Wednesday, 6 August 2014

Is there anybody there…?

My car, at nearly thirteen years old, is now due for its 100,000-mile service – plus a couple of other little jobs. Because I am substantially hard of hearing, I looked up the details of a few local garages on the Web, and either filled in their online contact forms, or clicked on their resultant email addresses. Of the three I tried, not one of them replied.

However, in the name of research (and justice!), I thought I would pop into one of them – as I was nearby – to see if my email had actually made it through. “Oh yes, I saw that,” said the surly woman on reception.

There then followed a long silence, whilst my inner voice was screaming “So why the fudge didn’t you respond to it, then?!” – but I received no reply. She did, eventually, say the owner of the business (her husband) would email me later that day, though. But, of course, he didn’t.

I even got The Lady Bard (TLB; or, perhaps, SWBMO – She Whom the Bard Must Objectivate) to call one of the garages, to see if the email I had just sent had made it through – having obtained a bounce-back message from their supplier’s email servers. “No: we haven’t used that address in years. Try this one.” Firstly, why is that address still on your website, then; and, secondly, now you’re expecting an email on this ‘new’ address, can’t you be bothered to respond? I’m still waiting for a reply, a month on.

The third garage had a contact form – which wouldn’t let me send my message: as their systems weren’t expecting “this type of content”. Admittedly, I can be a little verbose: but they were only words. (Honest.) I did find an alternate email address on another website. But that only elicited silence, too.

[Even my 85-year-old technophobic father can use email. It’s not difficult. In fact, I’ve had the same personal(ized) email address for a quarter of a century; and, when my income depended on it, would respond probably too quickly…!]

So, yesterday morning, fed up to my back teeth with people raising digital fronts for their businesses – probably only because everyone else is doing so… – and then neglecting them, I called into Pillerton Garage: for two reasons. Principally, because they have been (accidentally?) wise enough not to have a website: their details are simply available from lots of other sources – but only an address and telephone number; no email address. And, secondly, because I go past them nearly every day – and they probably rely on such passing trade… – and I believe in doing my best to support local businesses. The guy who I booked the car in with was friendly, helpful and knowledgeable – and it reminded me of garages I’ve used in other areas, in the dim-distant past, that were both truly customer-facing and somewhat old-fashioned. This is fine, though – they do not pretend to be anything that they’re not; and I value such honesty. What is important, in this situation, is the quality of the work they carry out. (I shall report back!)

It is all well and good – and I write as one of the authors and architects of one of the first ever UK websites to be launched, over twenty years ago – to have a presence on the Internet; but it may not be as simple, in some ways, to habitually deal with as face-to-face or telephone contact. (It can be – it can even be highly profitable, if you are both efficiently reactive and proactive.)

You may see your website, and any allied contact point, as promoting your business (like a billboard): but proper, efficient communication is two-way; and any prospective customers will be – as I have been – utterly dischuffed not to receive an answer: and you are therefore driving such people into the arms of your competitors. Yes: you may believe you are marketing yourself – but this must be a continuous process involving a frequent investment in time; not just a one-off-let’s-pay-someone-to-build-us-a-website-which-we-can-then-forget-about idea that momentarily flits across your grey matter, and then gathers dust in a dark corner of the Web. It is as fundamental as doing – and part of doing (if you have elected to do so) – a good job. You must pay as much attention to the clicks as you do to the mortar.

Additionally, you may actually be infringing the Equality Act 2010: in not allowing disabled people (especially the deaf) access to your business on a commensurate footing (and don’t forget the ramps!) with everyone else. Perception is everything, supposedly; but reception and response may actually be even more important, if you are to attract and retain business.

By the way, I did contact the main dealer for my make of car – Grays Garage – who, as always, responded in detail, and with great thought, within a couple of hours. However, they are too far away, for me; obtaining a courtesy car from them was a little too complicated (and they do not provide an automatic – which I need); and their prices were simply too much for my pocket to bear.

This could show, I suppose, that there is a correlation between cost and service. However, they are actually unusual, in their sector, in being an independent, family-owned company, with few staff. I actually think that their high charges bear no relation to their customer-facing and customer-pleasing stance.

From experience, I know that they really care; and it shows. They have also adapted to the demands of modern business and communication – without losing their original friendliness – and it shows and tells. (For instance, last week, I emailed them about the cost of a replacement part for The Lady Bard’s car – which turned out to be disproportionately expensive: which they obviously knew; but the price was set by the manufacturer. I therefore went hunting, and obtained the part, second-hand, at a small fraction of the new price; and, as a matter of courtesy, let them know. They were obviously delighted; thanked me for getting in touch; and described it as a “good result!” – not for them, of course, but for me; and this obviously matters to them – it is core to their business ethos, and their success.) Such concrete examples are few and far-between, though. True, caring, thoughtful customer service is a rare commodity – although I hope it is not doomed for extinction in a world where selfishness and arrogance appear to be the norms, both individually and corporately.

Finally, in response to my complaint to Waitrose, I was basically told to just put up with the situation, even though the company (said it) cared – but obviously couldn’t see what the problems were (i.e. weren’t remotely interested in putting themselves in my shoes) – and that they would get back to me about their Web-based contact issues. Which they never did, of course!

So it isn’t just the one-man bands, the small companies, who propagate this problem. The larger companies – the ones who “protest too much, methinks” in their advertising, literature, store notices, etc. about how very good they (obviously believe they) are at serving their customers – are equally guilty: just on a much larger scale. No wonder we spend so much time and money in Bart’s!

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