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[Listen to an audio version of this blog entry here.]
For some business people, the customer-is-always-right mantra is seen as a golden rule.
It makes sense on numerous levels. For many if not most businesses, the goal is not only to keep current customers onside but there’s also the interminable task of trying to get more. So showing care and understanding towards clients can, quite literally, pay off.
Of course, in business as in life, nobody is right all of the time. In fact, in many scenarios, it’s often the case that it’s not one particular player that carries all the blame while others are fully correct or wholly innocent.
The danger with the customer-is-always-right approach is that it can leave the door open for uncalled-for, unfair, misplaced abuse. The aggrieved party should be aware that his/her ire may be directed at the wrong target. Thus, when dealing with a perceived injustice, it’s best to try to keep one’s emotions in check. Play it as cool as possible.
There is, though, a delicate balance to be struck. Whatever a person’s role in a problem — the offender, the offended or somewhere in between — if one allows others to dominate completely, there’s a risk that the more submissive actor will come to be seen as a soft touch. And some characters are particularly skilled at manipulating soft touches.
‘During that time I had an angry exchange with the Vanti employee. Talk about misdirecting one’s rage.’
All the previous were at play in a recent incident I got caught up in with Bogotá’s network gas provider, Grupo Vanti.
In my current room rental, I pay an all-inclusive rent. The largely absentee landlady takes care of all the service bills.
Since taking the room in February, I had never once been asked by the landlady to check if an invoice had arrived (all mail is received and held by the security staff at the apartment complex reception i.e. it’s not delivered to individual apartments).
I hadn’t been asked, that is. A few weeks back the landlady did ask me to check for the gas bill. That very day, which was a Monday, I inquired about it at reception. The security guards told me there was no correspondence whatsoever for my apartment. I asked them to let me know if and when anything arrives. I also informed the landlady of this.
Fast forward to the Thursday morning of that week when I get a call from security telling me that a workman from the gas company is on-site to disconnect the gas. ‘Eh, what?’
I was rather livid. As I frantically contacted the landlady and communicated with the security guards at reception it was “discovered” the gas bill had indeed arrived a few days earlier.
Within minutes the landlady paid the bill plus a reconnection fee, effectively a late-payment penalty. During that time — very much not in control of my emotions — I had an angry exchange with the Vanti employee. Talk about misdirecting one’s rage.
So while subsequently discovering that this employee should have reconnected the gas that day, he had taken the hump due to my reaction and refused to carry out company orders.
The next day, Friday, I contacted Vanti and after a long-winded WhatsApp and Twitter exchange, I was told the gas would be reconnected by close of business. It wasn’t.
‘I did as I had threatened. I turned the gas back on.’
So on the Saturday morning, I went through all the same long-winded message procedures, repeating myself umpteen times, to be again told that the problem would be resolved that day. This time, however, I warned Vanti that if the gas wasn’t reconnected I would do it myself (it wasn’t an overly complicated procedure).
Surprise, surprise, it wasn’t reconnected that Saturday. So I did as I said I would. I turned it back on.
The very next Monday I got a call from Vanti asking me about the current situation. I told the caller that I now had gas again but this was no thanks to them.
With the case still open after I’d formally expressed my dissatisfaction at the company’s response via a form from the relevant state regulator, later that week I received another call from Vanti. I was told that my complaint and claim had been ‘elevated’ to another area — I was, for the record, looking for compensation for the days without gas and for having to actually reconnect it myself.
A few days later I got an email from Vanti which effectively said the company had no case to answer: ‘Be about your business and stop pestering us, please.’
Like all the previous responses, information was given on how the complainant could continue with the case.
Yet, with the feeling that it was becoming more hassle than it was worth — no doubt this is the aim of all companies that use such a strategy — coupled with the headache-inducing legal Spanish, I decided not to pursue it further. Well, this blog story aside.
The Que Pena Republic
Viewing this whole episode in light of the ‘delicate balances’ at play in such conflicts, it’s good practice to try to see, impartially, where the greatest blame lies.
Obviously, being directly involved, it’s difficult for me to be impartial. But I shall try.
First of all, the landlady is responsible for paying the gas bill. It was her failure to do so that started the whole problem. Not unsurprisingly in these parts, she has refused to accept responsibility, saying that Vanti didn’t send the bill in time and thus she wasn’t to know.
‘It was a Colombian solution to a problem. After a host of wrongs, a right of sorts was stumbled upon.’
However, her asking me about the bill’s whereabouts shows at the very least that she knew it had to be paid around that time. And she would have known the consequences of late payment. She surely could have taken preventative action. In theory, anyway. The practice in Colombia is often quite different from what one might expect.
The landlady’s culpability accepted, my verbally aggressive behaviour towards the Vanti workman certainly didn’t help matters. Had I not got angry at him, the gas may have been reconnected that same day it was cut off. We’ll never know.
So now we come to Vanti’s culpability and responsibility. The company simply failed to do what it said it would do i.e. reconnect the gas by close of business the same day it received notification of the problem. It failed with this two days in succession.
What’s more, the fact that Vanti didn’t seem to be too alarmed that it was me who turned the gas back on and not one of its qualified employees seems irresponsible to say the least. This is particularly so considering the highly dangerous nature of the service in question.
In many ways, it was a Colombian solution to a problem. After a host of wrongs, a right of sorts was stumbled upon.
What still bugs me, though, is that the greatest losses in all this were on my side. I was the one who was left without gas, unable to cook food for 48 hours. I also had the headache of directly dealing with the issue, the time and energy spent in contacting the company, having to repeat the case details various times.
OK, the landlady had to pay the reconnection fee but that’s the price for her failures mentioned above.
As for Vanti. Well, the rich just get richer. It’s at a net benefit in this whole affair.
In Colombia, not taking responsibility is a trait to be condoned, not condemned. It does seem to pay off.
Listen to Wrong Way’s Colombia Cast podcast here.