Stuck between Fiona and Cheryl

I TELEPHONED a large company the other day to make inquiries about a story I proposed to write publicising its activities far and wide. I got voicemail. Fiona was not available. However, if I cared to ring Cheryl on another number, she could assist me. It transpired that Cheryl was away from her desk, but if I would like to call Fiona ….

So what, you may say. Everyone has stories like this to tell. But that does not help the blood pressure.

Although we live in a service economy, service has become an endangered concept.

How many million hours do we waste in telephone queues being told “your call is important to us”? Apparently it is not important enough to be answered in a timely fashion. Corporations are effectively saying: “recorded voice switchboards save us money on staff wages and you the customer can bear the time cost of hanging on. Have a nice day”.

Since most calls are made from the workplace, the damage to productivity is incalculable.

Manufacturers, too, are in on the act. In a trend, possibly started by the Ikea furniture people, products increasingly are being sold only part assembled. Recently I took delivery of a gas-fired barbecue kit that would have required a Ph.D. in engineering to put together in less than six hours. Computer software is sold containing bugs and anomalies the buyer is expected to sort out.

Eventually there will be a backlash from consumers. I have heard callers on talk-back radio saying they will not do business with companies that hide behind electronic walls, and they are more than happy to pay extra dollars to those who put customers first.

On a national level, there is a penalty for believing that a service-dominated economy equates with growth and prosperity.

Hong Kong is the best warning. The manufacturing sector began to be hollowed out in the 1980s, as factories and jobs were exported to China, and the process is nearly complete.

It should have been obvious that six million people could not make a living selling karaoke machines and overpriced apartments to each other. Hong Kong residents themselves consume the majority of the services they provide, and two thirds of the workforce serves local people. Since the latter are struggling to pay mortgage debt exceeding 50 per cent of GDP, with wage cuts and 6.7 per cent unemployment, it is no wonder that retail spending has been incinerated. Hong Kong is facing its fourth year of falling prices.

Deflation is the only factor assisting competitiveness, while the currency is pegged to the mighty greenback. Local retailers continue to substitute strident high-pressure sales tactics for good humour and good service. I would rather be insulted on the other side of the border.

No need to manufacture this bit of news

IT is only with difficulty that I can persuade friends overseas that Australia has a manufacturing base at all, still less a vibrant automotive industry that is exporting its socks off. Motor car exports rose 34 per cent to a record $3.26 billion last year.

Taking component sales into account, the total was $4.96 billion.

That is not to be sneezed at. It is more

than we earned from beef, wheat or wool.

Almost one car in every three made in Australia is sold overseas.

I would be happier if one market was not so dominant. Saudi Arabia bought $1.38 billion worth of vehicles, more than twice as much as the US, which imported $605 million worth.

Clearly we make good cars. Labour strife is minimal, and the soft currency is a bumper boost.

Industry spokesman Peter Sturrock is forecasting total automotive exports reaching $6.5 billion within three years. Close your eyes for a moment, and think what the Chinese

market might be worth a decade or so from now.

It is hard to find an investment to lock in to the good story. Futuris has an automotive unit, but it is not yet in top gear. Pacifica is a major supplier of brakes and other auto parts. Its shares have put in a yo yo performance lately. I had hoped to catch them on a downward yo, but they shot up to $2.70 last week. Still worth a nibble perhaps.

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