Sunday, 27 July 2014

Choose to be special

In a recent 48-hour period I experienced service in four different countries on three continents. And it was all the same.

The relative proportions of good service I received in Botswana, South Africa, the United Kingdom and the USA were all roughly the same. There were examples of poor service (usually related to queues and any place where bureaucracy could demonstrate itself) and of good service (usually where an individual was either in charge or was given the power to make his or her own decisions).

Location made little difference.

One of the commonest explanations we hear for the allegedly poor levels of service in Botswana is that it’s either a cultural thing, that our heritage and traditions don’t allow us to offer good service or that it’s genetic, that we’re somehow not programmed to do so.

So is there really a cultural reason why we can’t do service?

A few months ago I met with a visiting American who was staying at one of Gaborone’s main hotels, She complained that it was impossible to satisfy her fundamental American need to get a second cup of coffee at breakfast. You probably know that the coffee top-up is to Americans what oxygen is to the rest of humanity. If they don’t get it, life can’t go on. I know this sounds trivial but the real problem, she said, was that none of the breakfast staff would make eye contact with her while she was at her table. Was this a cultural thing, she asked?

Was there some cultural imperative that prevented them from looking her in the eye?

I don’t know if that’s the case, but I do know that when she’s back in the Land Of The Free and Home Of The Brave, she’ll be warning her compatriots that they need to take their own coffee to Botswana if they’re courageous enough to come here.

Some people might think that the “cultural” issue is a sensitive one but my view is simple. Get over it. If our nation’s prosperity is at stake then to hell with it, we should bow to the tourists who expect us to bow to them, accept business cards the way the Chinese expect us to and give the Yanks their second damn cup of coffee before they need to ask for it.

I was told recently that one possible explanation for the problem is age, that it’s not culturally possible in Botswana to offer service to a customer if that person is younger than the server. I was told that it’s “not the job” of an older person to greet a younger person in a polite and friendly way, and that it should be the younger customer who greets the server instead. My response is simple.

Then get another job.

I mean, seriously, if you can’t find a way to greet a customer younger than you that still respects your cultural background, your dignity and your self-respect then you shouldn’t be in a position to serve ANY customer, should you?

Every customer is different and they all require their own particular form of greeting and service. We understandably would all treat my 95-year old grandmother, my friend the retired senior army officer and my 13-year old son in slightly different ways but all of them deserve friendly, warm and welcoming service.

I know plenty of people delivering service right now as you read this, here in Botswana, born and bred here who offer the best possible service. They are proof that there’s nothing stopping us doing it.

So the cultural excuse is no more than that, just an excuse.

It can’t be genetics either because, unless I’m out of touch, they haven’t yet found a gene for being polite or even one for being rude. Nor are they going to because despite what the media will tell you there are very few genes for anything. Almost every aspect of our being is the result of a mixture of the influence of many genes and of even more experiences. Even though genes predispose to certain things they remain only predispositions. My friend who has a genetic predisposition to heart disease will probably live a lot longer than I do because he lives his life as healthily as he possibly can. Only in very rare occasions is genetics destiny.

So even if you are naturally a rather grumpy and anti-social individual you can simply decide not to be. You can put on your happy face and deliver happy service. Just because you choose to.

A few weeks ago I met an inspirational woman who works in a bank. I was early for a meeting and I asked her why she seemed so happy? “Because I choose to be”, she said. She told me that in her previous job she’d been miserable and when she got the chance to leave she decided that she wasn’t going to allow her work circumstances to dictate her mood ever again. So even on a bad day (and there must be some of them, she works in a bank) she is there smiling, lifting everyone’s mood and generally making the world a little bit better.

The best news is that when I emailed her MD about her he replied that the bank needs “multiples of her across our entire bank”. Can you imagine what that bank would be like, if every one of its employees was like her? Can you imagine what our tourism sector would be like? We’d have to turn tourists away at the border because the country would be full of them.

Isn’t that what we want?

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