Customers contacting your business: why you need to let it happen

A few years ago, I had a few issues with a utilities company.

When I say 'a few', I'm actually thinking of a number which would have made Norris McWhirter (of Guinness Book of Records fame) blush. Indeed, there is still a head-shaped dent in my wall at home, just above where my 'phone sits, which evidences that company's determined and singular inability to provide me with what I wanted.

Most of the time, it was simply impossible to contact anybody. It would have been easier and considerably less stressful to locate a lost tribe in the Brazza-Digul region of Papua New Guinea than to find anybody who was in a position to help.

If I finally managed to get through to someone--by this point I had given up on sending any letters to the company as every single one was ignored--all I ever received was a flurry of scripted platitudes about how sorry it was for the problems that I was experiencing.

In Twitter-speak, the unfortunate situation could be summarised as follows: #fail.

I didn't get it. Why was this company so determined to take its customer service to such record-breaking low levels?

To quote Which?:

With nearly nine in 10 (86%) consumers saying they would leave a brand that treated them poorly, it's clear that the quality of customer service can either make or break even the biggest names.  In these times of economic hardship companies simply can't afford to compete on brand awareness or price alone if they want to be sure of retaining their customers: (Which? customer service survey)

Quite.

For me, customer service starts with the basics--and I mean basics. I am always surprised when even well-known companies don't put full details of their names and contact details on their website. It makes me think that they are dodgy. What have they got to hide?

The law agrees with me: under the Company Trading Disclosures Regulations 2008, a company’s registered name must be disclosed on ... well ... pretty much everything, including, in particular:

  • its websites
  • its business letters, notices and other official publications
  • (and here's the catch-all:) all other forms of its business correspondence and documentation

In addition, a company's business letters and e-mails, order forms and its websites must also disclose the following information:

  • the part of the United Kingdom in which the company is registered
  • the company’s registered number, and
  • the address of the company’s registered office

Again, I am surprised at how many companies do not do this.

So that's the basics. But what about being able to contact the company?

Many companies that sell online would also do well to consider carefully the Electronic Commerce (EC Directive) Regulations 2002 which state that sellers must provide customers with a way of contacting them using 'direct and effective communication'.

Many companies comply with the former ('direct') but not, it would seem, the latter ('effective').

Our Lexis®PSL Commercial guide provides a bit more 'meat on the bone' for this requirement:

A seller is required to give a customer, before the conclusion of a contract with him or her, in addition to its e-mail address, other information which allows the seller to be contacted rapidly and communicated with in a direct and effective manner. That information does not necessarily have to be a telephone number in the first instance; it may be in the form of an electronic enquiry template through which a customer can contact the seller via the internet to whom the seller replies by e-mail except where a customer, who, after contacting the seller electronically, finds himself or herself without access to the electronic network, requests the seller to provide access to another, non-electronic means of communication. This is often done by way of a telephone contact number.

So how could this work in practice? A typical clause in terms and conditions reads as follows:

Please e-mail or telephone [insert details (eg 'our Customer Service Department')], at the e-mail address and telephone number set out here [insert link]. Please note that all calls to us will be charged at [insert rate] [(BT land lines only, other network charges may vary.)] [(Calls may be recorded for quality and training purposes.)]

Now, being a lawyer means that I am always pleased if the 'legals' are sorted out. However, they do have to have some substance behind them. Failure to comply with the above requirements (on direct and effective communication) without reasonable excuse constitutes a criminal offence committed by the company, and every officer of the company who is in default.

It also means, perhaps more importantly, that you risk alienating your customers. Customers will vote with their feet and go elsewhere if they are not happy. They are unlikely to tell you about it or why they have left.

Personally, I believe that companies should try to offer as many ways of communicating with them as possible: e-mail (some companies still do not provide this option!), post, telephone, Twitter, Facebook, LinkedIn--you name it! If you aren't there, your competitors will be.

What's more, have a word with your favourite commercial lawyer to ask that he or she have a quick look at your website. Your learned friend quickly ought to be able to tell you whether it complies with the above and any other applicable laws (and there are many!).

Have a good think about implementing (or renewing) your corporate communications strategy. Are you communicating through all effective channels for your business? What are your competitors doing?

In the meantime, I'm off to B&Q to work out how to get dents out of plastered walls.

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