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Customer services lapses - What not to do

Online shopping is quick, convenient and safe - if you stick to the big, reputable sites - and South Africans are finally beginning to embrace shopping by click in significant numbers. By this last festive season, it accounted for more than 1% of all retail sales in South Africa.

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Listen to Wendy on the topic below, or read the details under the podcast.


And it’s growing exponentially, Steven Ambrose, CEO of local technology research firm Strategy told me in January when leading online retailer Takealot told South Africans it “had Christmas covered” and then let down about 50 000 people by not getting their presents to them on tim

Despite the strain of gearing up to cope with the demand, Ambrose said, “overall, South Africa’s online retailers are performing well and appear to be within internationally acceptable limits for delivery.”

But since the end of May leading online fashion retailer Spree has dropped the ball quite badly, thanks to staffing problems in its Joburg warehouse, which is run by a third party.

At least 6000 customers didn’t get their orders when they were supposed to.

Ronelle Munsami of Durban North ordered and paid for a R499 pair of boots on May 29 with the standard promise of “delivery to your door within two to four working days”.


A week later when there was still no sign of them, she got an email from “the Spree Team” apologising for the delivery failure, and explaining that her order was “still part of a backlog of orders that we are busy processing at our warehouse”.

“Please also note that due to this backlog our call centre is experiencing high call volumes, please expect delays when contacting us.”

She finally got those boots a couple of days ago, but many others are still waiting for their orders.

Compounding the problem was the lack of public acknowledgement of the problem until this week - the website had a banner across the top saying: “We are experiencing ‘high orders and call volumes” - and warned people to expect delays, which misrepresented the cause of the problem.

That’s since been changed to a more accurate: “We're experiencing delays in the delivery of some orders and high call volumes."

The main problem was that Spree’s Twitter and Facebook accounts made no mention of the problem, and continued to post marketing messages as if nothing was wrong, infuriating those who were into the second week of waiting for the clothes they’d paid for.

Facebook complaints


“Why are you running promotions and taking new orders? Sort out the problems with your warehouse first,” posted Bonnie Harmse on Spree’s Facebook page.

Diane Koen wrote:  “This is shocking.  Got an SMS saying that I'll get delivery on Monday - still nothing - 2 emails sent - radio silence and a phone call which I have waited and was on hold for almost an hour!!!!!! Really!!!!!”


And Mel Asral wrote: “Why are we getting promotional emails advertising specials and discounts when you have not even fulfilled orders from 12 days ago? This is absolutely pathetic…”

By Tuesday, to its credit, the company was responding to all Facebook complaints.

And there is now a pinned tweet on Spree’s Twitter account disclosing the delivery delays and apologising.

Spree’s head of brand marketing, Kim Hawkins, said the company’s service provider had made changes to its staffing component in the Jo’burg warehouse, causing delays in the fulfillment of orders.

“We were aware of the planned changes, but we were not expecting the ramifications to the extent that we’re experiencing at the moment,” she said.

“We share our customers’ frustration as our service provider hasn’t been able to give an accurate estimate for deliveries…”

Apologising to customers, Hawkins said it wasn’t  the experience that the company wanted its customers to have. “We are working very hard to rectify the mistakes and get the orders delivered.”

Deliveries should be back on track by Friday, Hawkins said.

All companies will have a wobble sooner or later - we shouldn’t judge them on that, but rather on how they handle it. Communication is absolutely vital. Spree got that badly wrong for too long. The moment the problem was identified, there should have been full disclosure and apologies on Facebook and Twitter, and its website, and extra people brought in to answer phones and emails. 


Full disclosure


The natural question should have been answered - when would the problem be resolved?

“Glib responses are not enough - transparent and continuous communication becomes critical,” says eCommerce analyst Arthur Goldstuck.

And he went one further: “The moment the company shifts the goalposts after accepting someone's payment, it is not only one the back foot, but should compensate the customer,” he said.

Even something small - such as a discount off their next purchase - would go a long way to restoring goodwill.

People are really forgiving of a service lapse if they get a meaningful apology, full disclosure and there’s effective two-way communication.

Lesson learnt for Spree, I’m sure.

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