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“Where are you calling from?”

Jun 21, 2015 Sunday Nation

I called a hotel to book a table for lunch last week. The conversation went something like this:

Me: “I’d like to book a table for lunch, please.”
Hotel: “Where are you calling from?”
Me: “My house.”

Now then. Why should “where I’m calling from” be a matter of concern to the hotel? I think I know the answer, but like a good modern columnist, I went first to Twitter to seek answers. Why, I asked, is it a matter of Peculiarly Kenyan importance to know where people are calling from?

The answers confirmed my suspicions. There are two broad reasons. The first is that the question serves as a filter. It allows the organization you’re calling to gauge your suitability to be their customer. The question is a proxy for more indelicate and potentially offensive questions, such as: “How much money do you have?” Or “are you sure you can pay for this?” Or “who is your father?” Or “where did you go to school?”

The second reason is that we do these things simply because we do them. They made sense, sort of, way back in the past. So they became part of the rituals and norms of running a business. If a customer calls, ask where they’re calling from. Ask even if asking makes no sense. I was calling a 5-star hotel, by the way, on a weekend. Asking me where I was calling from added nothing to the hotel employee’s knowledge. But that didn’t stop the hotel.

Why do companies need to filter their customers in the first place? I may be wrong, but I find it difficult to believe that 5-star hotels are deluged with inappropriate customers all the time, and need to beat them off at the door. In fact I’d argue the opposite: that if an occasional customer of modest means musters up the funds (and the nerve) to splash out on a five-star meal, the hotel should welcome said customer with open arms. Make it a real occasion for him or her – a lifelong memory. It is from memories like that that truly great hotels are made.

Any Kenyan business that regards itself as even vaguely “upmarket” seems to take it as a code of practice to keep undesirables out. That is why we employ armies of guards and train our receptionists and phone operators to be obstructive rather than helpful. We don’t want them helping or admitting the wrong people.

May I unhelpfully point out that it is precisely this kind of attitude that left many traditional banks struggling for relevance in Kenya a few years ago. Most of them had met in their exclusive club and decided that banking was not for everyone, just for the “right” people. They collectively embarked on a shutting out of “poor” customers. This left the door wide open for the likes of Equity Bank and M-Pesa to walk in and revolutionize banking in Kenya. The rest is history.

It gives me particular pleasure to observe so many of those very banks scrabbling these days to address “the bottom of the pyramid” a là Equity Bank, or begging to plug into the M-Pesa platform.

There are lessons to be learned here for all of us. Do NOT assume you know exactly who your customers are. Do not think you need to dodge and evade a whole bunch of people simply because they have never bought from you. Do not imagine you know who has money in Kenya, and who does not.

Equally, go and take a hard look at your many customer-facing processes and people. You may be shocked to find the outdated and downright offensive things your business still does to its customers – simply because of some fossilized standard operating procedure, or some inflexible supervisors who are relics from yesteryear.

Even if filters are necessary, why not deploy honesty about your prices and policies, rather than using guards and phone operators to keep people away from you? Sometimes, the customers we are NOT talking to can teach us more about our offerings than those we traditionally serve.

Oh, that lunch? I didn’t go.

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