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What lies behind consistently good customer service?

I love visiting Cape Town. During a recent business trip, I paid more attention to exactly what I like about that city.

Certainly, it has a beautiful setting, where a raucous ocean meets the majestic Table Mountain. Certainly, it is a culinary capital and has great food choices. Certainly, it is one of the best-run cities in Africa.

But there’s more going on. What is immediately noticeable is the level of customer service. Whether you go to malls or markets; food courts or fine restaurants; chain hotels or boutique lodgings – you will generally encounter very warm, welcoming and friendly people.

During this last trip I observed one shop assistant go sprinting in the hot sun to fetch a shirt in my size from another branch on the other side of the mall I was in. She came back with the shirt full of smiles. Most people would have just directed me to the other branch.

I watched a tiny kiosk of tailors in a basement, doing a roaring trade in clothes adjustments with an unending stream of customers – yet able to complete each job to a very high standard of tailoring in just 30 minutes. In my city tailors seem unable to do the smallest job in less than a week; and even then they will not finish on time and will do shoddy work.

Wherever I went I encountered, by and large, smiles, a willingness to work, a desire to go the extra mile to make the sale. There were exceptions, of course; but the average level of service is very high.

Now let’s pause. Why should this phenomenon occur in Cape Town and its environs, but not in other parts of South Africa? Why is it that when you visit Johannesburg or Durban, you will probably encounter surly or indifferent – even hostile – service? Why do the same chain stores that offer great service in Cape Town fall short in their branches in other cities? It’s the same country, after all…

Let’s go further afield. Why is it that if you go to places like Mumbai in India you will very likely find shopkeepers and hotel staff falling over themselves to serve you; but if you go to Delhi service is mostly indifferent and people seem to regard helping customers a strain to their lifestyle?

Back home in Kenya you can indeed encounter extremely exuberant and willing staff members. But you can also come across employees who remain glued to their seats and regard service as an ordeal and an affront to their comfort. Why do we not get consistently high standards? And why is it that crossing just one border into neighbouring Tanzania entails a step-down in average service levels?

I asked a number of people about this while in Cape Town. The answers were interesting. Unlike many issues in South Africa, this one does not seem to be about race: Capetonians of all races are enthusiastic servers; in Johannesburg the races are united in sullenness. It does not seem to be about age; nor is it about social segmentation: you will probably get good service in flea-markets as well as luxury stores in Cape Town.

So what is it, then? In a word: culture. Cape Town celebrates its diversity; it has a liberal history; there is little hard-wired cultural resistance to outsiders. It thrives on commerce and trade. It gets it. Mumbai is similarly cosmopolitan and business-centred. Delhi is the seat of government, and runs on red tape and rigid protocols. And my fellow Punjabis who dominate Delhi are known more for big egos than for humble service…

Let’s bring this discussion home. What does it all mean for you and your organization? Simply this: if you want to deliver outstanding customer care, that is not the result of high pay or a training programme or decrees from head office. It is only long-standing culture that delivers consistently top-notch customer service. For whatever reason, everyone has to do it, willingly: as a standard, and as a daily habit. People respond to what they see as the norms around them. If most people are smiley and friendly, most people will become the same. If they are not, and the dominant culture lacks empathy and desire to serve, well…

And where does culture come from? From leadership, in the main. It starts from the standards set at the very top; and the daily monitoring of consistently appropriate behaviour. It takes a long time to come to full fruition.

I suggest you get started.

(Sunday Nation, 27 November 2016)

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