Wednesday, March 01, 2006

Bad business

I am going to have a wee grumble. I've been stewing over this for a while now, and it's time I let it out.

The Man and I sometimes help out friends who do business with companies overseas. Generally this is small scale, and involves writing business letters and emails, with the occasional phone call. Nothing too difficult, you would think.

However, we often run into a problem. This problem is that many business people, apparently, cannot read. I send an email asking a question, and the person at the other end fires back a response answering a different question altogether, or asking for information that was contained in the email I just sent.

I am currently in the middle of one such series of miscommunications.

(Details edited out - The Man tells me we must not risk the transaction falling through, so even though I think I was fairly anonymous about it, the Japan link could make it obvious. A small risk, but not worth taking. Maybe I'll add it in again later. Anyway...)

I am getting really tired of this. A simple transaction is taking FOREVER. I wish I could say that this particular transaction is an exception, but it isn't. It happens all the time.

Also, a pattern is emerging. From my limited experience, I can tell you this:

Countries where English is spoken are the worst, with the exception of New Zealand. I don't know why, unless I just got lucky. I have dealt with two or three NZ companies and never had any problems. I would be proud of this, except that why should I be proud of normal behaviour?

The U.S. is the worst in terms of simple business etiquette, and I can't blame email for this. On one memorable occasion before we had email, a response to a fax I sent was my own fax sent back with a scrawled, difficult-to-read note in the margin and an arrow pointing to the question it was answering. The question was answered, but showing it to our client was embarrassing, it was so unprofessional. This was an extreme example, but unbusinesslike responses are not unusual. The tone is not professional, questions are not answered fully, and most of the time if there is more than one question they are not answered at all.

The same goes for companies in the U.K.. People apparently do not read emails to the end, and nor do they read them properly. Responses from the U.K. tend to be more professional in tone, but the content is no better.

When we dealt with a company in India the responses were extremely polite, professional, and to the point, and all our questions were answered promptly. (As a bonus, at Christmas we were sent the most hilariously kitch animated e-card you can imagine.)

A French company I dealt with recently responded less professionally, but it was clear from their writing that they did not know very much English. In fact the website was in French, and I hadn't been sure that they would respond at all. However, all questions were answered, and the transaction went perfectly smoothly despite the language barrier. I was impressed.

Can anybody tell me what is going on? I am generally dealing with office staff here, not the people at the top. I don't know whether they are called secretaries any more, but basically they are people doing secretarial work. (The exception is the American guy above, who was the owner, and I suspect the entire staff, of the company.)

What really puzzles me is that people who do this sort of work are making their jobs far more difficult for themselves, and making it less likely that they will succeed in doing business.


(More edited out. Sorry.)

I would use a different company, except that the other three companies I wrote to enquiring about similar products did not even grant me the courtesy of responding to my enquiries.

I hereby send out two requests to all native English-speaking business people:

1. PLEASE LEARN TO READ AND WRITE. Alternatively, hire somebody who can. A person who can compose professional, businesslike letters addressing your clients concerns in full will do wonders for your company's image in the international business world.


Thank you.


Potentilla said...

Lots of small companies do, I think, get over-excited on their websites and put things about international deliveries without having the faintest clue about how they would support them. I have had this problem with a small company in Japan. My experience is certainly that companies are much more responsive and efficient in servicing their home markets (ie I do a lot of business on the internet with UK companies and most of them are fine). My guess is that Kiwis are better about this because their home market is small so they have to be able to service international orders (even if only Australian!) to generate revenue.

It sounds to me as though the person at the company the corro with which you quote at length is just not very bright. Ringing up usually works best in this case. Is that too expensive from Japan? There is certainly a class of small business that just can't seem to do email at all.

Potentilla said...

Oh, and the other thing about ringing up is that you can try to talk to someone other than the person you were emailing. I have occasionally got the boss of a small business, explained politely the sad history of my dealings with his company to date, and felt him getting more and more desperate and furious (and apologetic to me) as I spoke; I imagine him starting to hurl things across the room at his junios salesperson/temporary dogsbody/whomever.

Potentilla said...

And another afterthought (sorry); if you want to ask several questions, NUMBER them:-

(1) what colour is item Hxxx?

(2) what are the dimensions (H x W x D) of Hxxx?

(3) what are the dimensions (H x W x D) of Hyyy?

It makes it easier for the hard-of-understanding to follow.

Pkchukiss said...

Oh dear! And I thought that only Singaporean businesses have trouble corresponding properly!

You see, the businesses over here have a compulsive habit of sending pre-packaged replies to customer's queries.

Then they rant on about how customer feedback is very important to them (perhaps for lining the wall with paper trails of complaints?), and how much they appreciate the feedback - all without addressing the problem directly.

We will look into your complaints.

The Friendly staff at Company.

Badaunt said...

Potentilla: I do number my questions! Always! And the first questions is the only one that EVER gets answered. I suspect that email is responsible for this - people hit 'reply' and then answer the questions they can SEE below, which disappear as they type, and they end up only seeing number one.

(Although, if they were sensible, they might guess that if there is a number one there will be others following...)

Phoning is a good idea, and I have resorted to that quite frequently. But it does get expensive. The company I am dealing with now has a very long history and a good product, and isn't all that small, I don't think. I suspect it is just this person I am dealing with who is incompetent, and if things don't get sorted soon (now up to 34 emails) I will call.

And I think you're right about the NZ companies. The honey company is a small one, but I think most of their business is international.

(Since you commented I've edited out a lot of the post, removing anything that COULD be found that might jeopardize the transaction. I think it would be highly unlikely, but YOU NEVER KNOW. As The Man pointed out, even the tiniest risk is silly at this point.

kenju said...

If I were you, I would call to find out the name of the manager or business owner and report the shabby and slipshod treatment you have experienced.

I find that not many employees care about customer service as they used to, but when they are doing/not doing things to jeopardize the reputation of their company - then the boss needs to know. You may want to wait until your transactions are over to make this contact - but do not fail to do it.

Robert said...

Unfortunately, the attitude is typical. Americans, at least, simply don't value writing. You hear lip service paid to how much they value communication, but not if that means they actually have to read and write to do it.

tinyhands said...

Robert is correct. Communication in this country is bad and getting worse. To be honest, I'm surprised you get any response at all, since most of my inquiries go unanswered (apart from the automated form letter).

On the other hand, if you're off inserting extra letters in your words again (such as 'u' in the word 'color') you're not helping things from your end. ;)

Anonymous said...

Potentilla said: It sounds to me as though the person at the company the corro with which you quote at length is just not very bright.

This is a comforting thought, since it always means I'm superior, smarter, better, altogether a mensch, and the other person is subhuman.

Timed toilet breaks, video supervision, and one person doing the work of three. Noone over thirty in the building except the boss, and she's being made redundant.

All this perched on 2ndary education systems designed to sidetrack the not so well off...

It's economic rationalism, which is designed to re-allocate social wealth upwards. And it's run - at the top - by power-dressing cultists.

What do you all expect!

Carrie said...

I don't know what's going on, but I have been totally shocked by the way the accounts department at the hospital I gave birth in has been treating us. They send us little post it notes with words underlined and lots of exclamation points. They call and don't leave messages, or they leave a message with just a phone number. They send us threatening letters. All this because the insurance company needs a simple code that they've requested four times from the hospital and the hospital won't give it to them. Instead they harass us. It is insane and completely unprofessional. I wonder who these people are.

BotanicalGirl said...

As an American, I attribute this to pure laziness and apathy, combined with a university system that allows people to graduate without being able to read or write coherently.

I recommend moving up the chain of command until you find someone who appears intelligent.