Conversations with Singaporeans Part 3

I just experienced the worst customer service experience in Singapore yet, which put my previous articles “Conversations with Singaporeans” and “Conversations … Part 2” to shame …

Below is our five-week saga to get a new mobile phone subscription. Where I put quotation marks, the text are exactly as written in the original e-mail, or exactly as the way they said it on the phone.

12-13 October: My husband filled up an order for an iPhone with a two-year subscription plan, and submitted it via e-mail to the customer service (let’s call her Katie) that handled all accounts from his company.

16 October: Katie gave us five numbers to choose from, and on October 19 we confirmed the number that we wanted (let’s call this number 9833 xxxx).

There was no further communication from Katie since then, despite follow-up e-mails on October 23 and November 3.

4 November (more than three weeks after the initial e-mail): A different customer service (let’s call him Mo) e-mailed us, asking “What is the number you choose? I shall give you some new numbers for choosing and if you are getting an iphone, can you send me a form as well?”

[We were starting to wonder … “Don’t these people have one common database and talk to each other?”]

On that same day, my husband re-sent the order form, confirmed that we had asked for 9833 xxxx, but would go for 9644 xxx if the original number was no longer available.

November 5: By this date, we have started to lose our patience because the printing of my business cards, which had to be done by end of November, had to wait for the final mobile number.

So I called Mo to inquire the status of my husband’s application. His answer, “Oh, I’m not the contact person for your husband’s company. You should go to this other girl (let’s call her Jane)…. Her number is xxxx and e-mail xxx.”

[And we wondered even further … “If he’s not the contact person for us, then what was he doing sending us e-mails, and then throwing our case to a girl that had never made an attempt at contacting us????”]

Well, anyhow, so I rang Jane, inquired about the case, to hear, “Oh, this case ahh? I haven’t got to it…”

[WHAAATTT??? Don’t these people learn telephone manners????]

A few minutes after the call, Jane sent us an e-mail saying, “Apologise for the delay. The number 9833 xxxx which you had chosen earlier is not available anymore. I have 3 numbers on hand to offer you: A, B, C. Do advise asap.”

To which my husband and I replied to both Mo and Jane, “Hi Mo, thanks for your help. Jane just wrote to us offering yet different set of numbers to choose while yesterday we have confirmed to you that we wanted 9644 xxxx in the event the original request was no longer available. So could you please liaise with her to let her know that we wanted 9644 xxxx?”

So at 5:34 pm, Mo called my husband to FINALLY confirmed the order, then wrote a follow up e-mail (to my husband) saying, “As per our conversation, the delivery of your iPhone will be 6 Nov between 2:30 and 6pm. The sim card 52xxxxxx for number 9644 xxxx will be send in morning 10am-1pm. Thank you …”

And he also cared to write me a separate e-mail on 5:39 (I don’t know why he felt obliged to write two different e-mails instead of just cc-ing me on all e-mails …), saying, “I had follow up with her (Jane) and the iphone delivery was set for tomorrow afternoon 2:30-6pm. In fact, the follow up was plan to be around this time as there was 5 order in processing before you. Thank you for your understanding and miscommunication due to the processing team in your delivery. We also apologize that iphone was out of stock for a period of time and we were clearing the order according to the queue and it have reach your turn today even if you did not follow up with us. Cheer.”

[Yeah right]

You would think that after such agony, my husband and I would FINALLY get our 32Gb iPhone 3Gs with the number that we wanted, right?


On November 14, I arrived back in Singapore, excited about my new iPhone that had been loaded with my favorite apps and movis. I tested the SIM card, asked my husband and son to call 9644 xxxx only to find out that the number had not been activated!

I then called them from my new phone and SIM card. The caller ID which appeared on their screen is 9833 xxxx, the number that we dropped because Jane mentioned in Nov 4 that it was no longer available.

By this time, I had ordered 10 boxes of business cards and 5 rims of letterheads using the the 9644 xxxx number. Plus announced to some friends and families that my number would change to 9644 xxxx by Nov 15.

This time, furious that Singtel had yet again messed up, both my husband and I wrote Mo and Jane another e-mail asking the SIM card to be exchanged with the correct one ASAP.

The e-mail mentioned my home address, home phone number, and my Starhub mobile number. I also mentioned that I would only be in Singapore until Tuesday November 17 and expect this to be sorted out before I go.

November 16 – I called Mo and Jane several times only to get an answering machine that hung up the call after 30 seconds if the phone wasn’t picked up by a customer service. Great!

So at 11am I made my way to the Singtel headquarters to get this sorted out. A nice young lady listened to my case, checked my database, and then said, quite naively, “Oh, but this 9833 xxxx number is already activated and used.”

In my best attempt not to snap, I said, “Do I have any choice in this matter? I got a new SIM card, of course I wanted to test it out by making some calls.”

She then asked me to wait while she talked to some supervisor….. 10 minutes, 15 minutes, 20 minutes …. and finally, after half an hour of waiting, this young lady showed up … not with solutions. She said that Jane is taking an “urgent leave” and they needed to get her to clarify the matter with her boss, and then her boss would give me a call to sort things out later on today.

So I got home, trying to think positive that the manager would give me a call.

At around 3:00pm, my husband (who is in London) sent me a 10am e-mail from Mo, saying, “I would like to first apologize sincerely that the number 98644 xxxx was taken when we try to process it as another user had process that same number just before we could get it for you and thus had emailed you that we would revert to the older number which we had kept for you which is 9833 4022 on that same evening on 5/11/09, I had process for you for the delivery. I apologize for the inconvenience caused to you . Sorry about the incidence and thank you for your understanding.”

Mo, of course, did not cc me the e-mail. Instead he wrote to me separately (I simply don’t understand this redundant habit of his), saying, “We apologize that the number 9644 xxxx is not available at the time we try to process you application and that same day 5/11/09, we revert back the previous choice number  9833 xxxx which you had chosen instead. I had informed him on the same evening. Sorry for the inconvenience cause and some printing company should be able to make the amendment for you.

Great. Blame my husband for it, and speak on behalf of the printing company as if the company is his.

To which I replied, “Then please show me the November 5 e-mail which you said you had sent, and my husband’s approval to go ahead with the number 9833 xxxx.”

He almost immediately sent me the e-mail which did say that the number was no longer available when he processed the order. But my husband had never given him a go ahead to deliver a SIM card with a different number. Mo had made an independent decision, without the customer’s approval or a read-receipt, to change our mobile number order!

What kind of company would teach their customer services to confirm the goods and delivery time BEFORE processing the order and ensuring that the goods are still in place???

In fact, going back to November 5, then we had made up our mind that should there be another mess-up, we would cancel the order. My husband missed Mo’s last e-mail on November 5, which was why we were rather overjoyed to see a new iPhone and a SIM card arriving, to then be disappointed yet again.

All this could have been prevented had Mo cc-ed me on every e-mail, because my husband is away a lot on business and don’t have all the time in his life to check petty e-mails like this.

All this could have been prevented had Mo checked the availability of our preferred number before actually confirming it to us, only to have it changed some 15 minutes later, when my husband’s computer had been turned off and he’d gone home.

At around 4:30pm today, I made my way back to the Singtel headquarters, this time not to demand our preferred number, but to cancel the order altogether! Such a GREAT beginning for a new customer, there’s no way I would chain myself to another two years to some lousy service providers. Definitely not after I found out that Starhub will start offering iPhone at the end of this year!

Remembering that it’s the result, not the effort

Recently I received an e-mail from a colleague, stating her frustration because she felt like her suggestions were ignored by other team members. She said she put a lot of thoughts and efforts into her suggestions, yet she felt like they all fell on deaf ears because she couldn’t explain what was in her mind well enough to a point where she could convince other team members to follow her suggestion.

I have been in her position. When I was in university, there was a time when my group’s major project got a mere 67 (a C) – which was scandalous for a group consisting of four scholarship students. We put a whole lot of work, time and effort into that project and we were convinced that the grade didn’t do justice to the work we’ve put into it. So I was tasked to meet the professor to request a second review of the report.

Now this professor was someone I knew well, and I knew that he had a high opinion of me. I was positive that I could explain the report well enough to him to a point where he would at least change the grade to a B (75 and above).

So I met the professor, explained the “hard labor” we put into the project, the various research, brainstorming and analysis we did, the sleepless nights we spent finishing the project on time, etc., etc. I was very happy with my explanation … I believed I had made it clear to him that the effort was worth more than a C.

Then he looked at me and said, calmly but firmly, “But the report does not reflect the amount of effort you’ve put into it. It’s not well-written, and based on reading the report, I am not convinced if I should buy your product.”

I was about to open my mouth and say something, but he continued,

“In this world we live in, people are judged by result – not process. I know the four of you and believe that you guys put maximum effort on it. But it doesn’t matter if you spent twice as many hours doing this project – if your report doesn’t give sound evidence and reasoning, and your message doesn’t get across easily, you lose the game.”

That one advice stayed in my head from thereafter. It’s so true that no matter how long you stay in the office, it is your ability to attract customers, retain good staff members, or your contribution to the company’s profit that count. It doesn’t matter how many hours we spend studying for an exam, we fail the test if we can’t recall those answers on the exam day. No matter how much my band practices, it is how well we play on the stage on the day that counts. It’s not the years of training that count – an athlete’s worth is only judged by its ability to win a game or reach the finish line. It doesn’t matter how long you think and justify an idea before you present it – if you don’t present it clearly enough to your audience, that idea is wasted. Even the Bible mentions that it is those who finish the race well would be rewarded – it doesn’t matter if you’ve been a dutiful pastor all your life … if you slip away and give up 200 meters before you reach the finish line, all those years of labor go to waste.

So here I am now, trying to calm my colleague down and ensure her that we can find some common grounds if we discuss it a bit further at a slower pace, because at this point of time I’m too culturally sensitive to say, “Lady, if we don’t even understand why you suggested the changes, why should we agree to it?”

Pfizer: Less workers so they can dump US$68 billion

News of job cuts and slower demands are no longer news in the past several months. The words recession, downturn, turmoil, have become day-to-day buzz words even for kids.

But I cannot help but being outraged by the way some companies manage, and even take brutal advantage, the economic downturn. Below is a series of personal analysis on various corporations who, I think, are either piggy-backing the “economic downturn” bruhaha to cut jobs, or are just downright corporate criminals.

My first highlight is on Pfizer, the world’s largest pharmaceutical company.

Pharmaceutical giant Pfizer announced 8,000 job cuts last week. I immediately thought, “Whaaaattt??? The company isn’t affected by the downturn!”

To begin with, Pfizer’s total revenue in 2008 was $48.4 billion, right on its target of between $47 to 49 billion – a target announced by the company in Jan 2008. There is no downturn whatsoever, because its total revenue in 2007 and 2006 is around the same mark (see their revenue in 2006, 2007, both around the US$48.4 billion figure) .

Secondly, pharmaceutical is one of the most crisis-free industries known to men, because medicine is a matter of necessity, not option. It is estimated to continue enjoying a single-digit growth (a rarity in a downturn like this!) this year because even though the demand will slow down in developed markets, it will continue to increase in emerging markets like India, China, and Latin America (see the analysis here).

If the cut jobs based on “estimated slowing down of demands in the future”, let’s take a better look at it. To begin with, this company will only lose its patent on Lipitor – world’s best-selling cholesterol-lowering drug and Pfizer’s largest income contributor, in 2011. Instead of cutting down across the board (they are cutting down on sales forces, researchers, scientists, etc – see here for more info), they need to speed up and re-focus research and development effort for newer strands of drugs that can replace Lipitor as Pfizer’s cash-cow

The company spokesman once explained,” Restructuring is an attempt to cut costs and generate earnings growth despite generic competition for many of Pfizer’s major medicines.”

Ok … so let’s talk about cutting costs and generate earnings growth. Firstly, the global demand for medicine is not estimated to go down … so the “generate earnings growth” argument is out the door. Furthermore, what many companies mean by “generate earnings growth” is, simply, that the stockholders want more bang for the buck. They want more earnings for each share they own. They want more dividend, because the revenue in the last two years have stayed stagnant. Many, if not most, of these stockholders do not contribute anything to making Pfizer the great company that it is today. They are just in there for the money, in when the shares are cheap. And they will sell their shares at a profit.

And since the value of their Pfizer stocks have gone down from more than $22 per share in March 2008 to just around $15 today, I can see that they will be nervous and wanting the company to do something so their “dear investment” can at least retain its value by the end of the year, so they can earn their dividends.

The rumors about further job cut in Pfizer (see here that since 2004 they have laid off almost 25,000 workers) started circulating since November 2008, and the stock market reacted positively to this rumors because its share were traded for just around $12 in late October 2008 and then went up to $17-18 after the rumors started going around. It indicated that the stockholders WANT the job cuts.

In the most part, stockholders of a publicly-listed company don’t care about the sustainability of the company or its workers. They only care about their financial investment and its return. And Pfizer is sacrificing their dear scientists to succumb to the demands of money-hungry shareholders. That’s what it is ..

Secondly, with regards to cutting costs, … hmmmm…… at the same time as announcing the layoff, the company also announced it will acquire Wyeth for $68 billion. BILLION, not million! While takeover, mergers and consolidation of businesses are inevitable facts during a downturn, the timing of the takeover announcement is a total public relations disaster! It immediately creates an image of … “Ok … let’s save a few hundred million bucks of personnel cost each year so we can pay off the $68 BILLION Wyeth takeover. This way, we’ll be debt-free in … 212 years!!”

While businesspeople and financial advisers understand that the job cuts and the Wyeth takeover are two totally different matters, let’s face it … most people in the world ARE NOT financial advisers and business analysts. For all we know, Pfizer appeared on the headlines, one for “trying to cut cost to prepare for gloomier days” and the other one “wanting to dump a ridiculous amount of money”

In conclusion, I believe that Pfizer’s job cuts are not caused by the economic downturn. This is part of their long-term plan to re-focus their business and rescuing the value of its shares … after all, they’ve been cutting almost 25,000 jobs since 2004 so this is just “another step” in their restructuring handbook (note that the stock market reacted POSITIVELY to the job cut, see here for the details). But the timing of the announcement is organized as such as to cushion the blow. By announcing the job cuts together with Home Depot, Microsoft, Caterpillar, Nexter and other big corporations, the focus of the discussion would be on the economic downturn, rather than the fact that Pfizer isn’t actually affected by it in a real sense.