Serame Taukobong, Telkom’s new head of customer service, says a dedicated team will prioritise service improvements and communication with customers. Picture: Simphiwe Mbokazi
Telkom customers have rightly been miffed about abysmal service levels at the telecommunications provider in recent years. The call centre has been described as useless, the walk-in Telkom Direct outlets as ineffectual, billing a disaster and an online cancellation process as more useless than a lead balloon.

But with all the noise around shocking customer service, chief executive Sipho Maseko’s turnaround strategy has been paying off, even if ordinary consumers haven't quite witnessed it, and Telkom’s on the up.

In 2012, Attila Vitai - an experienced, respected industry veteran, who worked at Motorola in Europe and Vodafone in Hungary and Turkey - joined the company as chief executive of customer service.

His turnaround efforts drove massive improvements in the mobile segment and several successful campaigns, but six years after his appointment, he has retired, to be replaced by Serame Taukobong.

Taukobong has extensive international experience in mobile telecommunications, having spent 13 years at MTN in various leadership roles, including heading the network in Ghana, as chief operations officer in Uganda, chief marketing officer in South Africa, and sales and distribution director in Iran. He left General Electric for Telkom.

Having started on June 1, Taukobong’s on familiar turf, saying that when he joined MTN, the network provider was also in flux.

“It's a sense of déjà vu for me because it's similar to what I experienced before,” he explains.

“You have to look at the underlying drivers of this. Obviously with system upgrades there are teething problems. Moving from a historically strong fixed line to mobile and wireless, there's that transition from the old way of doing it to the new platform environment. We have to build the plane as it flies.”

Taukobong’s focus will be squarely on improving their service offering, because he subscribes to the view that “service is the new selling”.

“We need to convince people that the new world of Telkom is worth staying in. Price is price, but when people are served well, you can serve them more by selling more. If you go to a restaurant and the service is bad, you're not going to buy more. But if you get the service right, people will consider you.”

Communication is of paramount importance. “If you go to Cape Town International Airport, for instance, and there are boards up saying there's work under way, please bear with us, customers will cut them a lot more slack and tolerate it a lot better if they know what's going on. For me, communication is critical to the customer.

“We acknowledge there are big problems. A big part of that problem has been a lack of communication.”

Taubobong admits they've witnessed a spike in complaints over the past few months, so he has put a dedicated team in charge to resolve the issues. “I've put a team to prioritise service improvements - an initial multi-pronged task team of 20 people. We're not just leaving it at the call centre.

“The front-end stores, IT, back-end divisions, repairs, etc: I am the dedicated executive in charge of all those queries.”

It's about the entire customer journey, he admits, which often reflects a lack of training and probably staffing: if an issue takes longer than 15 minutes to resolve instore, there's obviously a problem that the teller can't assist with.

“Looking at the volume and types of complaints, we are looking at creating rapid, multi-regional facilities that can address issues, and customers can walk out with their issues resolved,” he says.

Empowering staff and beefing up staff complements will go a long way towards that. “If the call centre agent does not have access to all the facilities and isn't empowered at points of contact, how can they resolve issues? We're looking at setting up service hubs, with senior executives there to resolve issues.”

One of their biggest problems is with first-time call resolution: customers shouldn't have to call more than once to have their issues resolved. “The person who answers needs to have different skills, access to systems etc, where they can see the history of the problem. That's critical.”

Judging by the number of complaints received by consumer journalists and complaints sites like Hello Peter, customer complaints are not going away in a hurry and it's because they can't get hold of Telkom, Taukobong admits.

Telkom has improved its “social” teams too, with a “Social Media Special Forces Team” on Twitter and a responsive Facebook page. “We are looking at every single touch point to improve our service because speed is important.

“We need to ask how we can resolve queries, refunds and complaints quicker. If we're not resolving it the first time, you are having to play catch-up. There is a backlog and we need to keep up with that as quickly as possible because it snowballs.”

But they're not planning to play catch-up for long: “We've achieved small victories, and the task force will be in place by the end of August. We are rolling out the end-to-end customer contact service centres. Those will be in existing Telkom stores, or areas of convenience, within the Telkom ecosystem, but if we need more we will look at that.”

* Georgina Crouth is a consumer watchdog with serious bite. Write to her at [email protected] Follow her on Twitter: @askgeorgie