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Johannesburg - As corporate mess-ups go, it was pretty big. A “pre-legal credit controller” employed by cellphone service provider Altech Autopage sent an e-mail to 45 of its subscribers earlier this month, many of them former subscribers, telling them to pay up or face the consequences.
“We refer to your Altech Autopage account which has gradually digressed into an arrear status.
“As a result, the outstanding balance is now due and payable within 48hrs to prevent legal action,” he wrote.
“Should you require an extension of time to pay off your debt, we can agree on a fixed arrangement provided that you contact us, or settle your full outstanding balance.”
The last bit seems a bit confused, but his real faux pas was in openly copying all 45 of them.
Quicker than sending individual e-mails, for sure, but also a very quick way of infuriating people.
Especially as some of them strongly deny owing the company any money at all.
“How dare you send out a bulk e-mail like this!” Samantha Erasmus of Sandton responded. “This is an infringement of not only my rights but those of everyone else on this e-mail list.”
Consumer Watch took up the issue with the company, which responded, via an external PR company: “A formal e-mail was sent from Autopage advising 45 customers about their accounts being in arrears – a human error, not a technical error.
“We have confirmed that all customers contacted do have outstanding balances due to Autopage, even those that are not currently active customers.
“The staff member responsible for sending the bulk formal e-mail has been addressed, and the appropriate disciplinary procedures are being instituted in order to ensure that other loyal customers aren’t similarly affected.
“As a result of the above, Autopage will be in touch with each customer to apologise for the breach of client confidentiality.”
And that apology went like this: “Please accept our deepest apologies for the breach of confidentiality. We will ensure that this does not occur again in the future.” It was signed “The Altech Autopage team”.
Carl van Tonder, one of the 45, was not impressed.
“I find the letter impersonal; an illustration of their poor customer service skills.
“I feel strongly that it should have been signed by a manager and not been presented in such a generic manner.”
Van Tonder emigrated with his family in 2012 and was told that his contract expired in December that year. “So I made sure there was enough money left in my South African bank account to cover the subscriptions,” he said.
“But when I visited South Africa in November, I couldn’t use that number as it had been disconnected due to inactivity.
“I paid for the last month anyway, and was told by Autopage that the account would be closed on December 25.
“But still I get demand e-mails stating that I am in arrears, although never a detailed statement.”
Erasmus told Consumer Watch that she cancelled her Autopage contract in mid-2012, giving them the specified calendar month’s notice.
“The first correspondence I received from them advising me that I ‘owe’ them money was an e-mail last November, threatening legal action if I didn’t pay up,” she said.
“And they listed me with ITC so I cannot get any credit.
“I have tried calling and e-mailing but can never get hold of a manager.”
Altech Autopage customer operations executive Gavin Weanie said that the company’s head of credit management had provided him with detailed feedback on all the people who were sent that bulk e-mail, “and I can confirm that all the amounts owing are valid”.
“We, of course, welcome the opportunity to engage directly with these individuals but we are confident that they all have outstanding monies owing.”
The lesson for consumers: Whenever you cancel an account or a contract, insist that the company gives you written confirmation of the date the contract became null and void, and the fact that you owe them no further money.
The lessons for companies: It’s imperative to adequately train and closely monitor any staff member who has any form of contact with your customers.
And if an apology needs to be made, do it in the name of an actual person, preferably someone at the top.