Perhaps I’m saying this too often — know the purpose of your message and know your audience if your corporate communication is to be effective. But, I believe it’s a point worth repeating because it is so easy to overlook. For example, I was asked to design a dissemination strategy for a tool kit on volunteering that a quango had put together. When asked about audience, I was told, “The whole world is our audience!” I then asked the staff what their budget was for translating the toolkit into all the languages of the world. The response was silence.

The answer is a most emphatic NO! Right now it is my internet service provider that is guilty of poor customer service. Before that it was a pizza outlet. To be fair, there was some kind of service resolution – the wrong order was replaced (though it meant more calls and waiting until the next afternoon for the correct order to be delivered).

My complaint is that these companies spend huge sums on advertising but the bare minimum on training their staff in essential customer service skills.

  1. What annoys me the most is that none of the staff know how to listen. It’s only at the level of area manager and above do I find staff who actually listen. At the lower levels, the staff seem to be trained to follow a fixed script and to not deviate from it at any cost. Hence, when I called to complain that I had been sent the wrong pizza order, the young woman’s response was, “What is your telephone number?”!! It’s only when I furiously (I was hungry and angry) asked what my telephone number had to do with a wrong order, did she change her response to something more intelligent and unscripted.
  2. Why do call centre staff mumble when talking on the phone? I’ve noticed that when overseas customers make the same complaint, companies here are quick to dismiss it as racial prejudice. However, I am an Indian and if I cannot understand what call centre staff say over the telephone, the problem has to be with the service agent and not the customer.
  3. Be it inbound or outbound calls, the staff do not clearly introduce themselves – name or company. In one government owned, telephone company, the call centre staff were all named after the late Michael Jackson’s children! And no, I don’t have a sense of humour.
  4. Going back to my internet service provider, the area manager had recorded my complaint. After that I got call after call asking me to repeat my complaint. When asked why, I was told the complaint had not been clearly recorded.
  5. The staff have no problem-solving skills. Because they do not listen/know how to listen, customer service staff (front office or call centre) are unable to take decisions and provide solutions. Therefore, the complaint has to be ‘escalated’ up the organizational pyramid until the customer reaches a senior enough manager who can do both.

What annoys me is that these are companies that spend lavishly on marketing. Which is fine. Only, the marketing has to be backed up by good customer service. I wonder if India, Inc is aware that their businesses lose nearly $2.5 billion annually because of poor customer service. For more statistics read the article, India loses Rs 11,640-cr a year on poor customer service: study published by the Business-Standard in August 2009.

Good customer service requires well trained staff. Here training providers are as much responsible as companies for the inadequate training being offered. All too often I come across training material that promises much in its objectives, but the content fails to cover the basics of customer service. There is much theory and little practical training. (I suppose, this approach to learning spills over from our education system which values theoretical knowledge over practical application.) As I advised the staff at the internet service outlet, “What you expect as a customer, do that for your customers.”

Companies meanwhile, are unwilling to invest in the time, effort, and expense required to develop quality training material. But then if the cost of poor customer service is Rs. 11,640 crore per annum, it is time for companies rethink their training budgets and their approach to training.

Does the meaning change if percentages are used instead of numbers and vice versa?  According to the Planning Commission of India, 27.5% of the population was living below the poverty line in 2004–2005. This would suggest that the number of people living in poverty has decreased by nearly half since 1977-1978 when the percentage was 51.3% of the population.  However, going by population number, the actual decrease is less than 10 million people.

A reader writes:

Not to take away from the frustrations people experience either from layoffs or wrongful termination, I echo your point about the importance of ever improving communication skills. In this I include both written and verbal. Ironically, few resume’s exclude the phrase “strong communication skills,” yet the typical resume reflects exactly the opposite.

So, what exactly are good communication skills? In my mind we need to work on several areas to enhance them:

  • Organization of ideas
  • Building compelling arguments
  • Careful word selection to convey precise meaning
  • Concise delivery

Whether speaking or writing, the above list are 4 core areas that can be worked on separately. One of my favorite techniques is to respond to radio news stories as if I were being asked to respond to the question being posed.

I cannot tell you the number of times I personally have been granted “expert” status in a conversation, simply because I have become an above average communicator. The lesson for your audience is that often the credibility of your personal credentials, experience, and knowledge are largely dependent on your ability to communicate effectively.

In an earlier post, I had referred to the website www.lay-off.org . To be honest, when I read the posts I find it hard to sympathise with the writers. I can understand their angst and anger at being unemployed. Unfortunately their communication skills are so poor that their grievance lacks credibility.

Wrong grammar and syntax together with poor tone combine to present a picture of immaturity and incompetence. Behaviours, unwelcome in the workplace even at the best of times. That they were hired at all reflects poorly on their former employers.

The conventional wisdom on communication skills, particularly in India, is that it is optional rather than essential. What many do not see is how vital these skills are in building credibility, creating goodwill and influencing people. At school, in college and in the workplace the focus is on quantitative rather than verbal skills. And yet study after study has shown that it is the latter which determines career progress. Perhaps the current hard times will encourage a new appreciation for this much neglected skill.

In early June there were news stories on the financial payment made as a “humanitarian gesture” by Shell to the families of Nigerian writer and activist Ken Saro-Wiwa and eight others who were executed by the state as a consequence of what many see as their protests against the oil company’s business practices in Nigeria.

Reading stories about human rights abuses by companies, it is easy to fall into the trap of demonising business and all associated with it. Having worked with both businesses and NGOs, I find the good, bad and the ugly exist in both. One of the darker jokes about the post-tsunami relief and rehabilitation efforts is that it resulted in two groups of people – the TVs and the TBs, i.e. tsunami victims and tsunami beneficiaries.

In my work I have frequently encountered extraordinary and unconditional grace, goodness and kindness in people. However, if I were to probe, I would find that these same people harbour views that disregard or deny human rights. This is not because they want to be abusers, but because they are ignorant of what constitutes abuse. An example is the issue of child labour. I have heard people defend their decision to employ children as an act of charity which helps support a poor family.

I believe in engaging with and educating businesses. Companies are trying to get their act together – corporate social responsibility is very much in. But managers are trying to do this without a sufficient or right understanding of why CSR is needed/important. My suggestion is an introductory workshop on human rights. Executives would begin to see that they are as much affected by human rights abuse as the poor are.
The premise for such a workshop is fairly simple. Businesses would be more supportive of human rights initiatives when the people who run/manage the business have a right understanding of what human rights are, their impact on all people and on the bottom line.

Through Naukri.com’s HR news digest, I came across the website www.lay-off.org . One of the posts is a complaint against employers who have begun to scrutinise their employees’ résumés for possible misinformation.  When false information is found, the employee is dismissed. The complaint is that padding résumés was widely practised and with the knowledge of recruiters during the years of plenty. But now in these lean times, it provides employers with the means to lay-off staff without admitting to it. What I find dismaying is the writer does not express remorse over misleading an employer. The writer’s remorse is in being held accountable for the deception.