Project Description

Examining the fatal game that Telkom is playing

Telkom.

What a powerful, emotionally evocative word that is!

However, this is not meant as a compliment. I’m convinced that just mentioning the T-word is enough to piss you off, just a little.

Sure, it’s an assumption and may prove to be incorrect. However, based on my recent experience with the company in question and subsequent visits to their Facebook page, which is really more of a platform for disgruntled customers to vent their vitriol, I stand firm in my belief that simply thinking about Telkom is enough to piss you off, just a little.

Well, maybe a lot.

Let’s start off with a bit of context around how this all started. You see, I’ve had my fair share of problems with cellphone contracts in the past. Having to deal with unexpected ‘service charges’, ever increasing tariffs and a general sense of enslavement at the hands of my contract provider was enough to push me into the open arms of Pay As You Go. I didn’t regret the decision and the freedom and flexibility of buying airtime and data bundles as and when I needed them was just so liberating. Sadly time takes everything from us and after a good 2+ years of contract-less freedom with my trusty Galaxy S5 (which I had bought outright to avoid entering into a contract) the steady decline in performance and processing speed become too much to bear. I also couldn’t deny the appeal of the sleek new S6. Eventually that childlike excitement at the prospect of a new toy finally pushed me into my decision to get a new phone.

My love affair with Pay As You Go came to an abrupt and unceremonious end when I realised that I would have to pay upwards of R9K for a new S6 handset. With all the trepidation of a man on death row, I accepted the bitter reality that I would need to enter into a contract to fund that sexy new piece of hardware. The milk was no longer free and the cow would indeed require purchasing.

It took all of ten minutes on Google for me to ascertain that Telkom was by far the cheapest option available, with monthly payments of just R399 on the most basic contract as opposed to an average R600 on the other networks. I felt like this was too good to be true, those suckers at Telkom were playing right into my hands! The painful irony of this would become all too apparent in the coming weeks.

Bear with me; this is a somewhat lengthy tale of woe

Eager as I was to get acquainted with my new phone, I decided to head to the Telkom branch in Sandton city the very next day. I even preemptively prepared the necessary ID documents and bank statements so that nothing would slow down the process. Everything went smoothly during the sign up and I left the store buoyed by the promise that I would be contacted as soon as my phone was ready for collection and that this would be ‘before the end of the week’. This was a Monday and I fully expected to have my phone before Friday afternoon at the latest.

A week passed without any communication from Telkom. Somewhat annoyed at this point I decided to send an email to the employee I’d dealt with (luckily I had taken her email address, just in case), expressing my displeasure that there had been no contact and requesting an urgent update on when I could collect my phone. I sent this on the Friday morning and, with no reply by 4pm, I then tried calling the branch. Imagine my frustration when I discovered that their branch phone number was disconnected! I had no way of contacting anyone in the branch without physically going there, so this is exactly what I did early Saturday morning, in a what could only be described as a ‘huff’.

Arriving at the branch I discovered that the employee who had assisted me was not in that day, as she was ‘sick’. Fair enough, perhaps that explained why there had been no communication from her. Softening my mood ever so slightly, I asked to speak to the manager in an attempt to resolve this. My sunny disposition set in record time when the manager informed me that they did not have stock of the phone and had no record of my order. When I pressed him he admitted that they didn’t know when they would be getting stock of the S6 and had no way of finding out when they would receive any, ‘it just came when it came’. He then suggested that the employee I had previously dealt with was obviously ‘lying’ (his own words) when she assured me they would have stock within the week.

What was going on? I couldn’t quite process the fact that this business, this massive national service provider was so poorly run that their supply chains effectively couldn’t be tracked and seemingly delivered stock when they felt like it? Gathering some level of composure and deciding I’d have to compromise, I asked the manager if they had stock of the S6 edge. I’m sure you can guess his reply. However, he did tell me that the Fourways branch might have stock of the S6 Edge+ and, although this was not the model I wanted, I asked him to find out. After a quick call to the branch he assured me that they had stock of a single Edge+ in black. I didn’t hesitate in telling him to order the phone right away. After placing the order the manager assured me the phone would be in the branch on Monday, advising me to come in at 3pm on the day to avoid the lunchtime rush. He also informed me that the Edge+ would cost R599 a month on the most basic contract, but, whatever, I could accept that if it meant getting the phone on Monday. So with the assurance of the branch manager and a somewhat more hopeful outlook, I left to enjoy my weekend.

Monday arrived and I made sure I was at the branch on the stroke of 3 o’ clock, only to find the manager wasn’t at work that day. Annoying. I chose the most competent looking employee and politely enquired about my phone. I was casually informed that the phone was not there and that they had no record of my order!

Come on out Ashton! Surely I’m being Punk’d!

Sadly this was not a punk’ing and I was not greeted by Mr.Kutcher’s schoolboy laugh, just an uninterested stare from an oblivious Telkom employee.

Now I’m not one to let bad service get to me. I’ve endured ridiculously slow service at restaurants and dealt with home affairs on numerous occasions, but I always remain affable and understanding, I know the employees aren’t usually the ones at fault. But I had reached the end of my tether. I couldn’t actually comprehend that a huge brand like Telkom could deliver such terrible service. I’m embarrassed to admit that I vented at the employee, loudly expressing my thoughts on the service in the branch and insisting he give me the manager’s cell number, which he flat-out refused to do. I was forced to settle for obtaining the manager’s email address and leaving a message with the employee, asking his manager to call me as soon as he arrived at work the next morning.

I sent a churlish email to the manager as soon as I got home, stating in no uncertain terms that if he did not call me as soon as possible and tell me where my phone was, I would be paying the head office a visit. The next day came and went without any response from the manager, then the next day. I felt like my anger was going to come out in some explosive display and I wanted to vent and rage, to have Sipho Maseko (Telkom CEO) himself hear of my terrible experience. I didn’t quite know what to do with myself, having never felt such frustration at a company before.

In my anger I decided to post a scathing comment on Telkom’s Facebook wall, hit them where it hurt: the public domain! But after a short visit to the page I realised that nearly every single post and comment from their customers was a similar expression of anger and disbelief at their horrendous service. Some people had been waiting months for line connections; whilst others simply couldn’t receive help with their problems after having contacted every Telkom customer care line available. If I had previously been in the anger stage of mourning, I had now clearly skipped straight to acceptance. I realised that I absolutely, unequivocally did not want to enter into a long-term contract with a company that clearly did not understand the concept of customer service.

So the next day I walked into the Vodacom branch directly opposite Telkom in Sandton city. Within half an hour I had signed a contract (R600 a month for the S6, but I had learnt the hard way that the cheapest option is not always the best) and received a shiny new handset. Without causing a fuss I then walked into Telkom and asked them to cancel the contract I had opened, overwhelmingly glad I had dodged that bullet.

It must be said that to this day, nearly a month later, I haven’t received any communication from the Telkom manager. I assume I’d still be waiting for my phone at this point, or I’d have slit my wrists.

Examining the aftermath

Pat yourself on the back for getting through that, I know it was a little long-winded but I felt it all had to be said. I’ll try and keep this next bit short and sweet.

In isolation I suppose I could look at this as the extreme failing of just one Telkom branch and an inept manager. However, having seen the seemingly endless stream of abuse directed at Telkom on various social networks, it’s clear that terrible service is something of an ingrained culture at the parastatal.

Telkom has essentially subverted the most important tenet of a service-based business: the customer always comes first. It doesn’t matter whether you’re a fledgling SMME with 5 customers or a huge corporation with thousands of customers; if your existing customers are not satisfied with the service you provide, you are failing.

That may seem oversimplified, but it really is as straightforward as that. Disgruntled customers are like an infectious disease; starting off as a small group and growing until you are truly faced with an epidemic. Once you have lost the trust of a customer it is one of the most difficult things to regain and so many big businesses can lose sight of this in the pursuit of rapid customer-base expansion. Telkom is so painfully guilty of this. They almost seem to not care about keeping current customers happy, yet they are aggressively campaigning for more users. Like a sinking ship taking on more passengers: it’s only going to go down faster. Ironically enough, the way they deal with potential customers is so bad that they are failing in this pursuit too.

I’m sure you’ve seen some of Telkom’s new marketing endeavours? There’s the Bolt-speed fibre campaign leveraging off the celebrity status of Usain Bolt (you can be sure his endorsement didn’t come cheap) as well as the partnership with Disney to use the ‘Star Wars: The Force Awakens’ hype to sell more cellphone contracts. So what? You might ask. Marketing of this nature is always going to be a standard activity for big corporates, the wheel keeps turning and money is thrown around to entice new customers. I’m of the opinion that this is a fatal game Telkom is playing. They clearly have massive shortcomings in their internal structures and customer service, the business is failing to deliver on so many levels and now they want to magnify and exacerbate these problems by growing their customer base?

Sure, more paying customers mean more revenue, perhaps even enough to paper over the cracks for a while and ensure the bottom line looks healthy at the end of the financial year. But this is a stopgap solution at best. How long can the business continue to neglect their existing customers before they start to leave in droves? How long until angry voices resound through the media and Telkom’s reputation becomes irreparably damaged? If they continue like this it won’t matter if Telkom hires Rihanna to give a private lap dance to every new customer, we will know better than to fall for their false promises.

The lesson

I’m convinced that it’s too late for Telkom. They’ve taken on one passenger too many and the ship is going down, whether or not they have the Force or Bolt trying to tow them ashore.

The good news is that there is a very valuable lesson we can learn from Telkom’s failure.

For those in a service industry in particular, it is so crucial to ensure that each and every one of your customers is a top priority. From the very first interaction with a new customer you need to ensure that they feel like they are getting the highest standard of service, whilst instilling confidence that you are equipped to help them in a fast and efficient manner whenever they may need it. If you can get this right from the start and ensure every customer you take on is satisfied and feels like they matter, you will find that growing your business is a case of just doing more of the same when you take on more customers/clients. Unhappy customers will rot your business from the core and make expansion so much harder, particularly when said customers start telling their social circles or posting in public forums about the terrible service they received from you.

We live in an age when the customer has extreme power and access to a massive network of fellows. Don’t allow your well to become poisoned by letting a customer leave dissatisfied. It could mean the beginning of the end for your business.

Take this advice or leave it, but I’m pretty sure that after reading this you won’t be visiting a Telkom store anytime soon.