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Customer service has gone to the dogs

The customer, we are told as children, is king. Anyone who has spent some of his or
her life in Kenya could be forgiven for screaming at that fanciful notion. Here, the
customer is a serf, a pauper, a desperado. Are the following sad tales not the common
experience of anyone trying to buy goods and services in Kenya?

A top international bank will forget to order your new cheque-book, and can actually
lose it three times after ordering it. If you complain, you will receive helpless grins:
“it’s the process.” When you decide enough is enough and close your account, you
will receive indifferent shrugs. Followed by a stern letter instructing you to return
your cheque-book in person and pay a leaving fee.

A leading entertainment services company will give you a pilot line to call for
“customer service”. If you are unfortunate enough to do so, you will enter a version
of Hades where you are kept interminably on hold listening to annoyingly cheerful
messages about the company’s great service. After 15 minutes of making unplanned
donations to Telkom Kenya and absorbing mindless gibberish, you will bang the
phone down in despair.

If you have the poor judgement to go into one of those fancy looking gift shops in
shopping malls, you will discover that the shop is manned by at least four family
members and another six shop assistants. The family members will be sitting behind
the till reading newspapers and listening to the radio; the shop assistants will be
leaning against walls staring into deep space. Not one of these ten people will make
the slightest attempt to serve you. If you ask for an item they don’t have, they will
shake their heads and look away. All of them will appear to have the capacity to send
and receive text messages on their mobile phones for several hours per day.

And if you have the misfortune of needing to catch an up-country bus: prepare to lose
total control over your life. You will be forced to run like a maniac to claim a seat
you have already paid for; to share your seat with other people’s poultry, offspring
and provisions; to lose your luggage at any of the many stops; and to sit in your seat
frozen with sheer terror as your miraa-chewing driver negotiates a steep downhill
incline at the speed of a cruise missile.

If there is a behaviour that captures the lamentable state of customer service, it is this:
the universal refusal to make eye contact. When you have no intention of serving
customers well, your eyes will tell the story. In Kenya, people make a career of
avoiding looking at you.

It is amazing that this state of affairs continues, for it is so stupid that it almost can’t
be happening. We claim to be a nation of businesspeople, but do we understand the basic essence? The most disarmingly simple definition of business that I am aware of
was made by a leading CEO. Shareholders look after employees. Employees look
after customers. Customers look after shareholders. That’s it. Business defined, in a
very small nutshell. But you’ll need to read it again and think deeply about that
simple advice.

If you are a shareholder, note who’s looking after you. Not your board of directors
pontificating portentously in palatial boardrooms. Not the CEO sitting in a top-level
strategy workshop deep in the Mara. No, your dividend comes from one person and
one person alone: the customer.

If you’re an employee, note what your mission in life is: to look after customers. To
grab them, thrill them and keep them. For life. Yes, I know: you’re also supposed to
fight competitors, manage suppliers, make plans, delegate, attend meetings, write
reports and generally buzz around being busy all day long. But do you have a reason
for living? Yes, and her name is CUSTOMER. This person enriches the shareholder
who pays your salary. You can engage in all the time-passing activity you like: if you
aren’t looking after customers, you have no point, no reason for being there.

This does not just apply to those serving customers as part of their job descriptions:
happy customers are job number one for everyone from the boss to the cleaner.
Whether you’re in accounts or in repairs, you’re only there because you’re part of a
customer-satisfaction machine. That, ultimately, is what everyone is paid to do.
Remember that the next time you eat your chips while a customer waits to be served.

If you’re a customer, note that you are the nexus in the virtuous circle. You look after
if you are looked after. You pay the investor his return; you must in turn be given
value by that investor’s company. So why is it you are the most docile part of the
chain? Why do you acquiesce in your own enforced misery?

Simple stuff. And yet so difficult to achieve. But people do achieve it, sometimes
painfully, sometimes slowly. Those who try do get there. Many banks and car
dealers (not all!) are very different today from five years ago: they spend a great deal
of time and effort understanding customers and going the extra mile in serving them.

A precious few make outstanding customer service their key competitive advantage.
The Serena Hotels Group, for example, focuses obsessively on training its staff to
give pleasure, consistently and unrelentingly, to its clients. It is now the most
successful hotel chain by some distance in this part of the world, and has just opened
the region’s outstanding hotel property in Kampala. This is no coincidence: you need
only look at the joy simultaneously present on the faces of shareholders, staff and
customers to see the power of that virtuous circle in action.

At the other end of the scale, there was a kiosk called Gatundu’s. You may not have
heard of it, but it was the favoured lunchtime home of generations of school children.
Why? Because it would serve excellent chips and bhajias, hygienically, quickly and
efficiently, day in, day out. The proprietors knew their target market, and they served
it with great enthusiasm. Sadly, Gatundu’s was the victim of this government’s zeal
in eradicating great little businesses: it was flattened by council askaris.

You will all have your favourites: from coffee houses to vegetable shops, travel
agents to hair salons. Think about why you keep going there: invariably, it’s the
service. None of these successful businesses finds customer service easy. All of them
have to work very hard to sustain what they have. All of them have to plan ahead,
design efficient and speedy processes, train and retrain their staff, and inculcate a
lasting dedication to pleasing the mnunuzi.

They do it well, though, and therefore they succeed. If on the other hand you are part
of the colonies of investors and employees who find good customer service just too
difficult to pull off: don’t worry, history will soon sort out that problem for you. Your
customer is waiting to kick you in the butt. Just let the first opportunity come.

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