Questions? Comments? Please call 1800.......
Have you ever been washing your dishes or eating your breakfast cereal and read all of the label? Not just the 'serving suggestion' ideas (ie a photograph of weetbix in a bowl with milk - who'd have thought), the ingredients (Yum, it's got emulsifiers and vegetable gum in it) or the ridiculous promises made by the product (NEW! IMPROVED! How can something be 'improved' if it's new?), but the tiny print that says "Comments? Questions? Call us on 1800....."
Who rings these numbers? What on earth do they want to comment or ask about? How bored and lonely and clueless would you need to be to even consider making such a call? Well, I made a few calls.....
'Our operators are busy or unavailable. Please leave a message and we will get back to you.' Which they did. "Errm, I'm not your usual caller, but I got curious and would like to know....WHO rings you?" The pleasant-sounding Pamela told me that most of their calls were not concerning the tuna, but their catfood brand, Snappy Tom. She'd had complaints about how the packet looks and that one chap was not going to buy the new dry catfood in the box because the spout was too small. As for the tuna, the calls mostly concerned where they could get certain lines and flavours if they couldn't be found at their regular supermarket. Pamela also told me that consumers often confused herbs and spices in the cans of flavoured tuna as 'foreign bodies' and would ring to complain or demand a refund. "We have some factsheets we work through to explain that what they think is a stone is a peppercorn." She gets about twenty phone calls a day and "at least one or two of them also end up telling me their life stories." Despite my encouragement, she was not allowed to share any weird and wonderful tales with me because "Everyone is a consumer and we mustn't laugh at them." Fair enough, especially if your calls 'may be monitored for quality assurance and training purposes.'
Sakata Rice Crackers
"Oh you'd be surprised. We get heaps of calls," said the helium-inflected voice on the other end of the phone. What about? "Mostly about questions about the ingredients - what they mean and if they're safe for coeliacs or diabetics to eat." Any complaints? "Rarely. Except for one guy, who thought the seaweed was grass. He'd picked them up by mistake when he really wanted the BBQ ones."
Automated answering machine. 'We welcome your questions and comments and keep it all confidential. Please press '1' on your keypad to hear about your rights to privacy. Please hang on the line if you wish to speak to a consumer service operator.' Justin came on the line. "We get a lot of feedback about our cleaning products, shower gels and soaps mostly," he said. Come on man, what about your weirder calls, you know the ones that you laugh about in the tearoom? He stayed professional: "We deal with people who can't find particular products in their stores and dispense oral care advice." Hang on - oral care advice? Like for people who don't know how to use their toothpaste? "Sometimes. We're not dentists but we do have factsheets that we can post out to them." Come on Justin, give me something here! "Actually we do get a lot of calls complaining about how one of our products might have damaged their clothing. Again, we have factsheets on how to remove particular stains, mostly using all that old stuff like lemon juice, breadcrumbs and borax that your grandmother would have used." Now Justin was starting to enjoy our conversation. "We also get a lot of single guys who ring us, wanting to know how to do their washing. I had one guy once who'd used the antiseptic hand soap as a shower gel, and complaining he'd broken out into a rash. When I told him that it wasn't mild enough for showering with I then had to spend about an hour going through his entire bathroom cabinet of our products so that he knew what he had to use for where."
Now there was no stopping him. "I've had fifteen years of experience in customer service call centres, most of it at Telstra. I can tell a story from there if you like," he offered. Yes please. "Cool. In the very early days of mobiles and SMS, I had a call from a very worried lady. She'd been getting SMS messages telling her to check her mail box. She told me 'Each time I go outside to the letterbox, there's nothing in there. After the sixth message, I got so worried I drove to our beach house to check the letter box there, but there still wasn't anything in it.' That's the only time I had to put down the phone to have a laugh," he said. "I have one more thing - we get a helluva lot more weird, sad or bizarre calls on a full moon." Really? "Oh yes. We've been able to document it, it's very noticeable."
What about the consumer centre for Band-Aids?
Rosemary tells me that they deal with calls from consumers about all of their products made by Johnson and Johnson. She answers a lot of enquiries about what adhesive is used on the bandaids from people who have sensitive skin. The only complaints she's received about the innocuous little plasters has been about the gauze pad being stuck in the wrong position. "No, that's not right", she said, warming to the theme, "We also get loads of calls from people who have counted the number of bandaids in the box and aren't happy if there's only 24 instead of 25." She considered that those calls were pedantic but fair enough.
"We also handle the Splenda Sweetener product and apart from calls about their suitability for diabetics and requests for recipes, we've had calls complaining that there's only 299 in a 300 packet." Now that's a canny consumer - sitting at their kitchen table counting out sweetener tabs - now there's someone I'd like to get to know! What about the 'Full Moon' effect? "Oh yes, there's definitely an increase in calls at that time. We get heaps at night asking us how to put on a bandaid or whether they can go for a swim wearing a sanitary pad."
On to our great South Aussie icon, Farmers Union Iced Coffee. As an interesting aside, did you know that South Aussies are the largest consumers per head of milk in the world? It would also be interesting to find out, therefore, if our rates of osteoporosis is lower than the general population too. The lovely Lyn said that the most calls they receive about FUIC is from homesick South Aussies who are desperate to know where they can buy it interstate or seeking more information about its magical nutritional qualities. "We had one guy last week who thought that the package number at the bottom of the carton was the number of fat grams in the product." Any complaints? "No, never about our iconic iced coffee and flavoured milks, but we do get a few about runny yoghurt or milk that seems to have gone off before the use-by date." The 'Full Moon' effect. "Definitely."
And lastly, Libra Invisible Pads. 'Welcome to the Tena and Libra customer service line. All of our customer service officers are currently busy. Your call is important to us, so please leave us a message and we will return your call as soon as possible.' OK then, I'll leave a message. No-one called in the past three days, so I can only assume that they're run off their feet with pesky little enquiries about wings versus no-wings.