Thursday, 13 April 2017

South African Customer (dis)Service

Look, I don't want to get a reputation for being negative towards life in South Africa because honestly, I dig it here. I love seeing the impossibly huge, blood-red sun rise every morning on my way to work, burning the dark into cinders. I adore the people here- if somebody isn't going to kill or rob you, chances are very likely you'll find yourself at their house for a braai. The weather is full of glorious sunshine that wraps itself around you like your favourite blanket and terribly beautiful thunderstorms that make it easy to understand where legends come from. And the customer service is...well, they try. Sometimes.

A fitting metaphor for South African customer service. They will screw you. Very slowly.

There are countless stories of endless frustration with South African government agencies floating all over the internet. And to be honest, I still have nightmares from when I had to get my Traffic Registration Number, so I'm not in the mental state to be able to write about that yet. If you're so inclined, you can read a couple great blogs about that sort of thing by some of my favourite bloggers, Joburg Expat and 2Summers.

Instead, here's a simple post about the mundane task of everyday shopping.

As I've mentioned, the weather here is absolutely mind-blowing, so we tend to spend much more time outside than we did in Canada. We sorely needed some new lawn chairs, so we picked a couple up from Game, which is a store here that's very similar to Wal-Mart, except instead of blue, all the branding is a delightful Pepto-Bismal pink, which should have been foreshadowing, because even a simple purchase there will smite you with immediate heartburn, nausea, and explosive diarrhea.

We found 2 lawn chairs that we decided we actually really liked. And when we got home, we decided we liked them even more, so I went back a few days later to buy 2 more. One thing about stores in South Africa is that there is rarely consistency. Even though it's the same company, stock from store to store varies widely, and when something runs out (which is often), nobody seems to know when the next shipment will arrive. Needless to say, I considered myself extremely fortunate to find 2 of the same chairs, just sitting there, waiting for me to buy them!

However, right away, I knew there was going to be a problem. For whatever reason, there were no tags to scan on the chairs. And worse yet, there was no barcode on the shelving. Because I anticipated this minor glitch would become a massive issue, I pulled up the Game website on my phone and found the chairs. Cool. It very clearly had a picture of the exact same product with the item number (007404496) and the model number (LF60040-P) right there! No problem.

I confidently sauntered up to the cashier and said, "look, I know these don't have the prices on them, but here's all the info you need to punch them in on your computer" and reached out to hand her my phone. She studiously ignored the crap out the phone I was thrusting towards her and staunchly told me, "There's no tag on the chairs."

"Yes, I know there's no tag. I already mentioned that. Here's what you need right here."

"But I must have a tag."

"OK, I know usually you would scan a tag, but in this case, there is no tag. The item number is 007404496. You can enter that in your system and the pricing will come up."

"But....there's no tag."

"Are...are you kidding me? I thought we went over this."

"You must bring me the tag from the shelf."

"There isn't a tag on the shelf. Or anywhere else. Trust me, I looked. That's why I have the item number here. It's 007404496."

At this point, I was beginning to feel desperate. I looked around me frantically, much like someone on a deserted island feverishly scanning the horizon for a life-saving helicopter. I managed to make eye contact with a nearby cashier who was uninterestedly watching this whole thing go down. I asked if maybe she could help out.

"Themba works in that department. I'll call him," she said.

About 2.7 seconds after he was summoned on the store's speakers, Themba came racing into view. I'm not making this up- he wasn't walking casually, he wasn't walking briskly, he wasn't trotting. Themba SPRINTED to the front and offered me a massive smile:

"Can I help you, sir?"

"Yes, Themba, I love you more than words can describe. You're my knight in shining armour. Please come home with me. Bring everyone you care about. Let's become one big, happy, efficient family. You've completely restored my faith in humanity!"

Is what I wanted to say.

Instead, we explained the situation. Themba went racing off with my hopes and dreams in his hands. I was confident Themba would solve my problems. He worked in that department, after all, and he seemed to really GET customer service. At this point, a smile had begun to creep onto my face. My ordeal was almost over! After a few short minutes, Themba came running back and looked at me, the 2 cashiers, the long line of people that were now waiting for their chance to not get served, and confidently declared:

"There's no tag."

Themba, Themba, Themba. The offer is off. You're no longer welcome to replace my real family members.

The elephant is Themba. The road is my hopes and dreams.

The second cashier at this point, and only at this point, thought it would be a wise choice to call the manager to help. After several long minutes, the very visibly annoyed manager strolled up. After a brief description of our problems, she grabbed my phone, punched in the product number (007404496) and walked away without uttering a word.

The cashier acted like this wasn't what I had been telling her the entire time, that she hadn't burned a good part of my day away, and that there wasn't a huge line behind me as a result of her refusal to accept that there may have been an alternative solution to having a physical tag. Her ability to completely ignore the utter cock-up that had just happened was impressive. All she did was tell me the total, take my card, and hand me my receipt. No big deal.

I'm happy to say I kept my cool the entire time and was nothing but polite, but believe me when I say I pictured in my mind all kinds of scenarios that would have earned me a visit to the police station. Which would have been no big deal, cause I probably could have bribed my way out of it anyway (you'll understand if you've been reading my last few blog posts).

To end a long story, I now have 4 of those fantastic lawn chairs. And I will never own more because the cost of obtaining them is far higher than the non-existant sticker price alone. What I'm saying here is, don't count on enjoying them when you come visit me. They're going to remain unsitten in, because if they break, my mental health can't suffer another visit to Game to replace them. And I really really like them, so I don't want to risk ruining them. You can sit on the ground and look at them with the rest of us.

*Update- Valerie (and others) have asked to see these fabled chairs. Behold:

OK, maybe I oversold them. Still, they're mega comfortable.


  1. When do we get to see the chairs?

    1. OK, Valerie, I updated the post with a picture for your viewing pleasure. I guess I should have done that to start with...

  2. LOL. LOVE this post. Could have been me. But you were better at curating the right pictures to go with them. As always, will be sharing. Oh, and thanks for the shout-out for Joburg Expat!

    1. I'm glad I finally have a reason to use those pictures! And I'm also a little ashamed of myself that I took them without knowing I'd be able to use them productively...

  3. LOVE that post. I lived in Toronto for a year in '71/2 then in 1980 moved to Africa with my hubby and three kids. We stayed in Africa for 31 years, the latter 22 being in South Africa so I appreciate the differences in the two countries. One can acquire quite a few 'special experiences' in SA. One memorable occasion for me was with a claim against my insurance company. Please feel free to check it out. It is titled "The Pain of Paperless" in the Crazy Tales drop down menu of my blog, The Crazy World of Ann Patras -

    Thanks for the entertainment here Phil. Cheers, Ann

    1. Haha! Oh man- that post had me laughing. And now I need to find your book! I have a strong feeling I'm going to really enjoy it. Thanks for taking the time to read and comment!

  4. I love this too. Thanks for the shoutout!

    1. Thanks for taking the time to read this, Heather!

  5. Hahaha, this is so true! I get infuriated by the lack of customer service here and I have told more than one company that if they tried to do business in the US they would fold in a week because no one would put up with such lousy service. Not sure if that has any effect on them, but it makes me feel better.

    1. I feel your pain, Deirdre- but most people here don't know anything different, so trying to change anything is about as worthwhile as wrestling a pig in a mudpit. I've just given up entirely and have learned to budget WAY more time that I think should be necessary to do anything. Lowering my expectations keeps me from losing my mind!