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Service lessons from a crisis.

Rarely are so many profound lessons captured in one incident to risk being accused of displaying little more than consumer ranting in an otherwise sober column.

But being market and customer driven has been one of my passions for a number of years. Indeed to the point of questioning the conventional understanding of what a market driven economy really means – service or self-gain. When things happen in my life that draw attention to these teachings, I get this creepy sensation that those pronouncements are either being severely tested, or more deeply entrenched. So share them I must.

It’s not pleasant having an important status asset unfairly labelled Chinese Junk. There is absolutely no similarity between my vehicle and those embellished vessels that used to ply the Far Eastern sea routes. In addition, it is supported by the majestic manufacturing brand name of Great Wall Motors, or the catchy acronym GWM – intuitively linked to one of the 7-wonders of the world; of grandeur and of durability. It also contributed to my desire to have what must surely be my last vehicle, and one that will be robust enough to outlast “off-road” gravel roads; perhaps even present some inheritable value when I move from wheels to wings.

So I decided some years back to go for the “up-market” H5 2L Diesel automatic and ignore the blatant oxymoron in the adjective. More than that, I wanted to ensure lasting value through prudent mileage and regular servicing by the selling agent workshop in Worcester, 90-minutes away. All of this simply added to my vehement defence of the brand and the macho yup-mobile model – not untypical of the “boy-and-his-toy” state of mind.

Until the brakes failed. They not only failed, but the components of one back wheel simply fell apart.

And I was left like a Don Quixote on a broken Rocinante, and with Sancho Panza in the form of Jacques du Toit, a local mechanic and the only hero in my sorry tale, and flaying at windmills of warranties, defensiveness, buck-passing and all kinds of expedient machinations.

The story that unfolded after a nightmarish 10 km gravel road trip from the N2 to home, exacerbated by the realisation that we could have been killed, could have been written for the TV series “24”. Each day could easily have matched the drama of one episode.

It happened on a Sunday and the following Monday triggered the appearance of deep cracks not only in service, but in simple human empathy, that left us stranded for more than 3-weeks on a farm 15 kilometres from the nearest town – exacerbated by the determined avoidance of any obligation or even gesture of a loan/courtesy or a “skedonk” replacement; the absence of car hire closer than Worcester, and above all a huge gap between promises of replacement parts and actual delivery.

In the first call to Worcester, it was made dogmatically clear that brakes were classified as “wear and tear”, and not subject to a warranty. Not only would I be liable for the R6000 repairs but for the R2600 towing cost to Worcester. Wiped from memory was the purchase of the very same H5 in cash from them, following a much earlier cash purchase of the 2.2 GWM Lux Bakkie. It was then rather taciturnly agreed to have the repairs done locally. Enter my hero Jacques and exit any recourse to the Worcester Agent or GWM in Johannesburg.

Twice wrong parts were sent. Many times promises of delivery were not met and at one point it was mooted that a calliper had to be ordered from China. This was confirmed by their loftiness’s in Johannesburg, under the pretext of a glitch in the supply chain after the “takeover of GWM S.A. by Vaal Motors”. I had already been disqualified for replacement wheels by Worcester, and the manufacturers in Johannesburg were adamant that “we don’t do that anymore because it has been costing us R1 million a year.” In the end, someone thought of the obvious of replacing the part with one from a demo vehicle. About a week later, after some puzzling further breaks in delivery procedures, the car was fixed.

At one time blame was deflected to me for “not hearing that something was wrong with the brakes”. Well, I did not. And I have TV satellite dishes for ears (albeit with faltering LNB’s) and a super-sensitive hearing to sharp noises, bangs and metallic screeching and scraping, no doubt induced by paranoiac stress.

At no time did any of the frequent interchanges, apart from those with a helpless Jacques, reflect much more than the job at hand and to show some concern for a stranded elderly couple. Appallingly the most obvious and important question has still not been answered: why did the brakes fail so destructively 3 000 km after the scheduled 30 000 km service, and 30 000 km before they were due to be serviced? That’s not a question for me to answer. That’s for the manufacturer.

So to the lessons:

  • Your most loyal customer and brand champion is not the one you sell to, but the one that you unreservedly help when he or she is vulnerable in a crisis.

  • A brand is only as good as the agents and staff who support it.

  • Customer satisfaction is a good indicator of company sustainability.

  • Warranties can be used to protect the seller more than the buyer.

  • The expedient will always ignore past benefits in current trade-offs.

  • There is frequently a huge gap between responsibility and accountability. (A South African disease not restricted to Government.)

  • While technology is often blamed for absence of empathy in business, it is more often destroyed by people themselves.

The most important lesson of all is one I have always spoken passionately about and consigned to an insert on YouTube. The most powerful thing we have in business and indeed in life, is caring for another. It sheds those things that keep us small: fear, assumptions, and ignorance.

We give that power away too lightly and too often miss the opportunity to display it.

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