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.

From time to time in our lives we are doomed to spend days and nights incarcerated in a hospital, as medical teams take care of what ails us while they set us onto the road to recovery.

Over the years I have had the dubious privilege of observing at close quarters how complex and interwoven it all is, operating 24/7 and with the very lives of patients often at stake.

And all this before Covid!

I immediately come to Covid, as I was one of those who caught the debilitating virus some weeks ago and so I have been at the Aga Khan Hospital for a long time. (Personal reflections for another day.)

There, at close quarters, I have observed so much high quality teamwork displayed by their extraordinary frontline care workers, who amazed me by their apparent assumption that they are just doing their demanding jobs like any other collection of professionals.

Top hospitality

It’s obvious that running a hospital – certainly for inpatients – includes everything needed to manage a hotel, requiring all aspects of gracious hospitality while ensuring the high capacity utilisation that will make the entity financially sustainable. And then there’s that transformative extra: healthcare.

Those who manage hospitals must worry about catering and cleaning; security and waste management (big time).

The stocks of medicines and equipment must be available and up to date, with the labs and the testing centres fully equipped and competent to serve the medical teams.

Plus there are the usual back-office support functions: finance, audit, HR, ICT, legal, transport… not to mention dealing with medical insurers and other stakeholders.

The more I think about it the more I wonder how they manage, the more in awe I am, the more I find it hard to imagine who would wish to take on such extraordinary challenges, ones that incur such risk and require such knowledge, learning, expertise, discipline, stamina, resilience, emotional stability, judgement and goodwill.

I have occasionally acted as a consultant to hospitals, helping their people work effectively with each other in these challenging environments.

What I learned was that, at least as much as in other organisations, in hospitals there are very distinct sub-cultures.

Casual observation

For obvious reasons the doctors are highly influential, and traditionally the senior ones who ruled the roost were known for being insufficiently respectful or helpful to their juniors, who in turn were unhappy about the extent to which their typically more up-to-date knowledge was taken advantage of.

Then there’s the critical relationship between doctors and nurses: how flat is this pyramid, how big are the power gaps here?

My casual observation as a patient at Aga Khan Hospital is that for much of the time it works remarkably smoothly, with excellent delegation, empowerment and teamwork.

People are constantly learning about the latest developments in their fields; most are good at consulting with each other; and so their respective roles and relationships are clear.

Having said that, some of the nursing staff are inevitably bolder, more pro-active and solution-oriented than others (bearing in mind too how stretched everyone is because of Covid).

Effective partnerships

Some of the nurses are great at developing easy relationships with patients, and all are conscientious about carrying out tests, dispensing medicines and fulfilling their other technical functions.

But, partly based on their personality, partly on their expectation of the extent of their role (like going beyond the technical to include the interpersonal), what I found was that too often I was the one who initiated the brief conversations that led to easier and hence more effective partnerships between carer and patient.

Very understandably, expectations management is another challenge in hospitals (as it is with almost everyone in Kenya).

Life is so complicated, unpredictable and interlinked in hospitals that their challenges are unique.

Our heroes

I can comment as a patient that for much of the time it was hard to know when something was likely to happen, or the sequence. More communication would be helpful here.

All this I have been observing just as an idle patient, not knowing what I did not know, just experiencing what I was experiencing.

Inevitably though, my performance management hat remained permanently in place.

My bottom line? It is right for these healthcare workers, in whatever function and at whatever level, to be enthusiastically applauded and celebrated as our heroes.

Mr Eldon is chairman of management consultancy The DEPOT, and co-founder of the Institute for Responsible Leadedrship. [email protected]