Jayne Dowle: Human touch is priceless currency for consumers

Consumers appreciate the personal touch, says Jayne Dowle
Consumers appreciate the personal touch, says Jayne Dowle
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I was in the middle of writing this column and then I got distracted. Following my own advice, as I write about consumer issues, I ordered the euros for our family holiday to France online. I’ve told people that this usually means the best rate and savings on commission. Big mistake.

I found the currency company via a well-known comparison website. So far, so good. A big banner headline on their own site proclaimed “free next day delivery for orders over £700”. I don’t know about you, but I tend to believe what it says in a headline.

I went ahead and ordered £820 worth. This is a huge amount of money in our house, the result of months of hard work, saving and going without luxuries, including a new swimming costume for me. Some might call that part a blessing in disguise.

Anyway, I digress. There I was, writing about the terrible customer service I’ve recently encountered at the hands of a very well-known breakdown recovery service, when a nagging fear began to distract my thoughts.

I’d just transferred several hundred pounds to a company I’d never dealt with before in my life and I’d had not received any acknowledgment at all.

I made a slightly panicky phone call to their customer services department. All was ok, but I asked to double-check that delivery was on course for the next working day, Friday. This element was vital; the Bank Holiday weekend loomed and we faced the prospect of an imminent holiday abroad with no cash.

“Oh, we don’t guarantee next-day delivery,” was the airy response of the woman at the end of the phone. “But, but, it says so here…” I spluttered. “Check the small print,” she said.

I’ll leave you to imagine how I replied, but it wasn’t pretty. She then said she would see what she could do and advised me to ring back in an hour. The minutes slowly ticked by. I rang back. The even airier (if that was possible) man who answered said that my order wasn’t on the list for next-day dispatch, and I might expect it either Saturday or Tuesday.

Given that on Tuesday we were due to be in Marseille, this was no good at all. I kicked off. And then I compromised by handing over £10 to guarantee Saturday delivery, thereby negating any savings I thought I had made.

Next, I hastily composed an email to the customer services managers and press offices of both the currency exchange company and the comparison site, citing both my personal distress and professional interest.

About half an hour later, I received an email myself. As if by magic, the currency company had managed to get my order on the next-day delivery list after all and had refunded the tenner I’d been forced to give them.

Our money did arrive on time and I’d like to say that we all lived happily ever after. However, I’ve still got to deal with the very-well known breakdown recovery company, who in partnership with an equally well-known garage chain, almost wrote my car off in June. I’ll keep the details brief; what’s crucial here is that I pay a policy which covers me for breakdown and repair.

Unfortunately, in the name of “updating” company rules, the terms of the repair element have become extremely stringent. The garage said that the problems with my car were catastrophic, I would not be covered for the full repair amount and it would cost something in the region of £1,100 to sort.

We took the very, very reluctant decision that the only sensible course of action would be to scrap the poor thing. That sum was more than the car itself is worth.

Luckily for us, the scrap lad who picked it up is something of an amateur mechanic himself. He took a look and phoned us up. The fault with the gearbox was actually easy to mend. Did we want him to sort it out for a very modest fee and rescue dear old Polly the Polo from the crusher? I think you can guess what our answer was. The breakdown cover company, apparently the UK’s most trusted brand, have been dealing with my complaint since the middle of July. We await the outcome.

Two things I have learned from all of this. We might live in a computerised, automated world, but the human factor is vital if we are to survive with our sanity intact. I can’t fault the patrolman who rescued my car when it broke down and towed us to the garage. He was so polite and can-do, even though the breakdown did occur in the middle of a wood, half-an-hour before the kick-off of the England-Croatia World Cup semi-final.

And although I pressurised them, I can’t fault the person at the currency exchange who decided to show some compassion and rescue a family from a holiday without cash. I hope such cautionary tales as mine will be related in every training session in every call centre in the country. Profits and rules and targets are important, but people matter above all.