by Erna George. A day or so after my Fair Exchange column focusing on Pick n Pay’s Brand Match hit the web, I received a call from Gareth Ackerman. He wanted to discuss several of the issues I had raised, because he felt I had the wrong end of the stick.

Truth be told, I’d been planning on touching upon them here because — during the long lead time between deadline and publication — several points I had indicated as nonsensical and ill-conceived had been righted by Pick n Pay, particularly with respect to in-store communications and T&Cs.

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Image courtesy of Stuart Miles at

Even though not as breakthrough as I would prefer, a pat on the back, PnP, for introducing new news in a lackluster retail environment, and for correcting your course once you’d experienced that it wasn’t 100% correctly charted.

Conversing with customers

Anyway, this exchange got me thinking about ‘conversations’ with customers, especially via call centres. So many brands that do initiate conversations seem to take the role of a parent talking to a child: the conversations are one-sided, directive and sometimes distracted.

What with the shift in power towards the consumer (slow though it may be in South Africa), the opportunity to have dialogue as equals is enormous.

Delving into the world of call centres is daunting and frightening — managers, employees and, of course, consumers have experienced myriad varied interactions.

Limited follow-through

Many brands make a promise to, others invite feedback but — other than this declaration of intent — follow-through is limited. And can it be classified as dialogue?

Take Nestlé and its brand Milo, for example. A few months ago, Milo was offering a limited-edition offer, and directed folk to its website.

Off I went and made the enquiry on the page I was directed to. Upon hitting send, I got an instant message along the lines of ‘if you are having trouble getting through to us online, please send us an email’ and lost my two short paragraphs. Frustration! In the interest of research, I rewrote my enquiry using email … and then waited three days for what read like an automated response. Dialogue?

At least my experience was better than my husband’s with Kellogg’s. Upon discovering an alien product in his cereal, he called the number proudly displayed on the side of the box. It rang, followed by the obligatory ‘your call is important to us’, followed by ‘we cannot take your call right now; please leave a message after the beep’. Only there was no beep, just the call being cut — twice.

If the brand is not present

Maybe this was just a call-centre problem. But the issue is that the conversation cannot happen only at a time that is convenient for the brand. If the brand is not present, why should the consumer continue to engage, or indeed purchase, the brand going forward?

Let’s look a little further afield to more service-focused industry and consider a little fact: did you know that many women tend to use the same garage to fill their car, mostly for the security factor? What this presents is a prime opportunity for a brand-consumer conversation driven by the petrol attendants, who are the primary face of the brand.

I overheard a conversation at a lunch and enquired a little more of the young woman who had filled up at her nearest Shell for years. The petrol attendants knew her by face, not by car. They proactively cleaned her windows and checked her tyres — and once even helped her buff light scratches out of her car.

Enter a new loyalty programme requiring her to use Caltex. To maximise her points, she did the switch but was dissatisfied by the absence of a friendly greeting and proactive service. She needs petrol and wants loyalty points but it just isn’t worth the effort. Her words? “Not enough for someone who is a people’s person.”


When your product costs the same as your competitor, shouldn’t great service delivered via a great conversation be your differentiator to keep consumers engaged?

Moving to retail, about an hour after buying some decadent pastries, I received an SMS from Woolworths asking me to rate the service at the bakery of the specific store I was in. What? “Who was stalking me?” I thought, having forgotten I had swiped my Woolworths rewards card in the hope of earning a good deal down the line.

It was a shock to find out that the card was being used to track service and experience. I was in two minds about the whole thing: proactive dialogue or intrusion? However, after my research into brand engagement, I decided that as this was the first time I had received such a call, it was a valid and targeted way to seek feedback and connect. If it continues to happen after each visit, my mind will change.

We should see more of this type of conversation happening as a new technology from a local tech company, Beaconeye, comes onstream. It’s launching a new mobile app called Piing which will allow retailers to engage with the customers directly, from welcoming on entrance to the store (or being close enough to ping an invitation) to special offers on shelf… all while earning loyalty points.

Judicious use

This could be really empowering for retailers, and will unlock real value if used judiciously.

It must be an interaction that benefits both consumer and retailer, uses the profile information its clients provide as a guardrail, listen to their wants and needs, and then engage on terms that suit them. It cannot be about spam or irrelevant stalker-like messaging. Too many of these will see consumers opt out of the app.

Hitting the streets soon, let’s see how respectful and patient retailers will be with this conversation platform.

What to do

So in short, interaction is sought, so:

  • Make sure your communication tools are working (I can’t believe I had to even say this) so you appear interested in consumer’s views and do not frustrate
  • Develop your staff as your brand’s mouthpiece as they take on this role anyway
  • And, as digital grows, balance what you want with what the consumer needs, using a well-considered and highly targeted relevant communication tool

If you get this right, the equation of delighted customer equals value in your store could just become a reality.


Erna George


Erna George is the new director of strategy at Lowe Cape Town. She has worked with diverse brands and categories — from FMCG, alcohol and agriculture to financial services and entertainment — in countries across many geographies, including South Africa, Mozambique, Nigeria, Kenya, India, Philippines and Brazil. She contributes the monthly “Fair Exchange” column, concerning business relationships and partnerships in adland, to MarkLives.



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