Are they concerned with business confidentiality as well? They did, however, promise to send a copy of their complaints brochure. (They also called my ‘Bryon’ – not designed to please people – getting their names wrong).

Mobil Oil (“We pledge to be innovative and responsive”) contacted me with another overview but “I am unable to share specific examples with you.”

The remaining companies haven’t replied yet. I’ve sent reminders;

Food land proved a problem. Firstly I sent the email to a company in Hawaii (I think) and having finally tracked down the Food land from the list (FAL, I hope). I looked at their website (couldn’t find any mention of customers) and sent the email. I’m not hopeful.

Fonder has a superb website. A values poster and lots of great quotes about customers; “Measure a job well done through our customers’ eyes.”, “Communicate with openness and honesty”. I’m waiting.

Air New Zealand (“We strive to deliver a consistently superior standard of customer service”), CHH (“We are always keen to provide the media with any assistance they need to write stories about our company.”), Richmond Food (“Our staff are encouraged to be action-orientated. Innovative and produce quality work”), AFFCO (“emphasis on meeting customer demand is behind the Internationalisation of AFFCO”), PPCS (“Talk of quality is cheap -it’s what really happens which makes the difference”), Caltex Oil (“To our customers… This creed dictates that our customers come first and will receive ultimate worth and value through fast and polite service”), Comalco New Zealand (“We care about people and the world in which we live.”), Genesis Energy (“At Genesis Energy we take pride in our Customer Care team…. We listen. We do.”).

For all of the above; Fourteen days later – no reply. I sent a reminder.

There was one from the 25 that came somewhere close. This was The Warehouse Group (“We aim to keep our customers satisfied.”). Not brilliant but a little better than the others. They explained their way of dealing with customer complaints in a clear, unambiguous way. Nice, simple process. Still no examples though.

I couldn’t believe the top 25 companies in New Zealand were incapable of coming up with one customer care example between them. Maybe it’s because I’m not a customer to them – I’m Welsh, I don’t eat meat, don’t drive a car, don’t use their phones, gas or electricity, use their food stores, use their bricks or wood. Maybe, but I decided I’d ask more companies so I looked at the current list of the top 500 Australian companies in BRW and identified the New Zealand ones.

I sent them the email…..

One week later and some replies;

BP passed it on and then replied with “Hi Byron, I’m sorry but we are unable to help you with this request.”;

Foodstuffs regret that “they are unable to offer any ‘case studies'”;

Richmond gave me a few sentences on general customer care practice then “I’m afraid I cannot provide you with any examples”;

Meridian Energy supplied a nice, specific paragraph on their process then the email of the electricity complaints office;

Fonterra forwarded my email to a subsidary(sic);

AGL apologised and asked for more info as did Telecom, as did Genesis Energy.

I’m still waiting.

Carter Holt Harvey probably got the closest to helping me by explaining the structure and how they handle complaints and offering to help more. I’d had enough by then.

Of the new companies I emailed 8 ignored me totally; SkyCity, AucklandAirport, Fisher and Paykel Healthcare, Nuplex Industries, Repco Corporation, Tower, NZ Oil and Gas and Tenon.

I looked at their web sites again and found 1 of Tower’s 3 values. I need to quote it in full;

“Our highest commitment is to our Customers (whether consumers or intermediaries) without whom our business would not exist. Customers seek many things from us – performance, service and communications – but what will make us unique is our total commitment to outstanding Service… in the form our customers want.”

I gave them another chance to respond…..

Of the 3 that took the trouble to reply Sky Network TV wrote “Our management has decided not to comply with your request”;

Fisher and Paykel decided they would “focus on our resources coping with work that will return benefits to us. I therefore have to decline your request for case study.”

And Waste Management had the best reason of all “We are a non profit Organisation and we do not get complaints.”

Finally a reply from Selena Batt. A set of customer stories I can use from Genesis Energy (“We listen. We really do”) and restoring my faith in New Zealand customer care.

New Zealand Top 25 companies I contacted;

1. Fonterra Co-operative Group

2. Telecom Corporation of New Zealand

3. Air New Zealand

4. Carter Holt Harvey

5. Foodland (NZ) Holdings

6. Fletcher Buildings

7. Foodstuffs (Auckland)

8. Shell New Zealand Holding Company

9. The Warehouse Group

10. Woolworth’s (New Zealand)

11. Mobil Oil New Zealand

12. BP New Zealand Holdings

13. Foodstuffs (Wellington) Co-Operative

14. Foodstuffs (South Island)

15. Richmond

16. AGL NZ

17. Alliance Group

18. AFFCO Holdings

19. PPCS

20. Meridian Energy

21. Caltex New Zealand

22. Contact Energy

23. Genesis Energy

24. Methanex New Zealand

25. Comalco New Zealand

SkyCity

AucklandAirport

Fisher and Paykel Appliances

Fisher and Paykel Healthcare

Nuplex Industries

Repco Corporation

Sky Network TV

Waste Management NZ

Tower

NZ Oil and Gas

Tenon

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