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Still taking customers for granted? Look out…

I wrote here last week that so many of our businesses seem hell-bent on sacrificing long-term strategic gain at the altar of ‘shrewdness’ – the mistaken belief that you must get the best possible deal for yourself in every transaction. That article seemed to touch a nerve: I was deluged with tweets and comments from consumers who agreed that this short-sightedness is indeed annoying and frustrating.

So let’s explore the issue a little more this week. There seem to be some pet peeves that really grate on the nerves of customers. Top of the list are queues. Business leaders seem to view long queues either as signs of success, or as unavoidable inconveniences; customers, on the other hand, are enraged by them.

Why do business chiefs pay such little attention to long queues? Why do they treat valuable customers no better than cattle lining up for a chemical bath? It’s that mental block again: shrewdness. It costs a lot of money, you see, to open up new locations or branches, or to pay more staff to keep every counter open. And Kenyan customers are, as we all know, peculiarly docile: they just queue up and don’t complain. So there’s much profitability to be had by just turning a blind eye to the queue problem.

Is this clever? Not at all. I wish we could turn into a financial number the frustration, resentment and ill-will that standing in unnecessary queues generates in customers. If CEOs and CFOs had that number to look at, perhaps they would change their thinking. There are many, many solutions to the problem of queuing, some technological, others just common-sensical – after all, queueing has been prevalent in the world for a long time. But since Kenyan bank and airline and public-body CEOs don’t have to stand in their own queues, they don’t seem to feel the need to seek out these solutions.

A second major bugbear is insincerity. Why, so many customers asked me, are businesses so unable to tell the unvarnished truth? Why do they mislead us and hide behind weasel-words and footnotes and oblique terms and conditions? Why do they send us banal and meaningless automated responses? Again, they think they are being shrewd: they recruit customers by being economical with the truth; and they save costs by sending a meaningless computer reply to every query. Again, I wish they knew how to measure the cost of bad feeling. And I wish business leaders located the moral fibre they exhibit when singing in churches and temples with their families, and brought it to work.

The truth is, businesses do these things because they get away with it. In my new book, ‘The Peculiar Kenyan’, I suggest that our politicians address their constituents as though they are talking to mentally ill children. Well, our businesses are often no less patronising. The unspoken belief is that you will put up with insincerity, shoddy products and indifferent service – and you won’t go anywhere.

May I sound an air-raid alarm here? Business honchos, those days are disappearing fast, and their fading is being accelerated by social media. There are tens of thousands of Kenyans on Twitter and Facebook, and they are vocal and belligerent. These days, bad news about your company can be ‘retweeted’ to thousands within seconds. Videos mocking you can appear on YouTube, and be watched by hundreds of thousands. Every customer need not hate you; all that is needed nowadays is that an influential few do.

So wake up, businesspeople. There was a time when those practices made you money, and that time is gone. It is now time you focused more on sustained customer value, and less on the value of each transaction.

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