I was standing at the municipal offices of the licensing department inching my way along a 90 minute queue waiting to pay for my license renewal. I had a lot of time to take in the surroundings. Hanging on the wall were three big pictures of heads of government, beaming broad smiles into the room of disgruntled tax payers. I liked it that the room presented me with a view of the people who were most to blame for the total lack of concern that the license department had for its customers. The politicians seemed so smug in the pictures and I wondered how they would feel about being the target of such derision that I was witnessing around the room. In fact, my whole experience in renewing my license was a masterclass in poor customer service. This started long before I was in the glacially paced payment queue, but from the moment when I went online to book my renewal.

The booking website seemed to have been designed without any thought given to user experience. Instead of being able to select the license office nearest to me and booking an appointment, the site had unfriendly “Not Available” signs on all of the places that were nearest to my locations. Instead, all that was available were a small sub-set of offices far away from where I live and work. It seems like the system was designed to accommodate Licensing rather than customers. The traffic department, in their wisdom, sees fit to send people far away from their houses to renew their licenses. Why ? Is that because they want people to use more road? No corporate concern that relied on good customer service to earn its keep would ever do such a thing. Only where there is a total lack of competition, could an entity decide to create so many levels of deliberate ineptitude.

As I shuffled another few meters along, I wondered why they had 3 payment windows, but only 1 teller. The system was designed to have the line going 3 times as fast, but for whatever reason, a lone teller was doing her best to service the never-ending line. The teller didn’t seem too happy either, barely looking up between customers. In our business we could never afford to have clients sitting around waiting for us to give them some attention. Just the opposite in fact. We obsess about making our client’s time with us, as streamlined as possible. We fawn all over them to ensure that we are supporting them every step of the way, doing flikflaks to cater for their every whim. Why, I pondered, was the licensing department so obviously uncaring? Why did they have no concern at all that it was taking so inordinately long just to pay ? The queues to process the actual license was also hours long for those people that had not booked online. The queues to simply collect a renewed license were also unimaginably long and slow. In the hour I spent in a parallel queue, the collections line barely moved. There was not one happy person in any queue. Everyone, every customer, was miserable. While some people looked pretty given-up, some, including me just became frustrated and angry. How could a government / municipality (hard to know where to put the blame) tolerate such callous disregard for its citizens ? The things that needed fixing did not seem difficult. Add more staff. Build better systems. I had done an eye-test at a private practitioner. Why could I not just upload the results instead of having to come in. Why not allow for EFT’s instead of long queues ? Surely that helps the licensing department and the customer ? Theoretically I could have handled the whole renewal online. In business that’s exactly what we would have created. A system that conveniences the company and the customer. During my few hours at the licensing department, my frustration brewing at every step, I thought, well, what are the principles of customer service that should be our non-negotiables:

1. Care — It sounds trite, but if we care about the pain that customers feel, we can create processes and efficiencies that address the pinch points.

2. Convenience — minimise the time and hassle when providing your service. Use online wherever possible. Speed of service, turnaround times and high reactivity are crucial to any good business.

3. Information — keep clients informed of progress every step of the way. Milestone tracking and monitoring has become the norm.

4. Act on poor service — when it comes to our attention that we have slipped up somewhere we agonise over what we can do to make sure it doesn’t happen again. We regularly survey or invite input from our clients to ensure we have an up to date read on service quality.

5. Warmth — Grumpy or difficult interactions are never permissible. Our message is that we are on your side and we are going to be a trusted and friendly guide in helping you navigate through your time with us.

For the most part good customer service doesn’t cost oodles of money. It is a mindset thing. It’s the attitude we project from our business to make sure we give you the best version of what we can be. Its true we don’t always get it right. And when we don’t we want that to be an opportunity for educating ourselves how to do it better. Good customer service, it seems so simple. Amazing how rarely we find it.