by Julia Ahlfeldt (@JuliaAhlfeldt) Thirty-four seconds. That’s all it took to exasperate thousands of South Africans who stayed up past their bedtime to cash in on the Black Friday bonanza. By 12:00:34, social media was abuzz with outbursts about Takealot, Superbalist, Dion Wired and Foschini’s disastrous server crashes that stopped shoppers at the e-door as the clock struck 12, all fired up but nowhere to go. By 9am, little had changed, except shoppers were now empty-handed and tired….

In Takealot and co’s defence, they stayed up through the night to communicate to customers about the unforeseen situation. This likely helped mitigate the reputational onslaught that followed in online media articles the next day. Yet, it blatantly exposes a serious oversight on the brands’ part: They simply were not ready for the rush.

In a digital age, where customers expect things to “just work”, ease of use and delivering on promises are two non-negotiables. Unless you were living under a rock in the week leading up to Friday, 24 November 2017, it was impossible to miss the Black Friday mania.

Creating a frenzy is all well and good but only if supply can meet demand.

A valuable lesson

This embarrassing Black Friday faux pas is not an isolated incident. Every day, brands and businesses let their customers down.

A sector that is infamous for its questionable customer experience is banking. Traditional incumbents Absa, Standard Bank and Nedbank have been no less than slated by customers on social media, thanks to long queues, slow issue resolution and app glitches. This was made loud and clear in the 2017 Brandseye Banking Sentiment Index [full disclosure: Julia Ahlfeldt contributed to this index by providing a customer experience (CX) lens to the data].

Customers negatively rated the Big 5 banks with a dismal average — 10 NPS (Net Promoter Score). To put this in context, their American banking peers scored a collective +26. They also performed poorly against the NEE (Net Experience Effect), my barometer for customer experience health. This was thanks to a collective score of -57 for resolving customer complaints and -75 for ease of use. The etailers’ Black Friday boo-boo is likely to have scored as dismally, if not worse.

Who’s getting it right?

Fortunately, not all local brands are following suit. There are plenty of proactive CEOs and CMOs who take their customers’ experiences very seriously. These are the businesses that put customer care at the centre of their operations, and seek to solve customer problems — be it stock availability, prices or tech issues — ahead of their own.

Historically, the customer-care department was regarded as a cost-centre and under scrutiny by the CFO to maintain slim margins. Within this context, customer support isn’t the focus for innovation or investment, and so teams are often ill-equipped to meet customer expectations and are too detached from decision-making to have their input heard. But a few — take Discovery or Yuppiechef for instance — are heading in the right direction.

While not perfect, Discovery has done a great job of understanding how to make its customer journey easy and seamless. The addition of claim drop-off points means that customers don’t have to go through the hassle of scanning and emailing claims. Its client portal is linked with its app and user devices, enabling customers to have a single view of their products and provides a one-stop hub for most common FAQs.

Similarly, Yuppiechef CEO Andrew Smith’s recent acknowledgement that “they were wrong” about ecommerce being the future of retail in SA was a humbling move and, one I suspect, reaped reputational dividends among its customers. Who doesn’t respect a healthy dose of humble pie? Its flagship bricks ’n mortar Willowbridge store shows that it is on the money with an omnichannel customer experience that indulges South Africans’ entrenched mall culture. At the end of the day, enjoying a cappuccino and a shopping spree on a Saturday morning is still a way of life for many, despite the accessibility and convenience of online everything.

Make every day matter

Server crashes aside, what I take away from Takealot’s Black Friday fiasco is a stark reminder that every interaction with a customer counts. Customers — that is, you and I — are savvy, connected and demanding. We’re spoilt for choice and have brands falling over themselves to make a sale, making us even more discerning and intolerant. Why put up with shoddy service when a similar product may be purchased elsewhere? While South Africans may be a persistent bunch — Takealot recorded R87m in sales from 52 000 orders despite itself (up from R56m in 2016) — we’re also not fools. The brand experienced technical glitches in previous Black Fridays, which it promised to overcome in 2017 by upgrading systems. The sheer volume of shoppers, some of whom were likely keen to buy online for the first time to get their share of up to 80% off, was impressive but should have been foreseen.

To make up for the lack of sleep that their customers experienced on the morning of the 24th, the etailers will need to make 100% certain that, in future, their technology works, that complaints are quickly resolved and that their promises are fulfilled every other day of the week. Not just on Black Friday. Customers can forgive but they don’t easily forget. Neither does social media. Twice burnt, thrice shy?

Last week’s events are poignant reminders that there are humans behind brands, and errors can and do happen. But, as customers, we expect a level of empathy, service and respect in our purchasing interactions. It’s our hard-earned money, after all, and, when armed with a credit card at midnight on a Thursday, we expect things to go our way, especially when promises have been made about this year’s experience being “fired up” and ready to handle the crowds. We may only hope for a smoother Black Friday next year.


Julia AhlfeldtJulia Ahlfeldt (@JuliaAhlfeldt) is a certified customer experience professional (CCXP). She consults to blue-chips and multinationals, and advises them how to retain relevance and increase profits by transitioning from inwardly focused silos to being dynamic and customer-centric. She has worked with Virgin Active, Momentum, Absa, and American Express, Ross Stores and JP Morgan Chase in the US, among others.

“Motive” is a by-invitation-only column on Contributors are picked by the editors but generally don’t form part of our regular columnist lineup, unless the topic is off-column.

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