Saturday 21 April 2007

A letter from abroad

OK, like so many other newspaper columnists I’m going to show off about how important I am, how widely travelled I am, and how thoroughly important you should think I am.

I’m writing this 8,500km away from home in the place that some would have you believe is the birthplace of excellent customer service, the place where everyone comes to be treated like royalty, where everything works perfectly and nothing ever goes wrong.

I’m in the UK.

So does everything really work like clockwork? Are the roads really paved with gold? Is every product perfect and without blemish? Does every customer get treated like a Queen or King?

Sorry, no.

I know that the team at Consumer Watchdog as well as the rest of the population are very often rather critical of the levels of service and care we get in Botswana. We are always moaning about the disrespect shoppers encounter, the contempt with which consumer are treated and the scams with which they are presented. There IS certainly a lot of abuse about. Many organisations seem to think that we are easy prey for their carnivorous instincts and they exploit that. They stalk us, chase us and eventually eat us.

However all it takes is a trip outside Botswana to realise that our bad experiences are not unique. They happen everywhere. They happen in those places that all those irritating expatriates constantly compare our country to. Bad service, just like good service, is universal.

I have visited a particular supermarket here in the UK three times now. It genuinely is about the size of our national stadium. The only things I found that it did NOT sell were cars. It sold clothes, furniture, insurance policies, internet connections and credit cards. Oh and they sold food and drink as well. More food and drink than most of us have ever seen. Every type of vegetable, bread and meat you can imagine and then some more.

But what happened when I approached the woman at the checkout, smiled and said “Hi, how are you”? She looked at me like I was deranged. I really got the impression that I had disturbed her somehow. Was I really a madman? Was I visiting writer from far away who specialises in customer service? Worst of all was I perhaps mystery shopper from Head Office?

We go on all the time about the “blank stare” that we so often get from bank tellers, shop assistants and government staff but that the good news (if it can be seen as such) is that it is not unique to Botswana. A huge proportion of the service staff I’ve encountered in the UK were exactly the same. Bored, unmotivated and uncivil.

The Consumer Watchdog team spend a lot of time trying to persuade customer-facing staff to try some of those old-fashioned techniques that are so obvious that you need no customer service expert to tell you about them. Smiling, looking like you care and putting the customer’s interests above your own. None of it is rocket science, it is all very simple common sense.

So why doesn’t it happen? Well, we have no excuse. As a people, those of us who live in Botswana are naturally rather courteous. Sometimes a little too courteous I think. There are times when I don’t want to hear another Dumella, I am genuinely not interested in how you are, I just want to know how much something costs or what time you open.

But the point is valid I think. We have a slight natural advantage when it comes to delivering customer care. We start from a position of natural courtesy. I know we don’t always live up to it but we DO have a head start compared to so many other places.

I think though that we forget this advantage. We are so used to these courtesies that we fail to exploit them to our advantage. Why aren’t we always extending our natural courtesy to the visitors to our shops, restaurants and hotels?

So frankly I’m looking forward to getting home. I am actually looking forward to going into the shops, the restaurants, even the government offices that I frequent and being greeted with a smile, a handshake and even the occasional hug. I’m certainly looking forward to getting on board an Air Botswana plane and being greeted like I’m coming home.

The lesson that I think I knew already but that I needed to have refreshed is that despite my many complaints about service levels and quality in Botswana we do have quite a bit to celebrate. Yes, there is a long way still to go but we have already started along the road, we have already made a lot of progress and our natural courtesy is a marvellous advantage.

Don’t worry, you can rest assured that the Consumer Watchdog team isn’t going to get all complacent and self-satisfied about the levels of service we get but it has been a useful lesson for me at least to realise that things aren’t all bad.

This week’s stars!

  • All the staff at Clipso Hair Salon for managing teenagers without a fuss! That DOES deserve a medal.
  • Adriana, Edwin and Eric at Vee’s Video for service always with a smile. Again!
  • All the team at Café Dijo for super super service. Again!
  • Gabotsewe at Pick N Pay Molapo for being a star.

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