Friday 12 January 2007

We CAN get it right!

So service is bad in Botswana? Is that that you think? It certainly seems to be the general view. Whenever you talk to foreigners as well as those of us who have travelled a bit and perhaps even lived in far-flung places it’s what you keep on hearing. The comparisons people keep on making between the service they get here and what they get elsewhere are endless.

But I’m convinced that it’s not quite as simple as this.

Over the Christmas and New Year break, I along with thousands of others crossed the border for a little seasonal South African fun. Of course South Africa is one of the mythical places where customer service is meant to be so much better, where everyone performs at their very best and every shopping and restaurant experience is heavenly. Well, that’s often what we hear from quite a few of our readers anyway.

But it’s not entirely true.

Yes, of course there were restaurants where we were treated extremely well, where the food was great and the staff got it just right. But then there were the two Spur restaurants we visited. Both in smallish South African towns so our expectations were moderate, we weren’t particularly demanding, we just wanted hot food and somewhere the kids could have a good time.

That’s actually the thing I like most about Spur. The food doesn’t do much for me though. I have no complaints with them, it’s just not my thing. But the play areas for kids make it somewhere we can go and not worry about the kids getting bored and restless, somewhere where children are genuinely welcomed.

The weird thing was quite how disappointed we were with both the Spurs down south. The food of course was exactly the same as the food we get in our new Spur at Riverwalk in Gaborone. But the service was very different indeed. There was absolutely none of the mildly crazy atmosphere you get at Riverwalk. The staff didn’t have that buzz, they weren’t nearly as attentive and, worst of all, horror of horrors, no line dancing!

In short no atmosphere at all, they were nothing compared to our Spur. Yes, you could argue that it’s just that our Spur is new, the staff are fresh and adrenaline is still flowing through the management bloodstream but I don’t think that’s the real difference.

It’s about old-fashioned management. It’s about having managers that realise that having fun, being memorable and really, genuinely caring about your customers will make their business successful. Sorry, let me correct that. Having fun, being memorable and really, genuinely giving the impression that you care about your customers is good enough. Even if you don’t care for them very much, if they bore you, if they irritate you and you think they are all idiots, just pretend, OK?

So that was an example of where we get it right here in Botswana. An example of where we can excel, we can show our neighbours how good we are. It’s not just Spur though. People I’ve spoken to who have visited Primi Piatti outlets in South Africa say ours is better.

However we also had a surprisingly good experience in a South African Wimpy. The Wimpy at the Tugelo North stop on the N3 has an astonishingly impressive management style. This Wimpy has a staggering customer throughput, particularly on the day we stopped there for a quick dose of saturated fat and hot frothy milk pretending to be coffee.

Despite being a low cost, rapid turnover and fairly basic brand the service we got was excellent. The floor staff were attentive, reactive and energetic. Best of all was to watch the management at work. The manager was permanently on display, walking around, observing customers, using sign language to communicate across the restaurant with the staff at the till, and best of all, when a table needed to be cleared she got a wet cloth and did it herself rather than interrupting her waiters from doing what they were there to do.

So here’s a New Year business secret for free. There are no new ideas in business, only old ones being recycled.

This is true in all businesses, no matter how high-tech they might be, but it’s particularly the case in the restaurant trade. The secrets to running a successful restaurant are the same as they were when the first cave man sold an antelope burger to a passer-by in exchange for a nice looking rock. Serve your customers food that is tasty, at the right temperature and in an environment that matches the amount that they are paying.

Of course, not all restaurants are the same. Wimpy and Spur or Primi are in totally different categories. The service and food expectations you have when you enter each will obviously be different. But the basics will always remain the same. Hot food that tastes right and a smile on the face of the person who serves it to you.

And that’s all most of us want, regardless of which restaurant we go to. But no matter what the brand might be, whatever the location, it’s only the management that can make it happen.

My experience over the break has reassured me that this is right. Having excellent, hard-working managers in places like Spur and Primi have made them the places that people want to visit.

This week’s stars!

  • The management and staff at Spur and Primi Piatti in Gaborone for showing that we have what it takes to excel.
  • Molefi at Broadhurst Post Office, who was very helpful when our reader got her key stuck in her post box.

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