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Last night, I was taken aback by the way that Econet Wireless was handling, or rather not handling, its very serious service delivery crisis. Since Saturday evening, subscribers have been expressing frustration and anger at the strange and unexplained disappearance of their airtime. From the people I have spoken to, people who had topped up their accounts with as much as $5 found, upon trying to make calls, that their balances were down to $0.
Kapoof! Just like that!
I was not personally affected by the issue, but I know enough people who have been seething since then, uncertain about where or how their hard-earned money disappeared – and more importantly, having no access to Econet staff for verification of what exactly had gone wrong.
I cannot confirm anything from the hotline or telephone customer care side of things, but I did try the 111 customer service line and was cut off two minutes into the call because there wasn’t an available representative to handle my issue. I would gladly have held the line for longer, but alas, was not allowed to do so and was unceremoniously cut off.
From a social media perspective, subscribers were left without any sort of communiqué about this crisis for almost 24 hours as they took to the mobile service provider’s Facebook and Twitter accounts to vent their frustrations. Econet has 185,000+ Facebook and 3,500+ Twitter followers, which is by no means a small feat.
All one has to do to get a sense of the magnitude of people’s frustrations is to sift through some of the comments on offer from Econet’s page;
“Guys honestly what u dngaint fair if we dnt get our airtime refunds trust me u gnaluz sum valued customers ,haaaamsadaro so tipeimaridzedumhani”
“An apology from econet is insufficient for my disapeared airtime, i don’t need an apology i need my airtime.”
“I for one am dissapointed especially yesterday’s service.$3 of my etym was chowed away without any explanation from your service.Refund our money back….that was absolute robbery.”
Similar sentiments were shared and directed at Econet’s Twitter account, although in lower volumes.
The fact that no Econet representatives were present on any of the company’s social media platforms at any point in time to allay customers’ fears was disastrous and conveys a lack of concern for clients’ emotions. Moreso, it builds a case for Econet’s competitors, particularly Telecel which has been steadily building its market share across Zimbabwe for the past couple of years. No doubt, Econet still enjoys the lion’s share of customers across all three mobile phone service providers with figures of over 8 million subscribers; Telecel is reported to have a subscription base of 2.5 million. With Econet reaching something of a plateau in market gains, Telecel’s resurgence (the company added 1 million subscribers last year) represents very real competition for the mobile giant which had gone unchallenged for about half a decade, the most recent challenge to its market leadership (before Telecel’s resurgence) being that mounted by NetOne up until the mid-2000s.
Last night, Econet finally broke its silence and posted an apology to its customers, asking them to bear with the company as engineers worked to resolve the issue. Since then, there hasn’t been any further news and interaction with customers who, at the time of writing this article had posted over 2,700 comments in response to Econet’s communication. Posts are also still streaming in on the page’s wall.
From a technical perspective, this is a major crisis for Econet. But from a public relations (PR) perspective, it is a catastrophe. One of the golden rules of PR – especially for a company as significant as Econet – is to always report your own bad news. The act of being proactive in reaching out to clients at a time when they need the greatest reassurance that their concerns are being met is a basic tenet of a sound communication strategy which places a premium on the public relations function of a company.
And as we move more into the social media realm, there is no better channel (apart from services that can be rendered via the mobile phone itself, eg. bulk SMS) through which to disseminate information and show a substantive presence than to have some visibility on platforms such as Twitter and Facebook.
It is complacency that many start ups and companies in Zimbabwe must guard against. It is a given that our sectors are not really as competitive as they should be; some have been captured by singular entities even. But be that as it may, complacency must never override the pursuit of excellence and quality customer care, for it is the people – and their interests – who are serviced by the various products that are out there. And people, when offered options, can abandon those services.
The onus too is on the competition to be seen with its hands up and ready to be counted.
I feel too that Telecel missed a big trick by failing to intervene during Econet’s silence, as that was a golden opportunity for the company to push its products to a highly dissatisfied Econet clientele via social media. I have often seen Telecel’s social media team find witty and fun ways to engage in product placement during events like #ComedyThursday on Twitter. One man’s crisis is another’s opportunity – and this was most definitely an opportunity for Telecel to ride of the back of Econet’s misfortune.
Lastly, I don’t think that Econet – even with its deeply religious foundations can still afford a holiday, even if it is Easter Sunday, a very important date in the Christian calendar. Extending the analogy of Easter and the events thereof, some subscribers even took to renaming Econet’s Buddie brand ‘Judas’ for the perceived betrayal they suffered.
I, as well as many other customers received the Econet SMSes informing us that the company would work shortened hours during Easter with the exception of Easter Sunday.
Sadly, crises don’t avoid holidays.
And sometimes, that lesson is learnt the hard way.
This guest post was authored by Fungai Machirori. Fungai is a journalist, blogger, poet and writer. She is also the Founder and Managing Editor of Her Zimbabwe.