by William Smook

Fed, fed swine

There’s often a direct link between appalling service and massive investment in marketing. Ignore it at your (yellow) peril

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I have far too vivid an imagination to be a fan of horror movies, so I channel-flipped past The Cabin in the Woods when I sleepily encountered it in a hotel-room one night. But the plot is pertinent to my recent experience with MTN, the cellphone behemoth and major booster of Nigeria’s coffers. I gleaned some lessons for brands and the people who do business with them.

As background: I had an MTN contract from 1995 until last month. In that time, I paid MTN around R93 000. That’s a lot of money and 20 years is a long time to endure execrable service.

In that time the company failed so spectacularly, so many times, that I must have seemed to them like the typical victim of domestic abuse, returning again and again to the abuser. Why? I suppose I thought all the service-providers were on a par, and besides, it’s such a schlep to switch.

But in hindsight, I wasn’t simply complacent about that abuse, but complicit in it. It’s like running after your mugger and shoving cash into his pocket after he’s coshed you and taken your watch.

I imagine MTN sniggering, “Look, he’s just signed up for another two years. Okay, now let’s drop his calls while he’s trying to chat to his son about his exams. Hey, this guy is made of sterner stuff. Quick, add R1 500 to his bill. What a loo-hoo-hoo-hooser!”

Finally, the latest outrageous bill—R4 000—prompted me to end my contract immediately, at a cost of R6 000. Doing so required visiting three MTN branches. Two days later MTN deducted another R4 000 from my account and subscribed me to for a Blackberry service I hadn’t asked for.

All of this happened between planes, Gautrains, meetings, media-training sessions and life in general. Eventually my increasingly irate calls to uniformly indifferent call-centre functionaries made my fellow patrons at a Mugg & Bean in Worcester (That’s my life: the Amalfi Coast, Bora Bora, Chiang Mai, Worcester) scatter like pigeons at the sound of Cape Town’s noon gun.

I’ll spare you all the details, but back to the horror flick, where sadistic overlords pump pheromones into the eponymous cabin in woods to get captive, nubile teenagers to do stupid things, and then torture them. The captors’ mission, as I understand it, was to push the boundaries of brutality for some depraved ritual. They sound like the folk at the MTN 808 call-centre.

It’s taken years, but MTN has reduced an exciting and empowering new technology to a grudge purchase and finally to something I despise. That takes some doing.

A look at the consumer-complaint site HelloPeter suggests my experience is not uncommon and that MTN is about as efficient as a chocolate teapot.

But in 2011, the four largest telecoms companies spent nearly R1bn, with MTN blowing R244m of that. MTN’s massive ad-spend always depicts happy young folk loving life and their phones. That’s Nkandla-esque brazenness. It’s a thick-layers-of-advertising lipstick on an appalling-service pig.

How does it compare? The most expensive lipstick in the world is apparently Kiss Kiss by Guerlain, at USD62 000 (Nearly R900 000). There’s some dispute about whether Hogzilla – 360kgs and more than 2m long, shot in Georgia in the US in 2004 – was the biggest pig in history. I’m sure it’s still hotly debated in parts of the Deep South.

The models in the MTN ads don’t look piggy. They look like the about-to-be-victims in a cynical, manipulative slasher-flick. They’re all pert, dewy and oblivious.

My experience of the company clearly isn’t affecting its fabulous profits, although the mooted parliamentary hearings to air MTN customer complaints may do that. Until then, they’re happier than a tornado in a trailer-park.

The change analyst Dion Chang says UX – user experience, in terms of customer service and technology—will be paramount in 2016 because consumers are more aware of their rights and have recourse to social media. I hope he’s right.

I for one plan to be less tolerant about stuff I pay for. Stepping away from abuse feels great. If I’d only done so earlier I’d be R93 000 richer and the folk at the Mugg & Bean in Worcester would’ve been a lot happier. Sorrie, mense. ▲

William Smook is with Meropa Communications in Cape Town. He doesn’t surf enough.

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