For the longest time, I never had any expectations when it came to customer service in Malaysia. Big companies or small ones, it doesn’t matter. Most companies give next to nothing customer service. The only ones I could recall that left great impressions were Public Bank and Citibank.
However, over the last year I allowed myself to have higher expectations of my mobile provider Celcom. I was recently able to upgrade to a 3G SIM card without any hassle at all, and was also able to pay my phone bill by credit through their call center.
I have a love-hate relationship with Celcom for over 10 years (postpaid). You would have thought with high churn rates nowadays, they would have appreciated a customer like me more. After all, postpaid customers form but a minority (about 20%) of the 6 million customers Celcom has.
So when I was barred a few days ago for forgetting to settle my last bill, I wasn’t too concerned. Before I go any further, let me admit here that it was my own fault that I forgot to follow up on the bill earlier. But having said that, what happened was still galling for me.
I called them up on Thursday night to pay again by credit card through the phone. The lady on the other side told me to hold on. She came back and left me totally bewildered with an explanation about “tele-order” and “ pre-registration”, etc. Hey lady, I just want to pay my bill, I have credit card in my hand, ready to read you the details, just do the job and we’re done. You can’t do that. What do you mean I can’t do that? I did it the last round. Oh, the last round was a first time exception we give all customers. All subsequent payments can only be made after “pre-registration” blah blah blah.
I said no one told me before about this. She disagreed, according to her computer, it said I was given a form by mail but I didn’t send the form back. I told her, honest to God, I never received any form. I was put on hold again.
She came back with another explanation, the form was sent to my email and I never returned it. I checked my email, there was a form for auto-debit, but certainly not for pre-registration. Put on hold again.
She came back with yet another explanation – according to our policy, since you did not return the form, you are not allowed to pay by phone anymore. By this time 30 minutes has lapsed and I was getting impatient. Look lady, no one told me anything about what pre-registration before, and I certainly did not receive the form that you claim I did not return. So, can I please pay my bill?
At this point I was getting worked up and demanded to speak to a supervisor. She claims there’s no supervisor there.
Ok. I tried another tack. What if you fax me the pre-registration form now, and I fill it up, fax it back to you, then you process my payment? Can’t do that. Why? Because the department that processes the form only works during office hours. And anyway, you can’t send me the form anymore because we sent you the form before.
I demanded to speak to a supervisor again. By now, an hour has passed since I called. I finally spoke to a guy called Stephen. I started off with a little threat. Stephen, I know you work for VADS, don’t you? He gulped and replied yes. I said I knew people in VADS (which was true, by the way), I can get a complaint pinned on him if he didn’t handle my case right.
Stephen first gave me the same spiel that the lady gave. We are just following our process here, sir. I tried my last card – listen here, Stephen, put yourself in my shoes, assuming that what I had said earlier was true, aren’t I a victim of a mistake someone at VADS made a few months ago? And if you agree that this is the case, shouldn’t you figure out a way to help me rather than hide behind your rules and processes?
This finally seemed to do the trick. He told me he would call me back in 10 minutes. And he did. “I spoke to someone, and we agree an exception should be made for your case.” Finally! Stephen, if you’re reading this, you have my eternal gratitude. You’re the only one who used some common sense in this whole sorry saga.
So I managed to pay my bill that night, and Stephen assured me the line will be unbarred within 30 minutes. I went to bed a happy man.
The next day, I tried to use my phone and realized that the line is still barred. I called up again. This time a guy picked up. Summarized the previous situation to him. He checked. And came back with this classic answer “ The payment has been received, but it is still in progress, sir”. I was dumbstruck. How can a payment be received but still in progress, I hollered down the phone. Oh, the payment is received but it needs to be processed before we can unbar your phone. But I was told it would take 30 minutes after the payment is received! Errrm, no sir, it actually takes between 2 to 24 hours to process the payment. Can you call back again after the 24 hours is over?
Third call. Went through the usual explanations again. Was told again, “ The payment has been received, but it is still in progress, sir”. This is getting ridiculous. After some back and forth, finally, the penny dropped. Apparently one department records the payment. Another department looks at the payment and decides whether to unbar the line. And that department has not done its job.
I went for blunt force this time. Look, you have obviously received my payment, I CANNOT accept that you are not unbarring my line! The poor guy rushed off to speak to his supervisor. When he came back, “Sir, we have made an exception for your case, your line is now unbarred”. After three days and more than a total of 2 hours on the phone with these “customer service” agents, I finally got my line back.
A few conclusions I can draw from this whole incident. One, the agents have no clue what to do if anything deviates from the written rules and processes.
Secondly, the agents have obviously not been empowered to make any exceptions at all to special cases (except under extreme duress from customers like me). Do you know what is the Nordstrom (a large department store chain in USA) rule of working? Use your good judgment in all situations. There are no additional rules. If everything is just about rules and processes, Celcom/VADS might as well just use robots to run the call centre, it would have been cheaper and less aggravating.
Thirdly, in this present time where Business Process Reengineering (BPR) is already a 14-year-old concept and most companies have done away with silo type work processes, it was amazing to find that this was still the case in the incident above. The first lady I spoke to even said “I can’t call you sir, we’re inbound, outbound is another department” when I asked her to call me back. Classic.