Warsaw Business Journal July 28, 2008

Do you speak English?

by Johan Puotila

Poland has changed a lot over the past five years. There’s been a big change in the economy and in peoples’ sentiments, attitudes and behaviour over this relatively short period. I’ve had three taxi drivers admit to me over the past year that the fact that they didn’t have a dime of change on them was actually their fault, subsequently offering me the ride for free - and an apology!

Whilst most of them would still blame you for only having a 20 zloty note to pay for a 14 zloty ride, as opposed to the exact change, the above would never have happened five years ago.

I find the above example illuminating as the Polish service sector in particular is going through a major facelift. The concept and the value of a satisfied returning customer is gradually sinking in, and quality of service as an important competitive tool is being understood by more and more businesses.

This represents a major change from the not so old times when nothing wrong was seen with offering bad, rude or inferior service. Why? Because the same people that were unhappy with the service in question would soon line up again, just asking for an encore of their bad experience.

Polished customer service

The tightening competitive landscape has had a major impact. Fewer and fewer companies in Poland can afford to underestimate their customers. Poles are also getting to be more demanding as more of them live and travel abroad, only to learn that customers can be treated with respect and a smile and that this behaviour doesn’t need to be an exception. In addition the number of customers that are foreign nationals continues to increase, leading to higher expectations.

Some bastions of arrogance or incompetence, however, still appear undisturbed by the rapidly changing society and business environment. One example is Telekomunikacja Polska (TP), a company that customers all over Poland have loved to hate for years. The amount of anecdotes anyone living in this country has heard about their so called service is countless.

The telecom industry has gone through a recent liberalization process where competition has increased and prices decreased accordingly. Gone are days when an average monthly phone bill in Poland was higher than in Switzerland, with the same calling pattern.

TP is, however, still a major player on the market and is striving to maintain its strong even if not still technically monopolistic market position - or so they say. Based on customer feedback, it is not through investments in service.

Waiting for help

Some weeks ago, I called up the TP customer service number on my phone bill. My Polish being far from fluent, I asked if I could speak with someone who knows a little bit of English. The answer was yes, I would be connected to an English speaking customer service representative. To mark the change, I now received an English language message “We are sorry but all lines are occupied at the moment. Please wait for an operator or please call later, thank you”. So far so good.

One hour later the line was suddenly cut, and the music regularly punctuated by the above message was gone. I dialled again, with the same question, to receive the same answer. The familiar music and the polite message were back! They must have a lot of English language enquiries, I thought to myself.

One hour later, I was cut off again, without a word. This appeared automated; TP must not like people who are willing to wait for more than an hour to speak with them. All in all, I spent three hours on the phone, having been told I could speak to an agent that would serve me in English, never to hear from one. The last time I called the phone was hung up as soon as I had introduced myself and asked my question. That was more honest.

Progress is not linear and all companies are not equal when it comes to their focus on quality service. And we should not pick on TP only; there are other Polish businesses that seem not to have received the message. But the train is moving, and while waiting for others to catch up – or to perish - let’s reward and cherish those businesses that consider satisfied customers their key asset, investing in and training their staff accordingly. Theirs is the future.