We all have tales about feeling frustrated as unhappy customers, and the question for me is how to go beyond whining and moaning – and then defecting to another vendor – to offering advice to the offending supplier so they can restore our confidence and fix the issue. Hopefully not just on a one-off basis for us, but systemically. Sometimes the issue has to do with the attitude and behaviour of the people, sometimes it’s a policy problem, and just as frequently it’s a systems one.

I’ve written before about good and bad experiences of mine, and here today are some more stories, the first of which I was told about by a friend who, knowing I write on this topic, cried on my shoulder about his miserable experience at a coast hotel. Like me, he also consults on customer-friendliness, and that makes us the more frustrated when we are not treated well, knowing how much better things could be – for the benefit of both parties.

The hotel in question is one where he’d been staying several times a year for over 25 years with his family, from when he was a young child. On the last day of each stay his father would book and pay for their next one, reserving the same rooms. He would always be offered a very generous discount as an appreciation for his long-term loyalty… until this year when the family stayed at the hotel without their father, who had recently passed away. They came to honour his legacy and to bring back the many good memories of their times together here.

This time the attitude of the management had transformed from displaying warm and generous hospitality to being mean and unresponsive. When my friend was offered but a notional discount as he went to pay the bill he asked to see the General Manager (GM), certain that at least some of the earlier generosity would be restored.

But the GM proved to be cold and tense, clearly not interested in the decades-long history of the family’s connection with this hotel, and defensive about the meanness, which he justified thanks to the economic hard times.

Reluctantly he offered a small further discount, but for only some of the days, leaving my friend feeling he’d never want to go there again. Never mind that he’s been sharing his tale of woe with me and so many others since then. As he had been with the top person at the hotel there was no one further to whom to escalate, so that was it – a sad lose-lose ending to the story.

My second tale of woe has to do with DStv, who out of the blue sent me a mail confirming that my password had been successfully changed. I replied, stating I hadn’t sought a change, and another mail came immediately, seeking my personal details so they could deal with my case. I sent these, only to receive yet another one asking for further information, including about the country of registration of my decoder. “Why not with the first mail?” I asked, expressing my frustration. A third mail arrived, informing me that as my decoder is registered in Kenya they can’t deal with it from South Africa, so I must get in touch with Multichoice here, whose contacts they provided.

I called them, and after pressing the right buttons on my phone, to confirm I wanted to speak in English, had “other” queries to pursue etc., a friendly agent listened empathetically to my case. I told her, as I do to such front-line operatives, that I was talking “through” and not “to” her, requesting that she refer my complaints upwards, which she promised to do. Let’s see.

This is the problem with so many automated customer-response systems – like the NTSA one whose portal I accessed to obtain my new car registration number plate, when it informed me that my effort had failed, without explaining why. Again, fortunately when I called them a very friendly agent helped me.

Online banking systems are in my (and others’) experience often the most complex and challenging to manoeuvre through, leading me to wonder if the staff of these – and other – organisations ever go through the experiences we do. It’s why in an earlier article I wrote about coaching the radiologist who was so disconnected from my discomfort while lying on his MRI that he should spend a similar time there understanding why patients find it hard to remain still for so long.

My conclusion is to encourage you to go beyond being the disgruntled customer to becoming the helpful consultant, sharing your bad experience and also suggesting how things could improve – as I did with Multichoice, with NTSA, with my bank and with others. As for my friend’s hotel, you know who you are!

In my life these days the issue of having to say “No” is raising its head in many different contexts. The most recent one came about as I was interacting with the general manager of a company’s service department, where we got talking about how to deal with customers who are so difficult, so unreasonable, that one considers no longer doing business with them. Indeed, on just the previous day he and a colleague were handling just such a case.

The problem was that they were unable to meet the customer’s expectations. But not because of under-performance. Rather because for some strange reason he completely refused to take any advice from them.

As a result, they reckoned the work that would be required to keep that customer happy would by far outweigh the level of business already received or expected, never mind the profitability of such business.

Fortunately, the customer had only acquired a relatively small item and was unlikely to ever become a major buyer. So the risk of losing him was not so great. Sure, he might well never return for future purchases, and also talk ill of this supplier and of the break-up that separated him from them. But the cost of holding on to him seemed likely to far outweigh the downside risks.

The decision of a supplier to part ways with a customer is never easy. Never mind if the customer is a major one and has been with you for a long time. One can live in the hope that the relationship will improve, perhaps that the unreasonable player or players there will give way to more reasonable ones.

One can also justify holding on to unprofitable and unsatisfying clients by considering them as “strategic investments”, prudent to hold on to for other than pure commercial reasons. But sometimes it must come to divorce.

My service manager friend asked me if I had ever had to tell a customer I no longer wanted to do business with them. As I thought about it my mind immediately turned to a different, admittedly much easier to answer, question: what kind of customer would I not wish to do business with in the first place?

Such a question was very important in my days of selling high-end IT solutions. For if the prospect looked like they lacked the competence to see the project through, the blame for its at-best delayed implementation and at worst its failure to take off at all would too easily and most likely be displaced onto us.

Indeed it was this kind of behaviour that led me to coin “Eldon’s Law”, which states: “The more incompetent the user, the more they blame the supplier.”

In my exceptionless experience, however, incompetent or uncommitted the user may be in handling the inevitable disruption that installing transformative IT systems involves, they certainly do not lack the savvy to know how to pass the buck.

As I have shared Eldon’s Law with others who deliver large complex solutions, whether in IT or any other field, no one has ever seen it be disproved.

The question is how to identify such potential clients. One criterion is the way the terms of reference are expressed, and what opportunities exist for supplier and customer to align as responsible partners, each playing their role as they should.

Then, how does the prospect come across in seeking the best value for money as opposed to simply looking for the lowest cost option? No need to spell that one out, right? We also don’t need to delve into the specifics of prospects whose main objective is to benefit personally from any transaction.

Whether one is dealing with an awkward prospect or an existing client, my best advice is that there should be discussions between colleagues in the vendor organisation, as there was in the case I mentioned.

So pessimists can engage with optimists, risk-takers with risk-avoiders, for them together to ultimately toss the coin as to whether to say “No” or not.

Another prudent move is to escalate to higher levels in the organisation, to those with more experience, and more scars from previous wounds, who can look down from their balconies and advise. If appropriate also intervene at higher levels in the prospect or client hierarchy, to nurture a more win-win approach to the relationship.

In conclusion, don’t rush to say “No” prematurely, but accept that sometimes it’s the least bad way forward.

As in my last article, this one again focuses on customer engagement – or rather lack thereof.

The previous one found me in a hospital setting, coaching the man who had just managed me through enduring a CT scan – but without any accompanying human touch.

Happily, he reacted positively to my coaching, and I’d like to think he now delivers much less stressful customer experiences.

Today I want to tell you about a recent interaction with the lady in a printing and photocopying shop, whom I will not identify by her actual name but refer to as Gladys.

From the outset, as I entered she looked miserable and also behaved in a way that matched her gloomy expression. I greeted her with a smile to try and soften her grimness but to no avail.

“Why are you looking so miserable?” I asked her, not threateningly, just encouragingly, with a light touch. No change. On the contrary, the barrier between us was merely reinforced.

As Gladys worked on my printing I had another go at helping her into a more positive frame of mind, explaining that as a consultant I support firms to become more customer-focused.

Like it’s nice to give customers a smile,” I suggested. Forget it. Not a hint of one. Oh dear, an extreme case, with who knows what root cause. I felt really sorry for her, and it reinforced my desire to cheer her up.

As I was suggesting that smiling at customers is a good idea, another client was just leaving the shop, a lady from some European country by her accent, who overheard my comment.

“That’s totally unacceptable,” she fumed, obviously finding my suggestion to have been politically incorrect beyond redemption.

Was it a manifestation of the contemporary “woke” phenomenon, where one must be hypersensitive about anything one says?

Did she see it as none of my business to influence her mood? Was I harassing her?

Why was she so outraged, having merely caught that small element among our earlier interactions? I decided the best thing to do was to ignore her, which I did.

I’ve no idea what effect if any it had on Gladys, who now asked me why I had described her as looking miserable.

“Because that’s how you looked, and I was trying to cheer you up,” I replied. Sullen silence from her. This was clearly going nowhere, such an unusual encounter for me.

I paid, collected my papers and left, reflecting on this unhappy episode with the two women. What could I have done differently to release Gladys from her obstinate grumpiness?

Should I have been less ambitious – just let her be her uncommunicative and uncooperative self, as I had seen her with another customer too?

What a contrast to her predecessor, who couldn’t do enough to provide cheerful service to me and her other customers.

The consequence of this encounter was that I didn’t want to return, but rather find somewhere else to get my printing and copying done, however less convenient the location – somewhere I could enjoy my visit and my relationship with those serving me while getting my work done.

Later in the day, I met a nice quote from Mother Theresa, which made me feel better about my efforts to help Gladys: “We shall never know all the good that a simple smile can do.”

Then a couple of days later I made a call to a courier company where the agent who assisted me told me her name was Mona Lisa.

“How lovely,” I commented, telling her I assumed she knew about Da Vinci’s portrait of the Mona Lisa, world-famous down the ages for her tantalising smile.

She did, so then I quoted Mother Theresa’s lovely line about the good that a smile can do, and we enjoyed a great laugh together, as she wished me a good afternoon.

Sadly, I don’t think that either Gladys or her self-appointed defender would have been interested in any of this, and maybe all I can conclude is that we are in a world of diverse characters, some cheerful and some gloomy; some self-righteous wrist-slappers and others wondering how careful they need to be in these days of political correctness.

How did you react to this story? With whom did you align? What advice do you have for me, for Gladys and for the woke lady?

PS I decided to write to the head-office director of the printing firm about Gladys, saying she needed help.

He thanked me for doing so, saying he’d look into it. As a result, I’m delighted to confirm that Gladys is now transformed, so I look forward to returning to the outlet… and to exchanging smiles with Gladys.

When I was in hospital for several weeks with Covid in 2021 I experienced the whole spectrum of service quality, from the outstanding to the adequate and occasionally down to the unacceptably poor, and I wrote something about it in this column – including referring to that wonderful book, If Disney Ran Your Hospital: 9½ Things You Would Do Differently.

Unfortunately last year I went through another challenging time with my health, but it allowed me to gather more case studies on how customer care works or doesn’t work in a hospital environment… which leads me to share this story with you today.

I lay quietly in my room as I awaited the summons for my lung scan, and on time Samuel the porter arrived with his wheelchair. What a gentle carer he was.

Once at the radiology department I hardly waited at all before being ushered into the scanning room. Great. Except that now the radiologist had to go and get the dye to inject into me.

It took forever, the very antithesis of just-in-time Kaizen, very challenging for me as I sat in my uncomfortable wheelchair.

Finally the radiologist returned and injected his dye into my arm before placing me on the scanning machine.

Now it was the usual, being told to put my arms above my head, against the plastic support, and my knees over another plastic support, where both felt increasingly awkward as the 20 minutes went by… a long long time for motionlessness, never mind with persistent and increasing discomfort.

The machine twisted round doing its thing, and I endured it all in silence… till it pressed down on my right arm to the extent that I worried it would crush it.

I adjusted somehow, but then the same thing happened with the left arm, but worse. So I shouted out, and fortunately he heard me.

“Oh, you should put your arms by your side now,” he informed me casually. Otherwise nothing from him, as he was totally focused on the technical aspects of his job.

To help me pass the time I began thinking about how this radiologist approaches his job and decided to have a word with him after we were done to share my perceptions.

To my surprise, after all the silence, right before the end he did mention that this was the final session and that it would take two minutes.

When we were done he called in Samuel, but I asked him to leave us for a while. “What’s your name?” I asked the scan man – as he had not introduced himself when I arrived, or said anything beyond the instructional.

“Amos Makau,” he replied (that’s what I’ll call him here). “Amos, would you mind if I give you some feedback about how I have found your interactions with me?” I continued, and as he readily agreed I launched into a coaching session on how to go beyond being a mere technician to being a carer with empathy and compassion for his patient – like Samuel (not his real name either) was.

“You need to talk with us, encourage and support us, recognise how hard and uncomfortable it is to lie there still for so long and so uncomfortably,” I explained, and I then asked him if he had ever experienced what we are being asked to. He had not.

“You should,” I suggested, “then you’ll understand so much better what we endure and how we need to be handled delicately.”

I did all this in a friendly way, not complaining, not hammering him, but offering him a new insight into what happens repeatedly in that room each day and how he can transform the way he interacts.

Amos got it, and he and I developed an excellent rapport. He told me he’d “work on” what I had suggested, leading me to urge him to just move in one go from not showing empathy and compassion to doing so.

We then called Samuel, who took me back to my room… where I told him he was not a porter but an angel.

OK, so that’s an example from the healthcare environment. But as I concluded in my earlier article, the lessons are for elsewhere too.

How many techies, accountants, engineers, you name it, overwhelm their clients with their jargon while remaining oblivious to the extent to which it is being absorbed, never mind comfortably?

How many coaches inhibit the talent they’re meant to be nurturing by not putting themselves in their shoes? So many questions, always the same answer: empathy and compassion.

Like each of you, I experience both wonderful and dreadful customer journeys. And like my fellow columnist Sunny Bindra, from time to time I write about them. I enjoy recognising and celebrating the good by name, while venting about those at the other end of the spectrum, usually without revealing their identity.

Today I want to reflect on two experiences where I have found the extremes of good and bad in the same organisation. In each case the good guys heroically tried to protect me from the bad ones. They apologised, they explained, and they comforted me. But there was only so much they could do, as they were not senior or empowered enough to resolve the ridiculous and unnecessary problems created by others.

I felt very sorry for them, and indeed expressed both by sympathy and admiration for their attitude and behaviour, as they tried ever so hard to put a brave face on the indefensible, to be loyal to their employer and to keep me from exploding with rage.

It’s not always that problems are caused by bad people. It can be bad systems – bureaucratic, unresponsive ones that are complicated, slow and inflexible, preventing the good guys from doing what they would like to do so as to be able to serve their customers well. Whatever the cause of the blockage, be it human or otherwise, customer-focused organisations empower their front-line staff to make reasonable judgements that overcome the problems they and their customers confront.

My first example is Kenya Power, where like so many of its customers we have been charged beyond what seemed reasonable given our consumption. Somehow I managed to get through to their customer experience manager, and she kindly linked me up with a professional technician, who’s been assessing our situation for quite some months. Simultaneously though, others from Kenya Power, sometimes extraordinarily rude characters, have been coming to switch us off from time to time, dismissively disinterested in their colleague’s assessment work. Despite their single-minded aim of disconnecting us, on each occasion my protector prevailed on them to hold off.

My other example is a bank, where those in my branch are exemplary in how they interact with me. But as with quite a few banks these days, they are rendered impotent in dealing with their bureaucratic impediments to smooth customer journeys. Like for instance they must get me to fill in forms by hand – relative to information they surely already possess online; and they have to send me on visits to my notional home branch as the one I always frequent cannot process what needs to be done.

Everything must be escalated; feedback to me takes forever, usually only after I have chased repeatedly; and it is typically completely unsatisfactory.

As we all know, Kenya Power is a monopoly. I have no choice but to work with them as best as I can. But for a bank to operate this way in the 21st century is unthinkable. Surely it cannot survive like this, and surely the good people such as my branch level heroes may well not wish to continue working in such an unresponsive and indifferent environment.

By bigger point is this: in your organisation, do you have good trustworthy people struggling to deliver what they wish to deliver and are so capable of delivering to their customers – whether external or internal, by the way? Must they grapple with either negatively disposed colleagues or disabling systems? How long can you expect to keep such perpetually frustrated good people?

And assuming you are in management, are you part of the solution or part of the problem? Are you perhaps blissfully unaware of such tensions?

You had better assume that they do exist, and figure out where and why. Then reform or remove the bad performers; review and relax the bureaucratic bottlenecks (while ensuring tight controls of course); and empower and recognise those who live healthy values and who care about giving good service.