Friday 12 December 2008

Courtesy costs nothing

What does it cost to be courteous? My mother always used to say that “Courtesy costs nothing” and I think she was right.

It still surprises me, as a people who pride ourselves on the courtesy and respect we claim to show each other, how often we are so incredibly rude. I'm not just talking about combi and taxi drivers who seem to have a policy of behaving on the roads as if they were at war with the rest of us. I'm talking about some people who really shouldn't be working in a customer-facing environment.

I'm thinking of a certain cellphone store at Game City where the staff are surly, unhelpful and miserable. I'm thinking of the border post at Tlokweng where getting a smile from a member of staff is almost impossible. I'm thinking of the employee of a major store at Game City for telling a customer who was querying a price reduction that he was “a Motswana, born here and I can explain it better than you”. Yes, I'm also thinking of the debt collector who seems to delight in being completely rude to anyone who dares to criticise her.

But why does it have to be this way? Is it because the rude ones haven't been on a course to learn how important courtesy is? No, because nobody needs to be trained in courtesy. We all learned about courtesy from our parents. Is it because managers don't enforce courtesy in the work place? Maybe, but does anyone really need to be told by their manager to be polite to a customer? Is it perhaps because customers don't demand courtesy? That's probably more likely but why don't we? Why don't we remind rude service providers that courtesy is a basic element of service whenever we don't receive it?

Everyone now knows that the financial world is in crisis. Contrary to what many people seem to think, this isn't actually the fault of the world's financial system. Saying that capitalism, the free market or liberal democracy are somehow to blame for this crisis is a bit like blaming Toyota when your taxi driver takes a wrong turn. It's not the vehicle's fault, it's the incompetent driver who's to blame.

For too long in the USA and Europe banks have been pressurised, even bribed by governments desperate for popular support, to lend money to people who they shouldn't lend to. I really don't believe that we should blame the system for this. We should blame those politicians who stuck their dirty fingers into financial systems they didn't understand. We should blame those banks who didn't have the courage to stand up to the politicians and be as sensible as their customers needed them to be. We should blame the banks that thought they had found a way to make a quick buck at the expense of their poorer customers.

However, the world isn't going to end, we're not all going to starve, the sky isn't going to fall in but there ARE tough times ahead. Officially many countries are now in recession but I think that just forces us to concentrate harder, tighten our belts and show a little prudence.

So what has this got to do with courtesy?

I think that when times get tough, companies have to focus even more carefully on what will help them compete against their rivals. They are going to need to come up with much more attractive products for us. Some companies are going to withdraw into their shell and be much more cautious in their business. I think the exact opposite is required. This will be a time when companies need to be even more aggressive in their product development and marketing, a time when they have to fight much, much harder to sell us their products, a time when they need to come up with tempting bargains. They'll need to show a level of courtesy and freindliness that is much better than their competitors.

In short, this is going to be a time of huge opportunity as well as one of huge risk. If we are like the rest of the world (and there's no reason to suspect we're not) we'll see companies failing if we enter a recession. Maybe we'll also see some more of that one thing that is most important to consumers, to business and to a country in general: competition.

Consumers who have less to spend and who are thinking carefully about who deserves their money will be forced to be more selective. They will need to start discriminating. We will all be forced to ask ourselves some basic questions. Do we spend our money at stores that act illegally by not disclosing the full credit price of a product when they advertise it for credit sale? Do we spend our hard-earned money on a cellphone or a computer from a store that says there are no warranties on the items they sell? Do we buy from companies that show our country contempt?

We are likely to have the opportunity of a lifetime. We can use our money, even if there's slightly less of it, to decide which companies survive the recession. We really will have that power. A store told us a couple of years ago that more than half of their profits came from their credit schemes. In a recession that profitability is going to be under huge threat. Isn't that a wonderful opportunity for the people to make their feelings known?

This week’s stars!

Ralph, Alan, Tumi and Kenneth from Barloworld for exceptional service.
Neil and the team at Mr Moves for really efficient and excellent service.

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