Nov 052012
 
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It’s been a #FirstWorldPains kind of day today.  Waiting on people to phone me; me phoning people to no avail.

A day, essentially, of three acts.

And what ties them together?  Companies, institutions, organisations and individuals who refuse to take ownership for complaints expressed by supposed and alleged customers.

Perhaps, also, cases where the customers do exist, but are internal more than external.  The shareholders, in the end.  The curse of managerialism.  Those KPIs which dominate every terrified waking moment of those who quiver on the edge of an abyss of failure every single moment of their working lives.

*

It started out with two phonecalls.  One to our local council to doublecheck if we had actually been given a parking fine or not – it would appear in the event that some silly bugger had placed someone else’s discarded fine on our car: the paper inside the plastic envelope was muddied, soaked and illegible even though it hadn’t been raining.  The council had no record of our licence plate on their system but told us to phone back midweek.  I felt the lady in question could have been a bit more proactive – or, alternatively, forthcoming.  But no.  Another call I’ll have to make tomorrow.

The second call was to our local housing trust.  We’ve been in consistently mould-ridden and substandard accommodation since 2004; officially overcrowded since 2007.  We have tried moving out to other accommodation in the area, but private housing is twice the price of social – and our financial position simply doesn’t allow us to take that step.  The last time we attempted to exchange our first-floor three-bedroom maisonette for a three-bedroom house, we were simply told we would not be allowed to proceed with our application: the housing trust has a policy which says if three bedrooms leaves you overcrowded, you can only move into a four-bedroom property.  There are it would seem barely a hundred of such properties in Chester.

What they do not allow you to do is apply for a less overcrowded property than the one you are living in.  That is to say, you cannot move from a tiny flat to a big house, if the big house has the same number of bedrooms as the tiny flat.

So they are allowed to tolerate existing overcrowding but do not permit a family to try and ameliorate it.

I attempted to do just that yesterday on the housing trust’s website as I applied for a three-bedroom new build in our area: our application was immediately knocked back by the system.  The second phonecall this morning was to find out why and the explanation, as already given, was immovable.  I said I wanted to make an official complaint and was told I would get a response within 48 hours, and a decision within ten days.  The new build would however be given to a family by the end of the week.  There was no chance that the decision could be postponed whilst our complaint was heard.

The second lady I spoke to, the person in charge of the complaints department, did suggest we should look for non-social housing as a helpful solution to our problem.  I did reply that self-evidently we would have already done so, had reasonably-priced alternatives been available in the area where our children go to school.  There were a number of other things we said and exchanged, the detail of which I shan’t go into here but which, if I was of a mind, would have led me to want to issue further official complaints about the lack of customer focus the trust was demonstrating in our case, both lately and – more generally – since 2004.

*

The second act involved a pair of phonecalls and a number of emails with an excellent senior advisor from Apple.  Now, as those of you who read these pages will recall, I’m not generally a fan of the company or its business model – but I do have to say as far as committing resources to communicating with customers is concerned, you get what you pay for.  And at least in my case, over the past few days, that is exactly what I have been getting.

The reason for my communications with the aforementioned company?  I bought a discounted iPod Touch 8GB from Amazon.co.uk in May 2011.  At the weekend, the home button – an electro-mechanical element of the device – stopped working properly.  It is designed to operate when you depress it.  What now happens is that it won’t reliably pop back up.

I contacted Amazon.co.uk via their excellent telephone contact service.  This is, I think, a relatively recent innovation: certainly the last time I tried to contact them in relation to two Acer Aspire netbooks which developed exactly the same faults within a month of each other, communication was only via email and not a happy experience.  That time, they pointed me in the direction of the manufacturer, saying it was their policy to encourage customers to contact the latter in the first instance.  I thought this was an inexact interpretation of English consumer law, contacted a consumer website, was told all the letters I had to send, found myself falling at the first fence and – essentially – ended up giving in on the matter relatively easily.

This time, however, and whilst the initial contact was much better via an instant callback, I decided to act differently.  The pattern did repeat itself, of course: I was told that the ball lay in the manufacturer’s court – in this case, Apple’s – and that Amazon.co.uk’s procedures encouraged customers to go directly to such companies rather than deal in the first instance with the retailer of the goods thus purchased.

As I felt that if this were a bricks-and-mortar retailer – such as, for example, Comet (recently, and probably coincidentally, having gone into administration) – the liaison, paperwork and interface between customer and manufacturer would have been carried out by the retailer, eliminating all need for direct contact between customer and manufacturer, I did feel it would be only right to insist that Amazon.co.uk handled the matter themselves.  This they continued to seem unhappy to take ownership for, but the customer services agent did in the end put me on hold and quite seamlessly passed my call over to an Apple technical services agent.  I assumed at the time that Amazon.co.uk and Apple had a direct line – though I later discovered this probably wasn’t the case.

Anyhow, to cut a long story short, I was finally put in touch with an Apple senior advisor, the person I spoke so positively about earlier on, who agreed to phone me back today to see where the legality of the matter lay: that is to say, whether Apple or Amazon.co.uk were the first point of contact for a person like myself whose iPod purchase had stopped working properly six months after the guarantee had run out.  Apple’s legal department concluded as I felt was the case: any after-sales responsibility lay with the retailer – in this case Amazon.co.uk – and not Apple.  What’s more, Apple led me to believe that Amazon.co.uk is not an Apple-approved reseller; does not have access to its systems or databases on cases; and could not have transferred my call by any other means apart from searching out an Apple telephone number on the web and dialling on my behalf.

The implications of the reseller bit, if I understood it correctly (and please do correct me if I am wrong), are significant here: Apple cannot even properly raise an incident on its systems if the product has not been sold by such a partner.  For Apple, then, from both a procedural and legal point of view, Amazon.co.uk needed to take ownership of the matter.

I phoned Amazon.co.uk back almost immediately, was immediately given a callback by a softly-spoken Scottish lady and asked to explain, once again, the situation.  I outlined my argument – and Apple’s – that Amazon.co.uk was a retailer; that the Sale of Goods Act 1979 gave consumers up to six years’ margin to complain about a product which stopped working in some way and that English law contemplated the figure of a “reasonable period of time” for a product to be required to function, even where this went beyond the manufacturer’s guarantee period.

I simply argued that although the product was now out of guarantee, it would be reasonable to expect it to continue to function properly beyond a mere six months after the aforementioned period expired.

I also underlined the importance of the bricks-and-mortar comparison: if this were a Currys or (once upon a time) a Comet, we would expect them to dedicate customer service resource to resolving our after-sales issues, however after-sales they were.  We wouldn’t expect such shops to palm us off with the manufacturer – or attempt to ignore what I saw as certain moral (if not legal) responsibilities.

The Amazon.co.uk lady listened carefully and gently whilst I ran – a little breathlessly – through my arguments and position.  She then asked if she could pass the query on to a different department, who would proceed to get in touch with me at some time shortly.  I said of course, asked the timeframe and was told between three and five days.

I thanked her for taking my call and prepared myself for a wait.

About two minutes after the call, we got the third act.

*

This email dropped into my inbox.  I’ve removed the name to avoid embarrassment:

Dear Mr Williams,

My name is [ _____ _____ ] and I represent Executive Customer Relations within Amazon.co.uk and in this capacity, your correspondence has been brought to my attention.

I am sorry to hear of the difficulty experienced with the       New Apple iPod touch 8GB (4th Generation) received in May 2011 from your order #202-_______-_______.

The European Directive 1999/44/EC allows for a claim to be taken (under certain circumstances) for a period up to two years in accordance with European Law, and up to six years under UK law.

This does not imply that an item has a warranty of two years or six years respectively. It merely permits an individual to make a claim under certain circumstances within that time period, e.g. should a fault be proved to have been inherent in the first six months.

Amazon do not provide the warranty for this item. We do, however, cover our obligations under the relevant legislation such as the Sales of Goods Act 1979 in the UK. Under the Sale of Goods Act, a consumer is granted recourse against a seller of goods if those goods were defective at the time of purchase. This may include, in certain circumstances, repair, refund or replacement but only to the extent that doing so is not disproportionate to the value of the goods, having regard to the use the customer has already had of the goods and the nature of the goods.

You purchased your product approximately 18 months ago and, until recently, have used it successfully and reported no fault with the product. Given your satisfactory use of the product for a period of time which exceeded the manufacturer’s warranty period, it is not established that the product did not conform to the contract (i.e. was defective) at the time of purchase.

Amazon.co.uk is therefore not under an obligation to offer any additional assistance in repairing or replacing your product.

Please note that the manufacturer is often in a better position than the retailer to deal with technical problems affecting their products. Therefore, should you wish to pursue this matter, we would encourage you to contact the manufacturer to see if they are able to provide you with any further assistance. They may be in a position to offer a repair service or could provide you with information on relevant charges for an out of warranty repair:

-    Manufacturer: http://depot.info.apple.com/ipod/
-    Phone: 844_______
-    Email: http://www.apple.com/uk/support/

Thank you for your attention to this email.

Regards

[ _____ _____ ]
Executive Customer Relations

I was quite shocked by the tone of this document.  I have  – apart from the Aspire netbook issues – always received excellent customer service from Amazon.co.uk.  I remember one case a couple of years ago where we purchased a family tent, went on holiday without trying it out prior to the journey, discovered it had a severe design flaw and went on to use it for the rest of the holiday in the absence of any other solution.  When we got back home, six weeks later, I contacted Amazon.co.uk, explained what had happened, explained the tent had been used and why – and received a reply offering a total refund forty-five minutes later via email.

Broken videos?  Replaced without a quibble.  Damaged DVDs?  No problem.  But something like this iPod thingy we’ve had (or, indeed, the netbooks) … and it’s this awful and weasel-like tone we get in exchange.

I contacted the Citizens’ Advice Bureau after putting out a call on Twitter for help.  They’ve told me how to proceed: inevitably, this involves recorded-delivery letters and suchlike.  But they have confirmed it is to Amazon.co.uk I should go.  So it does lead me to wonder how such an apparently customer-focussed company can begin to focus so vigorously on the internal customer to the exclusion of the external.

For what seems to be happening here – at least to my unpractised and unprofessional eye – is that a business model which suited books down to the ground is bound to struggle with after-sales on electronic devices.  You’re missing a page or two?  Send the book back, we’ll get the publisher to pulp it and that’s a replacement sorted with little cost to the distributor.  But you get into the complexity of computer screens which acquire green stripes two years after purchase – and how many delicate decisions need then to be taken?  How many variables and laws and consumer rights and business relationships need to be evaluated?  How difficult does it become to assess the rights and wrongs of the matter?

And how very much easier is it to say that outwith a standard year-long guarantee period we decide – in a blanket fashion – to point the customer in the direction of the manufacturer?

That’s how it seems to me, anyhow.  That’s how it most respectfully – and sadly too – seems to me.

*

No.  Books ain’t iPods – and “[ _____ ], we do have a problem!”.

The only question now being how we deal with it.

The drive to ignore the real needs of a real customer in a real and variable set of circumstances, the fear that corporate behemoths have of each other when liability can make or break empires and the massive growth from small beginnings of noble and fabulous projects all have their impact on what we perceive.  But far more important to the integrity of an economy, society and civilisation are the almost always far more invisible hows out there: those things we are rarely made conscious of and which only occasionally slip out from their unhappy underbellies.

In my case, today, my local council told me brusquely to go away; my local housing-trust told me in no uncertain terms that there was nothing they could do; Apple told me most graciously but definitively all the same that it wasn’t their responsibility; and Amazon.co.uk told me – in a way that almost made the sensitive soul that I am feel abused for asking a perfectly legitimate question – that they were operating within the law.

This latter point, of course, I am happy to admit.  Even as it may be judges who finally get to decide.

But when pure observance of the law, procedures and processes makes a customer feel they are the last in a long queue of other far more relevant customers … well, surely such observance is – in some way – a broken process.

Is this really all that corporate Britain and America can offer their voters and citizens, tenants, consumers – and once absolutely enamoured web-users?

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