Column: Ethel fights back

Loose Wire — Tea, Sympathy And Service

By Jeremy Wagstaff
from the 25 July 2002 edition of the Far Eastern Economic Review, (c) 2003, Dow Jones & Company, Inc.
If you want good customer service on-line, try impersonating a little old lady. It worked for me.

Frustrated by the poor response to my own e-mail enquiries to big companies — I’m not naming names here, except to say I’m still waiting for replies from the likes of 3Com, Fujitsu and Linksys — I figured things might work better if I metamorphosed into Ethel M. Girdle, a septuagenarian who claims to have typed her way through World War II while flying Spitfire fighter aircraft and is a dab hand at growing roses and laying on tea parties for the local pastor.

First stop for Ethel was fixing her Zanussi dishwasher. “Hello, young man (or lady),” she wrote to the customer-service centre in Britain. “My washer makes a noise like one of those newfangled leafblower things and my crockery doesn’t get clean. Can you send one of your nice young chaps round to fix it, I’m having the vicar for tea on Friday and if he sees the china in this state he’ll think I’ve gone over to the other side. Yours, Mrs. Girdle.” Zanussi responded with impressive speed and grasp of the gravity of the situation. “Dear Mrs. Girdle,” they wrote. “Sorry to hear of the problems that you are experiencing with your dishwasher, if you would kindly let me have your postcode I will be able to look up the details of your nearest service centre for you so that one of our engineers can come and repair your appliance so that your china gets nice and clean again.”

My own experience of airlines and the Internet has been woeful, so I was interested to see how my fictional friend got on. She wanted to visit her grandson and fired off e-mails to several airlines: “I’m coming to Hong Kong/Sydney/Tokyo/Singapore to see my grandson, who is doing a grand job running one of your banks. This is not the first time I’ve flown (I used to fly during the war, don’t you know) but it’s been a while. Is it OK to bring my cocker spaniel, Poppy? He won’t be any trouble, unless you’ve got rabbits on the aircraft! And may I bring my own teapot on board? I do like a cup of tea in the afternoon.”

Ethel’s still waiting to hear from Japan Airlines and Qantas, while British Airways’ Web site had no functioning e-mail address for ordinary folk. Singapore Airlines offered a form letter, Cathay Pacific was somewhat intimidating: “Please kindly note that domestic animals of any description are not permitted to be carried in the passenger cabin on any Cathay Pacific flights.” But Virgin Atlantic rose to the occasion well: “I can assure you that our crew will make sure you receive a nice cup of tea on the flight or more than one in fact! It would not be necessary to take a teapot with you. Unfortunately Virgin Atlantic do not have a licence to carry pets of any description, even though I am sure he is no trouble.”

Next, Ethel decided to buy a computer. “I need the following,” she e-mailed IBM: “A nice keyboard (if possible an electric one, the manual ones tire me out) and a nice screen to look at. Could I use my TV instead, and save a few dimes? It’s a big one, though black and white and takes forever to warm up. My grandson says I need a CD drive but I think I can just drag the stereo over and plug it into the computer, yes?”

IBM were very helpful. “Please note that all our NetVista (desktops) come with a standard keyboard. However, we are unsure of what you mean by “electric” vs. “manual”, they wrote, before gently pointing out that hooking up her black-and-white TV and CD player to the PC was a no-no.

Encouraged, Ethel went back for advice on the Internet: “Do I need some sort of passport, or special goggles, or something? My grandson says the connections are very fast these days, I don’t want to mess up my hair.” IBM was reassuring, saying a passport wouldn’t be necessary.

Overall, I was impressed. Customer service on-line has a long way to go — shame on those companies that didn’t reply — but at least there are some bright and helpful folk at the end of those e-mail addresses. And for those of you not getting customer satisfaction on-line, feel free to impersonate Ethel. I know I will.

21. July 2002 by jeremy
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