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Rant alert.

The temptation to form premature theories upon insufficient data is the bane of our profession.

I have harped on here before about how rubbish some companies can be when it comes to customer service. And now I have a new bug bear. It is the crimes against common sense that are committed every day under the guise of the Data Protection Act. The way that some customer service departments hide behind the Act in order to avoid doing their job properly.

The Data Protection Act 1998 was designed to protect our details from mis-use by companies wanting to flood our letter boxes and inboxes with sales material for stuff we don’t want or don’t need.

It was not designed to frustrate people with perfectly legitimate complaints from dealing with customer service departments that are determined not to be of service to customers in any way shape or form.

A certain large-scale home store of Scandinavian origin managed to cock-up the delivery of a small square of plywood for the back of a shelf unit so comprehensively it had me wondering if they were doing it on purpose as some kind of customer-initiation test.

It’s too painful to go through the whole sorry process here – in any case there isn’t the will or time in the whole of cyberspace – but the short version is that the back of the shelf unit arrived broken and after several phone calls to customer services, promising to put it right, we’d had the wrong piece sent out. Twice. The next call to customer services (emails, it seems, go unanswered) had me coming up against a lady armed with the knowledge that she had the full force of the Data Protection Act behind her.

No, she was not prepared to talk to me because it was my husband’s name on the order. I spent so long wrangling with her to no avail that I actually found myself shouting the following: “What do you think I’m going to do with this 12in sq piece of plywood – make a bomb with it, use it to steal someone’s identity and clean out their bank account. It’s my husband’s order – I already HAVE his bank details. If I wanted to steal his money I would already have done so!”

I had the original order number, the case number assigned to the original complaint, all the details of the order, the delivery address, even the credit card that was used to make the payment and she still wasn’t prepared to discuss ‘the elements of this case’ because “it’s against the law”.

No, no, no it isn’t. It’s just against the way that you have chosen to interpret a very loosely worded and badly communicated Act. She wouldn’t even accept an email from my husband, allowing Ikea – yes, you guessed it – to talk to me, in case I had somehow got into his emails and was sending it myself.

Six weeks, a dozen phone calls and emails later and we finally have the 12sq in piece of plywood to finish the shelf unit. Two actually, which arrived with consecutive postmen.

Trust me, no amount of twinkly tealights, cheap coat hangers or scrummy Swedish meatballs can make up for the fact that their customer service ranks up there with BT’s as the worst in the world.

Compare this with the lovely attitude of the chap at Kudos, the shower enclosure people. “Yes, of course madam. I’ll send you out a new hinge for the folding bath panel to replace the one that fiddly little-boy fingers have managed to break (I have no idea how!). No, I don’t need to know when and where you bought the product. I’ll pop a new one – and a spare one, just in case, in the post now.” True to his word, he did and the packet arrived a few days later.

The morals of this tale, if there can be any, have to be: remember there’s big difference between using someone’s details to flood them with advertising and actually helping them out. Chances are, you won’t be pissing anyone off if you talk to someone that isn’t the exact named person on the account and you might just get a happy customer.

Oh, and if you’re doing anything in the name of customer service, just ask yourself for a moment ‘how would Ikea handle this?” Then do the opposite.

About Fiona Russell-Horne

Group Managing Editor across the BMJ portfolio.

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