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Open letter to Kenyan CEOs, part 1

Jan 23, 2011 Leadership, Sunday Nation

Dear Kenyan Chief Executives

As we launch deeper into 2011, and as many of you sit down to plan your strategic priorities, I thought it apt to plant some ‘thought seeds’ in your magnificent minds.

You will know, I am sure, that the core of your business is your customer. Business is an ecosystem, but the only element that brings revenue into the ecosystem every day is the customer. All the others – you, your employees, shareholders, suppliers, shareholders – feed off the proceeds. That is why the customer remains the most important part of business. I would urge you to think of the customer first and work back from there. Your strategies, structures, processes and products should all be devised to serve your customer unusually well.

Sadly, that is not the case in Kenya, where leaders and managers sit down and devise everything in remarkable isolation from customers. This never fails to astonish me: that business leaders (like politicians) imagine they know what is ‘best’ for their customers (voters) – without ever asking them.

Years ago I wrote a book in anger. It was called ‘Crown Your Customer’, and sought to place the customer at the very epicentre of our business discourse. Some of you have adopted that philosophy; most have ignored it and carried on as before.

And so, Kenya remains a wasteland when it comes to customer experience. Customers are routinely ignored, neglected and abused by your staff and systems. I know you blame this on the attitudes of your people and the failures of your information technology. But I am writing this letter in order to identify a rather different culprit: YOU.

You see, this neglect of customers is not about frontline staff and systems at all. It is entirely about the philosophy and behaviour of you, the chief executive officer. If you embrace customer centricity heart and soul, so will your organization. If you walk the talk of outstanding customer care every day, so will your organization.

If, on the other hand, you mouth love of customers as a tired platitude, and your daily focus is on every other element in your ecosystem, then rest assured you will never create an organization that gives customers outstanding service.

This is nothing to do with customer service departments and customer relationship management systems. It is everything to do with the standards set by leadership. And here, many of you have failed badly when it comes to customer centricity.

The average Kenyan consumer will confirm: it is very, very hard to find superb service in this country. Most customers are tossed around matatu-style: forced to take your products due to lack of options, forced to accept lack of concern and attention as a norm. How do you as a CEO accept this? If your organization is unable to address its customers with dignity and honour and give them an efficient and pleasurable experience, are you really able to be at ease in your office?

Of course, some of you have demonstrated powerful intent in this area. Customer service in some companies is showing a remarkable upward trajectory. That is due to your leadership, and we applaud you. But the rest of you have much work to do. As competition intensifies and the power of social media grows, you will have no choices left. Neglect of customers will not only haunt you, it will cause your organization’s demise.

At its heart, this is a people issue. Unhappy staff cannot make customers happy. Most organizations fail with customers because they fail with their own people first. Your ability to inspire and motivate your employees to deliver happiness to customers is the paramount skill. On that, more in the second part of this letter, same time next week.

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