They must all give me their people. I want them all, the Pick and Pay, the Checkers, the Woolworths, the Dischem – all of them. I want your people. I used to have a company that did customer service training, among other things. It was called The Grooming School. I closed it in about 2000, I think, or 2002.
Give me your people. I’ll revive The Grooming School in their honour. We used to do a roaring trade in customer service training. They all really need it, but I’m mostly concerned with Woolies because I shop there a lot. I very rarely go to the other three. They’re not on my beat.
I had a group in Pretora, for customer service training, many years ago. They were young, mostly Afrikaans and they were from an insurance company that I won’t name. They are among my most memorable customer service groups. I’ll tell you why.
At the beginning of the session I asked them to tell me about their jobs. They all started by complaining. Their customers were illiterate. Their customers were old. Their customers didn’t speak Afrikaans or English. Their customers were hard work to deal with and etcetera. Their customers don’t deal on the phone because they can’t communicate that way due to the language barrier, so they come in to the insurance company shop, like to a bank.
One young woman told me that she had customers who came in with Tastic bags full of papers. You know the big transparent bags that they sell Tastic rice in at places like Macro. There was a particular old guy who didn’t know which paper was which and she had to go through all the papers in the Tastic bag to find the death certificate and insurance papers of his wife. She told me that it was just irritating. He didn’t even speak English or Afrikaans. It happens all the time. Their customers are mainly rural black people.
I was shocked. “So this old man’s wife dies, and in his grief, like a responsible citizen, he gathers up all the papers which he has diligently, though chaotically filed. All the papers are in English or Afrikaans, but he knows that the right ones are there. He’s been paying his insurances regularly to your company and in his grief he comes by taxi all the way from deep rural somewhere into the unfamiliar big city of Pretoria, which is intimidating. He finds his way to your company to get help retrieving his insurance claim. But because he doesn’t speak English or Afrikaans, and because he has encountered you, who doesn’t have any compassion and doesn’t give a damn about him, in the midst of his grief he, your customer, must be subjected to your irritation and rudeness”? I summed it up.
“Well, the thing is that we’re superior to our customers”, she said.
I didn’t respond immediately. I let that one hang in the air.
“Superior”? Boy did we need customer service training here. We needed diversity training. We needed humanity training. We needed a hot klap around the head of the little racist. “Superior”? I smiled, and we began.
Afterwards I suggested to the supervisor that she might consider employing people who understood her customers as a route to good customer service. Employ people who speak their language and have compassion for them and don’t think they’re superior to them. The supervisor only observed the session, but clearly she needed help as well.
Has anyone else gone shopping at any of the Woolies stores and met with the rudeness, the sullenness, the obvious boredom and the reluctant helpfulness of the staff? Clearly no one is giving them any training and no one cares about their daily performance.
Now, I am not without compassion and I am well aware that these are low paying jobs and the people in those jobs can’t have the easiest of lives what with having to take up to three taxis to work starting before the sun is even up, and having to travel miles to and fro and they probably have kids at home to look after and some domestic issues like a partner who doesn’t lift a finger. Life’s tough. I get that. It’s tough for all of us. But seriously, your problem is not anyone else’s problem. If you take the job, then do the job. A smile and a pleasant disposition towards the customer, at the very least, is part of the job.
I went into a Woollies some time ago. It was one not in my neighbourhood, so I never have to go there again. It’s in the Design Quarter. I walked up to the check out till pushing my purchases in a trolley. The cash register woman recognised me from the TV. She looked me up and down and declared loudly,
“Oh my God, you’re so short”.
I stared at her, blankly, for a few seconds. I didn’t say a word. I left the trolley full of purchases exactly where it was and I walked out. Had I been in a better humour I might have said, “and you’re so rude”. But I wasn’t in a better humour. I was annoyed and I feared, as they say in Italy, that if I said ‘A’ the alphabet would follow.
At the Woollies in Parktown North, my local, they have this really awkward till where you actually can’t easily get your goods onto the ‘in’ side of the desk thingy to be scanned without extreme discomfort. That place is atrociously designed. So I went to the side where they normally put the things they’ve just scanned.
“You have to come this side” the till guy says to me, indicating the awkward side.
“Why”? I wasn’t buying a lot. It was the replacement essentials, some coffee, some bread, some juice. It was few things. I’d already put my few things on the counter, so all he had to do was scan them and put them back where he’d picked them up.
“You have to put them this side otherwise I can’t scan them”, he told me.
“Well, why don’t you put them on that side, and when you’ve scanned them you can put them this side, and I’ll be right here”. It’s logic. I was being reasonable and logical.
“No, you have to put them the other side”. He told me a third time. It was a battle of wills. He hadn’t moved to scan a thing. I paused.
I said, “Do we have a problem”?
“Yes”, he replied. So I left the things where they were, walked out, got in my car, and drove down the road to the Spar.
Then there’s Woolies in Sandton. Oh, yes. I have Woolies stories galore, but just these few will do for now. The thing is I still shop at Woolies. Wait till I start telling SAA stories. I have a book’s worth of SAA stories. However, we’re on Woolies now. Let me not digress. I was looking at clothes. I found a really nice dress and they didn’t have my size. So I asked the sales lady if she could get my size. She looked at the rail and said,
“We don’t have your size”. Yes, I knew that. Could she get my size?
“Try another branch”. She told me. Seriously though, in this world of telecommunications and digital technology is it even remotely likely that I’m going to drive around from Woolies to Woolies looking for that dress? Could she not pick up her Woolies phone? At Exclusive Books they have the inventory of every store on the computer. What’s wrong with Woolies? Why don’t they have that? Catch up!
“Please will you call them and find one for me”? I asked
“I’m busy”, she told me. Now this time I did lose my temper a bit.
“Are you joking? You’re busy? You are busy”, I said, “You’re busy helping me and I would like this dress in my size, so if you don’t mind would you get busy on the phone finding me one in another branch”.
She looked me up and down. Is that a Woolies thing that derisive looking people up and down, I wonder, or was that her special little ’stuff you’ just for me? And then she kissed her teeth and disappeared. She came back all too soon and told me “They don’t have it”.
I knew she hadn’t called anyone. She was getting revenge on me for snapping at her. Don’t they get commission for selling stuff? At the very least don’t they have targets? I tossed my weave and strutted out of there.
It’s all anecdotal, slightly amusing and irrelevant in the end, isn’t it? What am I going to do? Complain? To whom? Who has the time? Boycott Woolies? As if. Besides, when all’s said and done, I like Woolies. If I don’t shop at Woolies where am I going to shop?