Tito didn’t raise the repo rate — hallelujah! To have done so would have been like throwing petrol (costly though it is) on to the fire. South Africa would have had a revolution.

Salaries have not matched inflation (unless you’re a politician or corporate executive), which has gone up 10 times since 2006. On average R7 out of every R10 earned by consumers goes to pay off debt, according to the National Credit Regulator, and some simply can’t cope and so 6 000 cars and 2 000 homes are repossessed each month.

Most of us are aghast when a paltry few items at the supermarket translate into hundreds of rands. Filling up our car has doubled in cost in less than a year. In the United States, inflation is running at its highest rate (5,6%) in more than 17 years, pushed up by costlier energy and food. There, analysts are warning that subprime may be over, but the deadlier debt tsunami of prime defaulters is swelling.

In other words, the worst is yet to come. If you’re a professional or run a company, many of you are already seeing sales or revenue tick down. So what is the one thing that is going to ensure a company or professional will stay in business, or those employed will keep their jobs during these dark times?

Great customer service.

It’s what propelled Ireland to the second-richest nation in the world in a scant two decades. It’s doing the same for India, and although China is still erratic in terms of service it’s catching on fast. South Africa, with our arrogant “we’re doing you a favour to serve you”, is eating dust.

What follows is my personal list of those who give great customer service with input from a quick survey of friends and associates. It is often smaller businesses that give the best service; installing a call centre is often a signal for a company disassociating from consumers and giving sub-par service. Below these I list those who were great but have slipped, and then the truly awful. It would be interesting to see if your experience coincides with mine, or if you can add really great service providers too — and if it is a small company, share their contact details with us.

  • Vodacom, every time, and if you have a complaint, escalate it, there’s always a rapid response although their call routing on customer service and technical lines is enough to drive you crazy.
  • AstroTech, a training organisation that gives the fastest and most courteous responses on the planet with great courses.
  • Gordon Institute of Business Science Wednesday Forums in Johannesburg.
  • Jeauval hairdressing salons in Johannesburg and Durban — warm, friendly service and professional styling.
  • Electrician Chris Kala of Masimbane electrical in Johannesburg.
  • Pretoria-based house painter Jabulani Mahlangu.
  • Flick damp proofing in Johannesburg — best prices, reliable.
  • Lanseria airport (where kulula.com flies from) and executive or charter flights; Acsa should learn from them.
  • Wensleydale Farms organic boxes in Johannesburg, inexpensive, either to your door or a nearby location and fresh, seasonal produce.
  • Skagen watches and sunglasses — South African distributor, Scandinavian Brand House.
  • Virgin Active health clubs.
  • Santam.
  • Jenna Clifford jewellery, Morningside, Sandton.
  • Peugeot, Fourways, Sandton.
  • Doppio Zero, Greenside and Rosebank, Johannesburg. Other restaurants with excellent food and service include Johannesburg: Espresso, Willoughby’s, Assagi (and their Hennops River restaurant Al Fiume at River Place), Benkai in Illovo, Lapa Flo, Café Flo and Service Station. Cape Town: Haiku, Melissa’s and Wakame.
  • Elise de la Rey, Standard Bank, Rosebank .
  • Witwatersrand Botanical Society and its many courses and events, and Kirstenbosch gardens in Cape Town.
  • Purple Spot parking, Johannesburg International Airport — best rates of the executive services and way cheaper than using an airport taxi service or experiencing the trauma and high costs of parking at that airport; they also give the car a good clean before delivery.
  • Johannesburg electricity department — if you actually go into the Braamfontein offices waving the problematic bill and keep your temper under control, the service is friendly and efficient.
  • The licensing department at Randburg.
  • Home affairs, Randburg.
  • Woolworths online shopping, In the Bag — excellent, ethical service.
  • Thrupps, Johannesburg’s venerable grocer.

Those who were great but are floundering:

  • Netcare — food quality has declined and emergency room staff are often arrogant and unhelpful.
  • MWeb — its accounts department needs help.
  • The cops, all of them.

The truly awful:

  • Old Mutual — no wonder its earnings are down. I’ve spent three months trying to kick-start a flagging retirement policy and the bureaucracy has to be experienced to be believed. I escalated the complaint and it took a week to look into it by head of customer services Piet Spreeuwenberg. After assuring me he had investigated, he asked me to refax him a form I had faxed on four previous occasions. The policy is being eaten into by their costs, and there has been no offer to refund money lost by their inadequacies nor an offer to pay me out the money, which I’d prefer and invest it at an institution that values clients.
  • Peugeot, Rivonia, staff with attitude and excessive costs.
  • Medi-Clinic, who when a baby got klebsiella at its Cape Town clinic in Oranjezicht, went out of its way to cover up instead of saying, “We’re sorry, these things can happen, we’ll make sure they don’t again,” and covered the considerable medical costs incurred.

For those who have got themselves into a financial pickle, the debt calculator on www.consumerassist.co.za is great for assessing how much you spend, whether you’re in debt and need to get help through an NCR accredited debt counsellor — or, in my instance, it showed I need to be investing much more than I am.


  • Charlene Smith is a multi-award-winning journalist, author and media consultant. She has had 14 books published, one of which was shortlisted for an Alan Paton award. Television documentaries for which she has worked have also won awards. She has worked as a broadcast journalist and radio-station manager. Smith's areas of expertise are politics, economics, women's and children's issues and HIV. She lives and works in Cambridge, USA.


Charlene Smith

Charlene Smith is a multi-award-winning journalist, author and media consultant. She has had 14 books published, one of which was shortlisted for an Alan Paton award. Television documentaries for which...

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