By Bamuturaki Musinguzi
Published February 8, 2012
Has your flight ever been delayed at one of the airports in Africa and no explanation or apology was offered?Â Or have you ever walked into a shop and the attendant continued with her manicure that you found her attending to?
Well these and other forms of real-life experiences contributing to poor service delivery and customer care make up Keeping Customers: And Getting Their Friends Too! a new book by Ugandan author, Dorothy M Tuma.
The book is based on a compilation of Tuma’s weekly articles on customer services, published by the Daily Monitor newspaper as “Dora’s Diary” every Tuesday. The articles, which allowed Tuma to reconnect with her marketing roots and the principle that customers reign supreme; were born out of her frustration with Uganda not having a place for consumers to compliment excellent service or complain about the opposite.
Most of the times Tuma has used Entebbe Airport’s frequent flyer lounge, she has noticed that beyond the initial warm greeting everyone receives from the gentleman at the door, there emerge two distinct categories of service: service reserved for people who are either known to be or look like VIPs and service (or lack of it) for the rest.
“From my observations, as soon as a celebrity, highly visible public figure or distinguished looking foreigner sits down, a smiling waiter or waitress bearing a heated, damp wash cloth for the VIP materializes, takes the VIP’s order and delivers refreshments to the seated VIP. The other level of service reserved for non-VIPs like me, includes the individual something down for several minutes and finally realizing that if they are to have refreshments, they will need to walk to the counter, place their order, wait while it is assembled and then walk back to their seat with the ordered items,” she writes.
“I find it odd that there are clearly two levels of distinctly different service in a lounge that should treat all guests equally. The attentive service enjoyed by one group of customers should be available to every customer eligible to use that lounge. Unfortunately for travelers, there is only one frequent flyer lounge at this particular East African airport so a frequent flyer can either choose to do without lounge services or settle for the discriminately services offered,” she adds.
Tuma asks: “Does your business offer two levels of service , one for those who appear not to have much money and another for those who appear to be financially endowed? Potential customers who receive cold treatment have absolutely no incentive to spend their money with you. If they have a choice, they will simply go elsewhere in search of a place where they feel welcome and appreciated.”
In addition to the articles, which are all real-life case studies, the book provides the theory behind key customer service principles and a number of practical tools in a style that everyone from the most junior employee to the CEO will both appreciate and find useful. It is an indispensable handbook and reference tool for anyone who interfaces with customers. The illustrations are by Kenyan cartoonist Stanislaus Olonde (aka Stano).
Divided into 15 chapters, the book, a critique of general business practices and conduct, tackles the subjects of courtesy, honesty, communication, valuing customer feedback, compensation of errors by businesses, equipping and rewarding staff and appreciation of customer loyalty, among subjects.
The articles, meticulously retold, are born out of the author’s personal experiences and those of her family and friends with several service providers ranging from utility companies, airlines, hair salons, tailors, car mechanics, supermarkets, hotels, restaurants and taxis, among others. Some names have been changed to protect the individual’s privacy and company names have been omitted in the majority of the case studies.
Are customers driven to extremes just to gain access to your services? Well, Tuma’s friend Susan had to throw a tantrum to get her internet wireless connection activated by a local mobile phone company. “Should that be what it takes? Why should a company drive a customer into making a scene before she can access the services she has already paid for? …” she asks.
According to Tuma, if you are running a legitimate business, without customers you will soon either have to close your doors for good or sell your business to someone who believes they will be better at attracting and retaining customers. It follows therefore, that every existing business remains operational because it has customers who believe the business in question provides a product or service that fulfils one or more of their wants, needs or both. That puts customers in an incredibly strong position.
Tuma adds that in the countries where businesses face strong competition, customers reign supreme, businesses do everything they can to attract and retain customers. Sophisticated business enterprises spend the equivalent of millions of dollars every year on attempting to establish relationships with customers and getting to understand their preferences in order to tailor products and services to exceed customer expectations.
“In our part of the world however, it would appear that the power in the provident/customer relationship still lies primarily in the hands of the provider. In other words, instead of courting customers and making them feel special at every turn, most providers make their customers feel like they are doing them a favour they do not deserve,” she observes.
Common courtesy is not that common after all, or so the saying goes. This is quite surprising since courtesy and decorum are traditional values across Africa. For some reason however, the values our parents took great pains to impart to us disappeared somewhere along the way, she laments.
According to Tuma, “It is common for service providers to treat paying customers as though they are being given a free and underserved service, at the service provider’s expense. Grumpy faces, rude retorts, corner cutting and incredibly slow service are commonplace and well accepted. Beyond a smiling welcome, discerning customers expect to be treated with courtesy.”
“Why then do customers who have options choose to continue supporting businesses that treat them as though they are doing them a favour? Thankfully, regionalisation, globalisation and increasing competition will eventually put a stop to this. Is your business ready for the shift of power from service providers to customers?”
Tuma emphasises that every employee must be trained on how to handle customers courteously. Rude employees will ruin your compan’s reputation, costing you both customers and the revenue they bring. Beyond training, employees must subsequently be monitored, rewarded for meeting the required standards and pointed in the right direction when they fall short.
She also notes that false promises, painfully slow service and the absence of any kind of apology thereafter, only lower customer opinions of your establishment. A simple verbal recognition of the inconvenience can transform a negative experience into a positive one.
Tuma argues that customers do not know and in most cases actually do not want to know what you have to do in order to render them the services they pay you for.
“All we want is the finished product or service we are looking for. Service providers are responsible for seeing to it that the delivery process is seamless and without hitch. Create system checks to ensure that your systems are working to deliver the quality your customers expect and always have a back-up plan in case your system fails, for whatever reason. Internal break-downs should be invisible to your customers.”
Tuma is a business development and international trade consultant. She is a founder of the Women’s Centre for Job Creation (an organization that turns around rural women’s income generating projects) and vice chairperson of Uganda Women Entrepreneurs Association Limited (UWEAL). Prior to her development work, she was a brand manager with Avery Dennison Corporation, USA for ten years.