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To offer great customer experience, first deliver great employee experience

Someone close to me, visiting from abroad, was left confounded recently.

He had gone to one of our leading retailers in Nairobi to buy a laptop for his family here. He had chosen the model. He had the money ready. He was ready to take it home. 

Oops. It turned out the shop didn’t actually have the item, even though their website had confirmed it was in stock. The assistant promised to find the laptop in other branches and…get back to the customer. 

Kenyans know what happened next.

At the time of writing, my friend was still waiting. He was flabbergasted. He was ready to buy a pricey item, he said. Why would they not get back to him? Why do they not want to make a sale? Do they hate making money?

We Kenyans smiled and grimaced.

I’ll call you back with the details. Let me email you when I have more information. I’ll get back to you. Those sentences are uttered every day, but they are completely insincere. Most of the time, no one calls you back. You will have to call or visit again if you want to be served.

Why should this be so? My friend is right to ask: do people hate being successful or what? Let’s pause and consider this problem. First, those who really want to sell to you will definitely call you back. The small “kaduka” owner, the “mama mboga,” the artisan who needs the work—those guys will get back to you, for their own survival.

The problem comes when businesses become successful and start growing. That intense attention given to customers—the thing that actually caused the initial success—starts to fade. Either because the business owner is now a little better-fed and a little bit more smug; or because others have been employed to manage customers—and they just don’t care enough about the work or its result.

How much money is left on the table by simply not getting back to customers who are eager to buy? Probably enough to significantly boost profits or alleviate crises like the ongoing pandemic. Enough money to matter—and yet folks are still weirdly inattentive.

Your first thought might be that this is the problem of bad employees. People don’t want to work, you say. They avoid any extra duties; they don’t go the extra mile; they don’t have any personal standards. I’ve certainly heard that said a lot by frustrated bosses. And global employee surveys bear this out: the proportion of workers who really care about their work and inject discretionary effort into their duties never really crosses 20 per cent. How abysmal is that?

But this is not fundamentally an employee problem; it’s a leadership problem. It is a problem of bad jobs and bad bosses. Very few humans want to be in jobs they hate; they are there out of desperation, not out of choice. 

What makes so many jobs bad? Primitive work design. Poor pay. Little or no training. Use of fear rather than hope as a key motivator. Next to no team spirit or kinship with fellow employees. No prospects for advancement. In these bad jobs, the only reason people work is to earn their daily bread. They will leave at the first real opportunity.

Those folks ain’t calling anyone back.

Do you want to fix this problem, leaders? The customer-experience evangelist John Dijulius has an excellent phrase for you: “Your customers will never be happier than your employees.” In other words: if you want great customer experience, first deliver great employee experience. Reward competitively, or at least fairly. Train people, in both skills and behaviours. Show them how. Set the example from the top. Show a path to personal advancement. Give them a stake in the success of the business. Have fun together.

If your staff are happy, your customers have some possibility of also being happy. If your employees are generally unhappy, there is no such possibility.

Is a happy and engaged workplace too much for you to pull off, leaders? Then leave all the money on the table, go ahead. Work with people who detest you. Treat them like beasts of burden rather than humans with hopes and feelings. Never smile, let alone laugh, with your employees. Make insincere promises. 

Count your money, for it won’t be lasting long. The era of customers having very few choices is fading fast. The online shopping boom, accelerated by COVID-19, has turned millions into e-commerce enthusiasts. Customers will only visit your physical locations if there is a profound reason to do so—a better experience, a better result. If you are asking them to come and meet sullen employees who’ll neither smile nor serve, then…

(Sunday Nation, 14 November 2021)

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