If a firm doesn't respect us, it won’t survive tough times. Just ...

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If a firm doesn't respect us, it won’t survive tough times. Just ask Edcon

Companies that last actually live by their mission statements and the values they proclaim

Consumer journalist


Consumers aren’t having a good time right now, and nor are retailers.
I’ve just heard a UK retail analyst tell Sky News he couldn’t remember a time in all his 35 years in the game when times were quite this tough for retailers.
The rise of online shopping is affecting traditional stores’ foot traffic, and consumers’ disposable income has dwindled sharply.
But why do some companies survive, and even thrive, in tough times, while others go bust?
It seems to me the ones who last actually live by their mission statements and the values they proclaim on their websites.
Edcon’s stated core values, for example, are “people, integrity, performance and professionalism, all of which are never compromised in the pursuit of strategic growth”.
“We value our employees and customers, and treat them with respect.”
As news of Edcon’s latest financial woes broke at the weekend, many shared their thoughts on where the country’s largest non-food retailer had gone wrong.
Journalist Ferial Haffajee wrote a personal account of her relationship with Edgars, which many related to.
“At some point,” she wrote, “I felt like Edgars stores lost me. They became a confused mess of stores within stores …
“It felt like loyal customers like my mom and I were sacrificed to madcap visions of imported executives who didn’t really know their market.
“The shops were staffed with insipid salespeople who were so badly managed, they often packed shelves or merchandised incessantly while completely ignoring their customers.
“Poorly trained, they did not know how to sell or to upsell. And so I think we left in droves and never came back.”
I, too, stopped shopping there years ago after several frustrating encounters with “can’t be bothered” staff members.
Compare the attitude and selling ability of the staff in a Typo store with those in a CNA branch and the issue is glaringly obvious.
Many a company’s actual approach to its customers is best summed up by my favourite Dilbert comic strip frame, in which the boss says: “Our highest priority is satisfying our customers … except when it is hard … or unprofitable … or we’re busy.”
Customers remember how they are made to feel in a store, and most will return the ones that made them feel catered to and respected.
But by far the biggest test of a company’s commitment to its customers comes when there’s a dispute, whether or not the customer’s gripe is justified.
Those who handle their disgruntled customers with respect and issue a genuine apology, along with a swift remedy and some compensation where appropriate, not only mend the rift but create huge brand loyalty.
It’s quite the opposite when they don’t do any of those things.
When I think of Edcon, the case that stands out in my two decades of raising consumer-related media queries with the company is that of former schoolteacher Gail Lombard of Durban, which I took up in mid-2015.
An Edgars accountholder for 20 years at the time, she discovered she’d become a VIP club member, at R54,50 a month added to her statement, a few months earlier.
She insisted to Edgars she hadn’t been asked for her consent, so the membership was cancelled and the club fees credited.
That could have been the end of it, had a staff member not let slip to Lombard that there’d been other similar complaints, which prompted her to contact me.
I took up the case with Edcon’s then executive manager of group services, who said Edcon’s affiliated third party company handled club memberships, and assured me there was no way the product was loaded onto customers’ accounts without their consent.
And there was a call recording to prove it in Lombard’s case, he said.
Intrigued, Lombard asked for the call recording, which she got and then forwarded to me.
The call was under a minute long, something of a record for a successful telesales call.
And in it, “Lombard” said just five words, and one at a time at that. Highly improbable.
Most alarmingly, the voice was very unlike Lombard’s – totally different accent.
Agent: Hello, is that Mrs Lombard?
Voice: Yes.
Agent: How are you?
Voice: Well.
Agent: Would you like to hear about the benefits of an Edgars Club Card?
Voice: Yes.
Agent gives a long list of benefits, discounts off clothing, meals etc, then: “Would you like us to activate your Club Card?”
Voice: Yes.
Agent: Thank you. Goodbye.
Voice: Bye.
No details of the account or accountholder were verified, as is customary.
I put it to Edcon that the call appeared to be fraudulent.
Has Edcon simply taken the word of its third-party agent – which makes commissions from such sales – over that of its longstanding customer, who had no reason to make a false claim? I asked.
“Have other customer mandates for VIP memberships been requested and listened to, to verify authenticity?”
That executive manager got back to me to say Lombard’s accusations were unfounded and that Edcon ensured that stringent processes were in place to ensure the validity of all product enrolments, including doing regular audits.
He did acknowledge that the call was “not up to our standards” and said the company would revisit the approved call script for its supplier as well as their audit practices. “Clearly this is not a best practice and not what we want,” he said.
Later he gave me the exact date and time Lombard was allegedly called on her cellphone and had that exchange about club membership, and the number she was called from.
I then asked MTN to check their logs and thus established that no call from the number supplied by Edcon had been made to Gail’s number on the day in question.
I put that to Edcon and never got a response.
Lombard was outraged. “All I want is an admission from Edcon that it isn’t me in that call, because it’s fraud.”
She never got it.
Let’s have a look at those corporate values again: “People, integrity, performance and professionalism, all of which are never compromised …”

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