Friday 19 January 2007

New Year resolutions

Actually I am normally very dismissive of New Year resolutions. Usually made after a period of hideous over-indulgence and while moaning about expanded waistlines, sore heads and empty bank accounts they are rarely made in the most logical frame of mind. And how often do people actually keep these resolutions to get fit, eat sensibly and stop misbehaving?

However, and despite all my cynicism, I do nevertheless think it is a very good time of year to think about the next 12 months. In particular I’ve been thinking about things suppliers as well as customers can do to perhaps make their lives just a little better.

Firstly for suppliers. Stand up! A manager on his backside isn’t a manager, he’s someone sitting on his backside. A manager should be active, participatory and “out there”, walking the floor of whatever it is he’s running, chatting to customers, checking on the staff and generally making sure things are running as well as possible.

The word “manager” comes from the Latin word manus, meaning “hand”. A manager is literally “hands-on”. If he isn’t getting his hands dirty, he’s not a manager, he is just a guy with a better salary than the rest.

The examples are out there. Go and watch Will at Primi Piati, Matt at Village Super Spar, Bruce and the team at Pick N Pay at Molapo Crossing, John and Jane at CafĂ© Dijo, Lou at the Caravela and you’ll see them actually out there, not stuck in a back office doing the accounts. They do the accounts at night, when the customers have gone home. At these places, problems rarely occur and if they do, they are fixed so quickly you probably don’t even notice they happened.

It’s not just the managers though. Leading by example, all the other staff perform at their best as a result. The staff understand that the manager is there to monitor them but also to help out if something does go wrong. The reason leaders are called leaders is that they lead!

It’s also not just restaurants and shops. We’ve seen it recently with Air Botswana when Lance Brogden found himself facing a service problem and he insisted he dealt with himself rather than delegate to someone else. We know MDs of banks actually hitting the shop floor and cashing cheques for customers. Apparently Danny Zandamela of FNB sometimes just goes walkabout in a branch and chats to the customers.

Real managers also do that magical thing, that thing that makes even the most aggressive customer calm down and get reasonable. They look customers in the eye and smile at them. They do their best to remember their regular customers and give them the impression that they are really welcome.

Some while ago we actually had a complaint about Primi Piatti. A reader went to Primi for the very first time and loved it but noticed that there was a group of customers that got even better treatment than he did. No, they weren’t all politicians or celebreties, they weren’t all white, they weren’t all big spenders. Who were they? They were the regular customers.

So what about customers. What should they do this year?

Well, firstly, get real about credit agreements. Avoid them. Many of the stores we buy from have wonderfully tempting offers that allow you to buy things over an extended period, paying what seem like small monthly amounts that allow you to get some fancy, flashy item just like your neighbour.

However, many of these schemes are catastrophically bad. The amounts they charge on top of the basic price of the item can double or even treble the total amount you pay. They are clever though, they don’t always call it interest. Instead they make you pay for ludicrous “insurance schemes”, “benefit protection plans”, contract fees and delivery charges even if you take the item home yourself.

This way they can say to you that their interest rate is something like 30% when in fact it can be much, much more.

Now they say that they have to charge such huge amounts because so many customers default on their agreements and that this costs the store money. Yes, I DO know that many customers default but one reason for this is that these schemes are so damned expensive!

The answer is just not to get into them. So how DO you get that flashy DVD player or TV just like your rich cousin?

By saving up for it.

Instead of signing a credit agreement you set aside the same amount you would pay each month, but put it in a savings account at your bank. That way you can probably afford to buy the item for cash in less than half the time you would take by buying it on credit and for less than half the price. AND the bank would pay you some interest as well! It wouldn’t be much but it would probably buy you a pizza to eat while using your new toy. You would actually be making money rather than throwing it away. Isn’t that a good thing to resolve this year?

This week’s stars!

  • Pinkie at the GICC for “going the extra mile for our events and for always doing things with a smile even when we know we are frustrating them”.
  • The staff at Chobe Mowana Hotel for helping a customer who had left some luggage at the hotel when they departed for the airport. With only 30 minutes to go before the plane took off, the staff found the luggage in the hotel room and got it to the airport within 15 minutes!
  • Standard Chartered Bank who have donated cute little Service Star badges to us to give away to those that excel. Who deserves one?

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.