Saturday, December 10, 2005

Less talk, more action

In recent weeks I have found myself the initiator of two different consumer complaints. At first they seemed completely separate and unrelated, although the more I think them through, the more I see a common theme. In brief, here's how I've been screwed over:

During November I started recieving spam text messages on my mobile phone from 199xxxx. Paraphrasing, they read "XYZ (female, aged 21) wants to chat with you now. SMS 'chat' to chat, or 'stop' to stop. Visit" As with all spam I recieve, I refused to take the bait and respond. I had the added fear that I would be charged some absurd amount for sending a text message to the number, even if it was 'stop'. At the end of a fortnight of these lame messges, I finally SMS'ed 'stop' and sure enough, they did. A few days later my mobile phone bill arrived, and it was approximately $15 higher than usual. Sure enough, I'd been charged 50c per unit for each of these messages that I had received. (I didn't realise you could be charged for the dubious privilege of recieving an SMS. This does, of course, create an obvious incentive for the spammer to spam.) Upset at these charges, I contacted my mobile phone carrier, who told me to contact a company, 5th Finger, who apparently operate premium SMS services in Australia. I was given a contact number in Sydney for the company, and my call transferred. The call centre operator at 5th Finger in turn explained that they merely operated the service on behalf of, and that any questions would need to be directed to them., however, have no contact phone number in Australia. Instead, I would need to contact their customer service team via email. After three emails to them, I have so far recieved just one response, a template which failed to address my concerns. The struggle continues.

Okay, complaint two:

I bought a pair of shoes at a local shoe store. Without naming names, I'll offer a scandalously obvious abbreviation: The SM Shoe Store exclusively sells SM Shoes. Easy, right? After two months of wearing the shoes, the sole had become damaged (as had mine, but that's another story). I returned to the store with the shoes and the receipt, and after some time had passed, I recieved a call from the store manager. She explained I would not be offered repair, a replacement pair of shoes or my money back because the retailer explained they would not be compensated by the manufacturer, a company contracted to make shoes for SM. They don't get compensation, so I don't get compensation. This despite the fact that both the store and the manufacturer carry the same brand and for all intents and purposes are the one entity. In other words, SM exists only as a brandname - it pays someone else to make its shoes, and someone else to sell the shoes (and presumably someone else to transport it from maker to seller).

Setting aside the rights and wrongs of both claims (I think I have an extremely strong claim in both cases), these two examples demonstrate a modern conundrum.

In a world where every step in the manufacturing and retail process is outsourced to someone else, there is no one who will take responsibility when things go wrong. It becomes increadibly easy for each party to shift the buck from one to another until one of them (or more likely the consumer) just gives in. As a consumer, I shouldn't have to know the intricacies of a company's outsourcing arrangement in order to have my complaint addressed. Unfortunately, I'm left with little choice.

The problem lies in the nature of outsourcing. It's a one way flow of goods or information, and it doesn't cope well when goods or information need to flow the other way for some reason. When a company outsources a task to another, it wants that task to be done painlessly, quietly and cheaply, and so doesn't want to hear about things that go wrong. Whilst this is extemely foolish from a management perspective (no feedback loop, no room for continuous improvement) it is suicidal when it involves dealing with customers.

A practical suggestion - for companies who care about their customers, and legislators with some foresight: require your front line staff to recieve a complaint and deal with it internally before communicating the outcome with the customer. If need be, put it in the outsourcing agreement. So in my examples, the first person I spoke to at Fifth Finger should have followed up with their client rather than forcing me on a rabbit chase, and the retail staff at SM shoes should have dealt with their internal problems before relaying an answer to me. Not a big ask, surely?

(Yes, I'm aware that there are people dying of AIDS, terrorists at our borders and the real possibility that our planet won't see out the decade, but regardless, I want a decent pair of shoes and a moderate phone bill. If that makes me a narcissistic consumer, then so be it.)


Jeremy said...

You're in Victoria, right?

For claim one, call the telecommuniations ombudsman. They'll give you a different, secret number for your phone company. You then ring that number and say you object to paying for any SMSes you haven't asked for, that you've had no control over receiving.

This secret department of your phone company is likely to be happy to resolve your complaint quickly and efficiently. (It can do this because most people give up before getting to the ombudsman stage.)

If they don't resolve it, the ombudsman can push it further for you. This works. (Ask Leif.)

Second complaint - They're full of crap. You purchased them from their shop, not the manufacturer. The shop is responsible. If you were to sue the shop, it could join the manufacturer to the litigation, but the shop's the primary defendant. Whether you can get a refund for two-month old shoes, though, in the absence of a warranty, I'm not so sure.

I'd recommend giving Consumer Affairs Victoria a call on Monday.

Jeremy said...

In regards to lefty's final point, non-abrogable statutory warrnaty of fit and merchandisable quality in the Trade Practices Act. I doubt a shoe manufacturer can get away with making a shoe which lasts less than 3 months without falling afoul of this.

Lisa said...

Ari, when first lobbed into my field of awareness about a year ago I remember wondering how it would work and if there would be any hidden costs and it turned out that if I put my number in then there WOULD be charges. Unwilling to accept something that wasn't free beer I closed my account and encouraged everyone I knew to do so for this reason. This is the first time I ever heard of anyone receiving charges for text messages and I'm a bit horrified at the amount as well as the concept. Did you agree to something on the net and furnish them with your phone number? Even if you did, it could have been someone else submitting your phone number so therefore still unsolicited. I hope that you push the complaint a long way.

Anonymous said...

I don't think you kicked up a big enough fuss in the shoe store. You should have stood your ground to point of embarrassment. (Even if they call the police.)

There is always a supply chain even in a non-outsourced industry, and it is the retailer's responsibility to follow up defects (which your shoes clearly are). If not for handling customers, what does the retailer actually do in order to justify a markup?

I had a very similar dispute with a coffee machine bought from a retailer, who eventually accepted the machine and made private arrangements with the manufacturer.