Wednesday, June 20, 2007

Doing business in the Middle East: Can I get some customer service please???

From my time in Kuwait, I’ve come to realize that there is a very weak customer service ethos in the private sector versus what is commonly found in the US. The customer service experience is often ruder and likely to leave you feeling angry and embittered at such appalling treatment which can include long wait times until your served, disorganization, disinformation, and just plain incompetence. I’m not referring to restaurants or shops at the traditional market. In fact, most modern western restaurants tend to be staffed by Filipino expatriate workers who in my view provide excellent service. Instead I am referring to more complex businesses, like the airline or cell phone industries from which I draw my experiences.

It’s important to note the structure of the Kuwaiti economy before further explanation. Although the number of Kuwaitis working in the private sector has been increasing rapidly in the past few years, 80% of the workers are still expatriates, mostly from other poorer Arab countries and south Asia. Thus, in the private sector, a person mostly deals with a non-Kuwaiti. However, laws in Kuwait make sure that the owners are Kuwaiti, as every business in Kuwait requires a Kuwaiti sponsor. So the customer service experience is born from this hybrid environment. This is sort of my disclaimer in saying that I’m not blaming anyone, only describing my following experiences with three companies: Jazeera Airways, Kuwait Airways, and the mobile phone service provider MTC Vodafone.

Jazeera Airways
In January, two friends that were visiting Kuwait purchased 3 tickets from Jazeera Airways for three of us to go to Dubai for the coming weekend. Jazeera Airways is a new budget airline that is based in Kuwait and started flying in October 2005. As it turned out, one of the two friends and I became very sick with flu and decided that we couldn’t go. So we called up Jazeera Airways and asked them what to do. The customer service agent said that refunds can’t be issued, but if a doctor’s note is provided, the tickets can be changed to fly on a later date without penalty. So we went ahead and changed two of the tickets to fly two weeks later. The third friend went ahead to Dubai by himself. My friend and I then went to the local clinic and received a doctor’s not saying we were sick.

But, I realized we forgot to ask to whom to present the doctor’s note. When I checked the reservation online, it showed that I was charged the booking change fee. I waited a week later after I got better to take care of this. I first began by calling the Jazeera Airways customer service number but their network was constantly busy. I called in the morning, afternoon, and evening. Sometimes I would connect and the line would just be cut off After 3 days of trying I finally was connected and allowed to carry an uninterrupted conversation with the agent. He informed me that I would have to pay the booking change fee. I was surprised as I was initially told otherwise by the very first agent my friends and I spoke with. Realizing that’s its always best to deal with this kind of situation in person, I asked where to go to speak to someone in person.

I was directed to head Jazeera Airways office at the airport. They don’t take customer inquiries after 2 pm so I went at around 11 am. I walked into the reception and was handed a ticket number for my turn in line. I sat down and looked around the room whose seats were all full and realized that about 15 people were in front of me. After about 30-45 minutes, my turn was called and I was ushered into the customer service room with my doctor’s note. The setting was unprofessional. The room was as bare as can be with only a desk and some chairs. Two employees sat with laptops on side of the desk and customers on the other side. No wonder it was such a long wait to get in, there were only two people serving customers.

I sat down and explained my story to the employee. In short, he told me that I should not have changed the booking until I came to their office with the doctors’ note. He said that because I already made the change in their system there was nothing he could do about it and that I would have to pay the booking change fee. When I tried to reason with him that most probably the customer service agent who I spoke with provided incorrect information, he wouldn’t budge and said that it was too late to do anything because the change was already recorded in the system. He did make a small offer to cancel the entire reservation after I pay the booking change fee and apply the entire amount paid for the fee plus the airline tickets as credit with the airline to be used at a later date. That sounded okay to me for the time being. But in order to pay the booking change fee, I would have to go up two levels to the Jazeera Airways desk in the airport, pay, and then return with the receipt. I didn’t understand why I couldn’t pay at their headquarters. After about 15 minutes, I was back in the reception only to be prevented by the security guard from going back to the customer service room even though the agent made clear to him and the receptionist to let me back immediately when I return. After 10 minutes of silent indignation, I was allowed back to complete the process.

I still had every intention of flying to Dubai so I asked him to make new reservations for me. Low and behold, because the dates I intended to fly on were in a few days, the ticket prices had almost doubled so that I was nearly spending all the credit granted to me. I still made the new reservation. However, when I went home to check the ticket prices again, I realized that on the day I was leaving there were two flights to Dubai both in the morning, yet the customer service agent decided to put me on the more expensive flight. Talk about adding insult to injury. In the end, I spent an hour and 45 minutes at the Jazeera airways office. I realized I could only have done this because I didn’t have a job. A working person would have had to take a half day off to take care of something like this. I was furious at the time at the horrible customer service meted out by Jazeera Airways. Yet I would still fly Jazeera Airways again because their ticket prices are the cheapest and most often the other alternative is the equally if not more dysfunctional Kuwait Airways. Jazeera has nice website which allows you to purchase tickets without ever having to deal with an employee which is great. So I just hope I don’t ever have to make a change again.

Kuwait Airways
Later that January, I was searching for airline tickets to go to the US for a brief visit with a week long stop on the way going in London. Kuwait Airways reportedly had the cheapest tickets going to Atlanta, my home city, non-stop via NYC and using Delta to connect to Atlanta. However, I wanted to know if it was feasible to fly on Kuwait Airways to London, connect to Atlanta with Delta, and then return via NYC the normal route that I have taken before. It seemed to me like a straightforward question that required a straightforward answer. Yet little did I know of the dysfunctional system into which I was plunging to get my answer. But to use an analogy from Alice in Wonderland, I wanted to know how deep the rabbit hole went.

My journey begins with a simple phone call to the Kuwait Airways reservation numbers. I’m often connected right away. Checking the flight schedules and finding open seats was an easy matter. But when I asked him the simple matter of the price, after all, that was the deterministic factor as to whether I purchase a ticket with Kuwait Airways, he replied that he can’t give me a price. Instead, he told me that I needed to call the sales office at a different number and ask them for the price. That seemed very odd to me. I have to call one number to make a reservation and then another number to inquire about the price. I asked him what kind of system is this, but my question was of no avail. He and most of the operators I spoke to were Indians. They had no fault as to the disorganization of the company. That instead most likely fell on the shoulders of higher up managers who were Kuwaiti and oversaw the operations of the entire company.

So I called the sales office to see if I could get my answer. But the lines were so busy that I could never get through. When I called back the reservation number since I knew I could get through to them, I was told that sales office network is often times flooded with calls because it is the number for the Kuwait Airways headquarters in downtown Kuwait. I was advised to go to the headquarters in person to get a straight answer to my question of how much the itinerary would cost. I also realized that the times I called back the reservation number to make changes to the reservation, I was receiving different answers. One person gave me a ballpark figure while another two did not. Also, during this time I went to a travel agent to see if he could get a price for me. It turned out the travel agent was ripping me off by charging a considerable amount more than if I had made the reservation with Kuwait Airways myself. I found this out from when I called the reservation number and the operator informed me of the reservation made by the travel agent.

As a result, I decided to go to the Kuwait Airways headquarters. I knew from my experience with Jazeera Airways that I would probably be waiting a while before I was served. So I grabbed a book I was reading and headed off in the evening. I found the place without difficulty. Yet when I entered the fairly large customer service room, I was struck by the aura of shabby professionalism. I grabbed a ticket number to wait for my turn to be served. As I found a place to sit down in the almost entirely South Asian crowd, I realized that I held ticket number 73 yet they were still serving something like ticket number 48. I gasped as I realized I was in for quite a wait before I could see how far the rabbit hole went.

I read and counted the minutes until about an hour and 15 minutes had elapsed and my number was called. By that time the room had largely emptied itself of customers. The employee I spoke with was Indian. I explained to her my proposed itinerary of flying to London with Kuwait Airways and then to Atlanta with Delta and then returning via NYC with Kuwait Airways. When I asked her for the price, which was the entire purpose of my coming to the main office, she responded that she didn’t know. She said that it wasn’t clear how much the portion of the trip from London to Atlanta with Delta would cost. She then gave me the phone number of the Delta representative in Kuwait and asked me to call them to see how much they would charge for the ticket with Kuwait Airways. I was puzzled and appalled at such a request. “Isn’t that your job,” I replied. She answered with an insufficient answer that I no longer recall. In the end she then transferred me to the manager who sat a few desks down from her.

The manager was Kuwaiti and was busy handling referrals from other employees. I waited my turn for about 15 minutes and then presented him with my itinerary. He finally provided a price that was uncompetitively high. Even though I asked him a few more questions afterwards, he was no longer attentive to me and began dealing with another customer’s request. He muttered some responses and I realized that I had my key piece of information. By the time I left the main office I had spent a little more than 2 hours. In the end, the journey into the rabbit hole required dealing with an incompetently disorganized reservation system that provided exceptionally poor service with long wait times.

I was beginning to understand a key quality to doing business in the Middle East: patience, lots and lots of patience.

MTC Vodafone
I can easily say that I bestow upon MTC Vodafone the title of the worst business that I have ever had to deal with. I have never left feeing so aggravated and embittered from such sheer incompetence an utter lack of service.

My unfortunate relationship with MTC began when I arrived to Kuwait. I immediately sought a SIM card to gain service. I was taken to a shop and purchased a MTC SIM card with the pre paid deal where I would buy purchase credit before use. There are only two cell phone providers in Kuwait, MTC and Wataniya. I didn’t think much of which carrier to choose since I was new to using a cell phone in Kuwait.

After a month I realized that a pre paid plan was much more expensive than a post paid one. So I went to the MTC headquarters at the beginning of March and checked out the services they offered. Their plans were not as competitive as Wataniya, but I didn’t want to switch companies and get a new number and the cheapest post paid plan Wataniya offered was more than I would use in terms of minutes versus. I went to the MTC headquarters and asked to switch to a post paid plan. I was told that I would need to have a civil ID, which is issued by the state of Kuwait to residents, and that my passport would not suffice. Because I have Kuwaiti family members, this didn’t pose a problem. One of them could be the account holder. So I returned a few days later with my cousin but was told that I could not switch to post paid. My cousin was 18 years old and was too young to be the account holder. I would need to come back with someone 21 or older. I was annoyed why this wasn’t explained to me on my first visit. Then, finally, on my third visit with my uncle, I switched to a post paid plan. Of course, it wasn’t explained to me before the different costs for switching and changing the name of the account holder. Before I knew it, I was being nickel-and-dimed. Additionally, I was given a SIM card with same phone number which was a hassle because I had to re-input the phone numbers from my old SIM card onto the new one; something that I had hoped to avoid by not changing companies. I also requested for international roaming service, which, although expensive, would be useful since there would be times I would travel outside of Kuwait. In order to do so I had to pay a $345 deposit which was very annoying and not required by Wataniya.

After that, things were okay for a while. When I received my first bill for March, I tried paying online. However, every time that I tried, my credit card was rejected. So I called the customer service number to inquire. I was informed that only credit cards issued by a bank in Kuwait could be used to pay online. That was odd. I had used my credit card without difficulty at the MTC main office. I asked them why I could use my credit card at the main office in person, but not online. It was explained to me that in the past they did accept payment by foreign credit cards, but due to a reason with the way the transaction was processed and payment transferred to MTC, the service was cancelled. The customer service agent placed the blame on the US side, saying that the credit card companies took to long to process the transaction. I responded that there are hundreds of companies around the world who accept credit cards online which indicates to me that the system on the US side of things are handled just fine. By this point, I had a growing realization of the incompetence of MTC and figured this was some way of theirs to deflect blame onto another person or entity. In the end, I went down to the main office and paid my bill in person with the same credit card that was rejected online. But the trouble did not stop there. The post paid I had accepted advertised the cost per minute for calling phones within Kuwait during the day versus night. Nowhere was it mentioned the price of receiving calls and that is because, as in Egypt and Syria where I had cell phone previously and many countries around the world, there is no cost for receiving phone calls. The cost is born only the person making the phone call. That is why there is a custom for a cheap person to leave missed calls. But I digress.

At one point I had received a call from a close friend in England and we spoke for about an hour. I did not think it was costing me anything since I had received the call. However, when I went to check my account online, I discovered I had used most of my credit for the month yet only the first week of the month had passed. I guessed it had something to do with receiving the international call from England. When I called the customer service number to inquire I was informed that in fact I am charged a fee for receiving international calls which is equivalent to the fee for calling a phone in Kuwait. I was furious. No where on the advertisement for the post paid plan I had subscribed to, and which was still lying around my room at the time, was it stated that there is a cost for receiving international calls. Thus, at the time when I went to pay my first bill, I asked the employee I was dealing with for a written piece of paper where it stated that there was a cost for receiving international phone calls. After some searching, the only thing he could find was a webpage he pulled up from the company intranet, which means that it is only available to someone on the company network, where it stated the cost for receiving international phone calls. I asked him if he thought this kind of information should be available to customers and whether he thought it was wrong for the company to hide it like that. He passively agreed and mentioned this is something that should be changed. I asked him for a copy of the contract to see where I could find the clause about pricing. I read that the charges would be set according to published prices. While the price of receiving international costs may not have been published to the public, I suppose in the mind of the company’s managers, it is sufficient to publish it on their company’s intranet pages.

What lack of justice! In the US there are consumer and government organizations where a person can file a complaint about such kinds of dishonest business practices or even resort to the courts. But I despaired that such avenues were unavailable in Kuwait. I left MTC feeling extremely frustrated once again. Afterwards, I felt I had to accept the fact that I would endure lying, deception, and corruption when living in the developing world. Kuwait may have the material manifestations of a developed country, but it is lacking the spiritual foundations for one; including honesty and respect for the law. But I later found out that it is known among people here that receiving international calls is not free. So perhaps MTC, thinking it was presumed knowledge, did not bother to publish their cost.

At least I hoped that perhaps now there would be no more surprises as my phone plan was set and I knew to go pay in person. I had been annoyed once by MTC when I changed from pre to post paid and twice when I paid my first bill. I could not, however, have been more completely wrong in my expectation. The worst episode of utter incompetence that I have ever dealt with was coming up next a month later when I had to pay my second bill in May.

I went down to the MTC headquarters in the evening to pay my bill. I was told the balance and immediately paid first. Then I asked for a breakdown and a copy of the bill. I probably should have asked to see the details of the bill first, but I assumed it to be correct and wanted to pay it first before entering into further affairs. When I received a copy of the bill, I saw that there were three sub-items: the amount owed for March, April, and May. The amount from March immediately aroused my suspicions. It was May and I had already paid my bill for March last month in April. How is it that I was still being charged for March expenditures in May? Although the amount for March was trivial, 0.185 KD = $0.65, I was still concerned about what seemed to me to be an error. So I asked the employee to explain to me how this cost was derived. He tried to explain and searched through my account records to find an answer but couldn’t. So he called a co-worker who had more experience to find an answer. After some looking through the account and printing out details of past expenditures, her conclusion was that it was a mistake and I should file a complaint. I said ok, let me file it now. But the catch was that I needed my uncle, the owner of the account, and his civil ID and I had to come tomorrow to do it. Now I didn’t want to bother my uncle with wasting his time to come to MTC to fight over $0.65, so I said that was unacceptable solution. I asked, “Why do I need my uncle to file a complaint so that an accountant can explain my bill to me and correct whatever mistake there is?” I asked her if I could speak to the manager.

A few minutes later, the manager came and asked what the problem is. I told him that all I want is an explanation of my bill, an explanation of where the cost from March came from. After looking through my account, he said that there was no mistake, disagreeing with the previous co-worker. However, he wasn’t able to explain me where the $0.65 came from. Was it for text messaging or for going over my monthly credit? By this point, the place was empty and had closed for the evening. A fourth employee, aroused by the commotion and curious as to why I had not left yet, asked me what the problem was. I explained for the fourth time that all I want is an explanation of my bill. After looking around she was able to give me a sufficient answer, finally. She explained that the bill I owed in March was 20.185 KD but when I came to pay it in April, the agent I dealt with rounded down and charged me only 20 KD, leaving the remaining 0.185 KD to roll over to the subsequent month and hence appearing on my bill in May. She explained to me rounding down a bill is a common practice among the employees and that she does it herself as well. The reason: it makes for easier paying. That is because most customers pay in cash, unlike me, and therefore not dealing in coins is easier. Nevertheless, I found this custom to be a great annoyance as I wasn’t asked if I wanted to round down my bill in addition to the fact I was paying by credit card and hence I wouldn’t deal with coins anyway.

In the end, it took one hour and 45 minutes, 16 print outs detailing different aspects of my account history, and 4 different employees to finally get an explanation for the charge of $0.65. What complete and utter incompetence! I was no longer frustrated and angry at the employees. Rather I truly felt sorry for them, for their lack of intelligence and inadequate training.

I was beginning to see how these inconveniences and annoyances that occur when dealing with businesses and even bureaucracies in the Middle East was a larger symptom of the dysfunctions of a culture, a culture whose work ethic did not call people to the highest standards of service, and a mentality that seemed stuck in a system where takes knowing someone to get things done.

Thus, when I remember passing through the Qatar Airport in May and the American middle-aged gentleman with military cropped hair sternly but clearing stating, “That is dishonest,” to the cashier at a bookshop, when he saw the price of the book he wished to purchase rung up for a much higher price than what was on the price tag, I could empathize with those same feelings of aggravation. When will the situation improve? I hope sooner than later.

Monday, June 4, 2007

An Odd Encounter

It was around 8:20 pm when I left my house to get in my car to go to the gym. As I closed the gate behind me, I looked about the street before hopping into my car and reversing into the street from the pavement. Just as I was about to put the car in drive, a car approaches me from the left and flashes its light. It was a modest white car with a Saudi license plate. Many Saudis like coming to Kuwait or any easily accessible neighboring country for that matter, as a chance for many them to flee the strictures of their Wahhabi state.

I paused as the Saudi man, the only person in the car and the driver, came out to walk towards me. He appeared to be a youth in his mid 20s. I stepped out of my car and met him. I expected him to ask for directions or the house of so and so, but instead he started talking to me as if he knew me. He quickly picked up that I’m not a Kuwaiti from lack of use of the dialect. I asked him who he was looking for, but it turned out he was looking for me.

He said he wanted to ask me something but I didn’t catch at the time what he said was the reason for his hesitation as I didn’t know the Arabic verb he was using at the time. However, I looked up the word later and he was saying that he wasn’t sure if he could advance his proposal with me. After beating around the bush and telling him to just ask me what was in his mind. I wondered what it could be. Was it something illicit? He said that he is from the Saudi Kingdom and his father was sick at which point he made an indication to his stomach. He said he needed some help and wondered if I could be of some assistance.

I found this to be a very odd request. The young man was neatly dressed in the typical national dress of the dishdasha and associated headgear. He had a thin moustache and was polite. His car was modest, but there was nothing about him to indicate a lack of material goods or poverty. So I couldn’t understand why he was in essence begging me for money. I quickly replied that I was sorry and could not help him.

He then uttered a few sentences praising America and how he would like to travel there because the atmosphere or situation there is good. After that we departed and I continued to the gym. I wondered if his father was really sick why he would be coming to Kuwait to beg for money. Saudi Arabia has hospitals and a fairly decent health care system. But at the same time, I felt it was more likely to be a ploy or scam to perhaps obtain money for drugs.