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The customer service debate continues

I wrote last week about the lamentable state of customer service in Kenya, and I appear to have touched a nerve. I received an avalanche of e-mails, mostly from very angry people wanting to share their own dreadful experiences with Kenya’s leading companies. So it is perhaps worth keeping this topic going for another week.

Let’s start with some of the sad stories. Here we go:

A lady in Nairobi wrote in with her tale of woe concerning one of our top courier companies. Not only did they fail to get her very important parcels to Kisumu and Mombasa on time, they failed to do anything about it, failed to apologise, and failed to understand why it was important to her. In short, they failed. But do they know it?

Another lady in Addis Ababa fulminates against a leading Kenyan bank. She makes many international funds transfers, but struggles every time to get the bank to provide her with the simplest acknowledgement. Why? Because the bank’s people can’t be bothered to type out a one-sentence e-mail. They also fail to advise her on the most expeditious way to make inter-currency transfers. The outcome is that she wastes many hours every time chasing the bank’s people – instead of them chasing her.

A third lady advised me that the situation is far, far worse than I imagine. She recommended that I try to call the ‘customer care’ number of some of our leading communications companies, or try to apply for an ATM card from some of our banks. No thank you, ma’am: I have no interest in self abuse.

An angry gentleman pointed out an interesting phenomenon: we all know the various shops in town where ‘assistants’ would rather paint their nails, send e-mails, engage in giggly telephone conversations with friends, read every single classified ad in the paper twice, watch the funny shapes that the clouds make in the sky – in other words, do anything but assist the customer. Observe, says this gentleman, what happens when a mzungu walks into this shop: the staff suddenly stand up straight, change their accents and rush forward to be of service! What is that all about? Beats me, sir, beats me. We are our own worst enemies.

And finally a friend who conducts customer-service training asked me: why is it that parking spaces closest to the front door, and with nice roof shades, are reserved for senior executives and directors, while a barking askari will send customers to the farthest reaches of the parking lot where their cars will bake in the tropical sun? What does this tell us about who the Most Important Person is?

Customer service, it appears, is a catastrophe in these parts. People just don’t seem to “get it”: that the much neglected, much abused and taken-for-granted person walking into your business will soon walk out forever. Leaving you to blame the government, political turmoil and high power prices for the collapse of your business.

We need to understand the genesis of the problem. There is no shortage of people who can tell you what to do: there is a large body of knowledge and an array of techniques and best practice that you can deploy to develop good customer service in your organisation. There is also no shortage of training courses and seminars available on the subject – they happen every week, and leading organisations spend millions on them.

But this is not a problem you can buy your way out of. Show me an organisation that is arrogant, aloof and out of touch with its customers, and I will show you a top management team that is arrogant, aloof and out of touch with its customers. It is all about leadership. We recruit our business leaders on the strength of their academic credentials and the big-name companies on their CVs. We assess their ability to crunch numbers and manage projects. We almost never check whether they are any good at handling customers. That is a skill too “soft” to bear examination.

An organisation is what its leaders are. If the CEO finds dealing with pesky customers an irritation, so will his frontline people. We learn by example, and tailor our behaviour to match that of those holding the power. So if the top team devotes all its time to financial analysis, planning acquisitions and managing major capital expenditures – don’t be too surprised to find customer-facing staff painting their nails and surfing websites. It’s a manifestation of the same problem – the inability to understand the absolute centrality of the customer in any business equation.

There is another issue to grasp here. Customer service is NOT what the Customer Service Department does. Yet in most organisations that is all it is. Customers complaining? Pass ’em on to Customer Service. Set up a special phone number for the whining ingrates to call. Put up a desk. Appoint a manager. Send the reps on a course.

This is a particularly brainless way of attacking the issue, yet it is the one most organisations follow. And when it doesn’t work, the Customer Service Manager is sacked and the Department overhauled. That particular breed must have one of the highest turnover rates in management.

Why doesn’t it work? Because you can’t segregate the management of customers. You can’t fence it off and put into a nice neat corner where the people look pretty, wear smart uniforms and have pleasant accents. Good customer service is ‘global’ or it is nothing. It is done by everyone or it is pointless. And it is spearheaded, crucially, by the person at the very top.

This is not easy; if it were, we wouldn’t have a problem and I wouldn’t be on the subject for the second week running. It is hard work making people understand the fundamental point that customers ARE the business – without them, there is nothing. It is a pain in the neck to make everyone in the organisation feel elated in the presence of a customer. It is painfully difficult to get out of your own shoes and spend time in those of your buyers. But unless you have been granted a pure monopoly, you have no choice but to do it. I don’t care how big your profits are today – if you are neglecting Stakeholder Number One, your demise is assured. Only the date on which to hold the final rites is in question.

The payoff, on the other hand, is immense. Observe any organisation in a competitive industry that has staked out a leading position and, crucially, sustained it over a long period: that organisation will be excelling in the task of giving great joy to its customers. It will have managed to develop people, from top to bottom, who smile naturally and drop whatever they’re doing when a customer calls. It will have the most loyal customers in its industry. The tills will be ringing, and the shareholders singing.

If you run a business, and still don’t want to do it right, then do us all a favour: do something else.

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