Lessons from contrasting examples of customer relations: GDF and Lenovo

This blog post is based on a totally unscientific review of my own experiences with two companies, French energy provider Gaz de France (GDF) and computer manufacturer Lenovo, but I do think it provides some useful insights into what helps make customer service work and what impedes it.

GDF is full of hot air

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Our saga with Gaz de France began about 3.5 years ago when we bought a house. Because of the subdivision of lots as our town became more densely built up, we actually share a house number with two neighbouring houses. We don’t know why no attempt was made to distinguish between the three properties with suffixes like Bis or Ter, but that’s the situation. We called GDF to get the gas put in our name. We gave them the name of the former owners and the number on the metre the day the sales was finalized. A few weeks later we still had not received our first bill/contract, so we called back. We were told that the number we had given was wrong and the a technician would need to come by, and that we should be home for an entire half-day in case we were needed. No one ever rang the doorbell, but shortly thereafter we received our first bill.

The first sign that something had gone wrong was 3 September 2007 when GDF took its first payment out of our bank account and we received a notice in our mailbox that if we didn’t contact GDF immediately about an unpaid bill, our gas would be turned off within 24 hours. Furious, I called; the customer service representative, who apologized for the error, confirmed that our payment was in their system and assured us that everything was fine.

We had arranged for automatic monthly payments, so we didn’t pay much attention to the situation until December 2008. At that point, our neighbours discovered by accident that their account with GDF had been cancelled, even though their gas service had never been interrupted. As they began digging into the problem, they asked what number metre was referenced on our bills. It turns out that GDF had put us on their metre. Furthermore, we realized that GDF had stopped taking automatic payments out of our bank account in April of that year, after the GDF representative had come by for the annual metre reading.

We and our neighbours spent numerous hours on the phone with GDF to straighten things out. However, to our frustration, we never spoke to the same agent twice, and there is no possibility of actually meeting a GDF representative and going over the dossier (which would allow both files to be handled together and let our neighbours produce their decades of old invoices to show which metre they were on and what their historical level of use is). A technician came by to look at the metres (which now bear our names) and never bothered to ring either doorbell. After several months, our half of the file finally seemed to be settled, although there were some additional issues with them debiting the totality of back payments at once despite an agreement to spread it out over 8 months. In June 2009 we started getting bills on the right account. Our neigbours continued their dialogue, writing to the mediator several times, etc. because there seemed to be a major discrepancy between their current bills and their historical consumption and because GDF never produced a comprehensive, detailed and clear explanation of exactly how much gas was used on each metre for each payment period.

A few weeks ago the neighbours asked us to look at our bills again as theirs still aren’t settled. To our surprise, we discovered that GDF had started charging us on the wrong metre again in October 2009 without calling our attention to the fact in any way. We immediately called and were assured that the file would be sorted out within a few da

ys. Sure enough, several days later, we received four bills: three reimbursing the money charged for the wrong metre (although one of the bills inexplicably lists both metres) and a fourth bill for a new payment on the wrong metre again! So the story is ongoing and unresolved. GDF is supposed to come by on Monday morning, but we do not have much hope that it will make much difference.

Lenovo — accessibility and responsiveness

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Being quite sick last week, I was working on the couch recliner. At one point in time, I discovered to my horror that I had accidentally sliced through the cable on my power adapter when I got up from the recliner and the cord got caught in the chair’s mechanics. It was the end of the day, so I decided to work offline and go to the computer store the next day to buy a new one. Although I did curse my stupidity, I figured this couldn’t be a major problem because people must lose or break adapters all the time.

I returned to the store where I bought the laptop two years ago, but they didn’t have the right replacement part. To my surprise they didn’t offer to order one either. (I later realized that they no longer sell Lenovo computers, which probably explains their lack of interest in providing after sales customer service.) Following their suggestions, I tried several other stores in the same mall and a neighbouring one. After five attempts, it became clear that I was in trouble and that going directly to the source was my only hope.

Back at home, I used my other half’s computer to visit the Lenovo site. I was not encouraged by the number of broken page links on the French version of the site, but I finally managed to locate a telephone number. I dialled, chose the appropriate option from the automatic menu and then listened to some truly lovely classical music for about ten minutes before the system cut me off. Every time I tried to call, this same problem recurred. By this point in time, I was starting to panic. I thought for a few minutes, and decided to see if I could get anywhere through Twitter.

I looked up the Lenovo account, briefly explained my problem to @lenovo, and had someone’s e-mail address within about 20 minutes. I sent an e-mail explaining my problem and, again, received a reply quite quickly. By the end of the day, the entire Lenovo EMEA customer service team was combing the continent to find me an adapter to replace my model, which turned out to be non-standard and obsolete (135W instead of the standard 90W now on the market). By the next morning Lenovo France had sent me an estimate for a new adapter and related handling and shipping charges. Unfortunately, with the holidays, it will only be delivered early this coming week, but at least a solution was found.

Why was one case successful and the other not?

I’ve been mulling over these two different cases and trying to understand why one company has been floundering to resolve a simple administrative problem of their own creation for so long and another company managed to locate a rare part in such a short time. Here are my conclusions so far:

  • Openness and accessibility — The only way to contact GDF is through an anonymous call centre or to write to the mediator (but good luck finding that address), who is apparently totally underresourced for the number of customer service complaints that have been lodged since GDF separated from Electricité de France. The client has no way of knowing who handles the dossier and has to repeat the story from the beginning each time, despite the notes taken by the (admittedly very nice) customer service representatives. Lenovo, on the other hand, provides several options, including social media. This latter point was critical to get around what turned out to be a technical problem with Lenovo’s phone lines in France.
  • Personal accountability — Although the first point of contact at Lenovo is anonymous, I was quickly given an individual’s name and e-mail address. I was then copied on all the messages sent by the Lenovo personnel to each other as they tried to sort out my problem (which allowed me to provide additional information and keep people from working in parallel). By contrast, at GDF, if there has been one person assigned to our case, that information has never been communicated to us and we have never been given any personal contact information.
  • Empowered employees — The Lenovo team are clearly empowered to do whatever is necessary to solve a legitimate customer problem. They combed the organization and their supply chain in order to sort the problem out and managed to mobilize people in several countries despite skeleton crews working the week between Christmas and the New Year. When I asked a GDF representative once if she could just put me in touch with the service that needed to look at my dossier in detail, she told me that she didn’t even have their number and could only communicate with them through a computer form. That might work for a routine matter, but clearly is inadequate in such a complicated case.

In short, effective organizational communications are critical to effective customer service. Everyone I have talked to at GDF has been pleasant and helpful, but the rigidity of their system seems to make it virtually impossible to deal with a situation that doesn’t correspond to a predefined schema: in this case, they need to treat two dossiers simultaneously, we need to physically sit down with someone at GDF, and one single person needs to be responsible for following the file and be accessible to us.

Back-up systems are also important. Although Lenovo has a customer service phone number as its first point of contact for most people, it is possible to work around a technical failure through other channels (like Twitter). When people were on holiday in France, colleagues in other countries were willing and able to help (I heard from people as far away as Slovakia and the United States).

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