Customer service steps that turn SMEs into giants

You and I undertake customer journeys every day. Some are more or less fine throughout, and some have their ups and downs; some are consistently outstanding and some are the opposite, while with yet others it’s as though it depends on what those with whom you interact ate for breakfast that day.

As I reflect on my journeys with suppliers it always amazes me that in a country like Kenya, where people are naturally so friendly and helpful, we still endure the most awful experiences.

I ask myself how do the organisations from whom we buy that are at the low end of the spectrum continue to exist. OK, some are actually or virtually monopolies. But there are others who face many superior competitors.

But let me start with the best of the best, like the Laptop Clinic in Westlands, where I go when my PC decides to stress me. I almost look forward to it playing up, knowing that I will be treated so well from the moment I enter their premises till I leave, entirely satisfied.

I am confident they will always fix my problem, provide value for money — and thank me for being their customer. They are the sort of people you unhesitatingly recommend to others.

Another example, not unrelated (this is where I take my mobile phone when it needs medical attention), is the Safaricom Platinum store in Sarit Centre.

Admittedly it is there for Safaricom’s ‘Business Class’ clients, but it makes the best of the airlines pale by comparison. The staff there can never do enough for us, whether it is in dealing with the technical issues or offering us a cup of coffee… and then another. Their approach is consistently delightful.

Finally among my podium providers let me single out PrideInn, at whose Nairobi properties I recently ran some workshops. Unlike the other two this is a much larger set up, with many more staff. And this is precisely why it is so impressive.

Because each and every one of them, all the time, is only concerned to see that we are well looked after. It is not because supervisors and managers are touring around asking us if everything is OK. No it’s everyone, everywhere. It’s just the culture of the place, the norm.

Now let me move to a totally different category of service providers: banks. Lots of good people work here too, both in branches and in head-offices.

But the financial services sector has faced so many challenges, has become so regulated, and is faced with so many compliance constraints, that it becomes very hard for them to do the right thing for their customers.

I feel really sorry for their customer-facing people, the ones in the branches and in the business development function, as much of the time they are faced with having to tell us what is not possible — however reasonable and in everyone’s interest it may be.

They are the messengers of bad news, and they speak thanks to some eagle-eyed character in the credit department or the legal office who has spotted a reason-why-not that cancels out any earlier expectation of a loan or other facility being granted.

Worst of all is when issues are being handled by a call-centre, where you never know who will be dealing with you, and never the same person.

Plus you may well have been put on hold before even speaking to anyone… while being told by a recording how important your business is to them.

There is no possibility of any relationship being built between you and the bank, and hence of anyone getting a feel for the full background of your case or for your trustworthiness.

Too many of my experiences with such call-centres, ones where I have complained about some aspect of the bank’s service, involve the unfortunate agent muttering apologies on behalf of their employer, without having any ability to do anything about it.

In future those that survive in our ever more competitive environment are the ones who offer the best customer journeys.

The three companies with whom I led will be among them. But I truly fear for some of our banks.

The trouble with Kenya’s long list of neglected values

Several times a week, as I drive towards Westlands and beyond, I exit from James Gichuru Road and circle the oval onto Waiyaki Way.

It is obvious we should keep to the right-hand lane on James Gichuru, awaiting a gap in the traffic driving west so we can line up for the U-turn that will launch us on our way.

Like many others I keep in that right lane. But some do not. They know that by doubling up to our left they can easily get ahead and then insert themselves in the line for taking the U-turn. This is because there are enough accepting, resigned Kenyans who allow such selfish and entitled behaviour.

If we were in a queue at a supermarket it would be called pushing in. Here though, it is just a case of the survival of the fittest, the less inhibited.

And if, like me, you resist the pushing in, the driver gets angry with you for preventing the rudeness.

That shows quite how far some of us have sunk in switching off our consciences and just doing what it is possible to do, irrespective of the illegitimacy of our actions.

But enough venting. I merely offer this example of the choices that confront us each day in deciding whether or not to behave decently to launch some reflections on our national values.

They have been defined in our Constitution, and here’s the list: patriotism, national unity, sharing and devolution of power; the rule of law, democracy and participation of the people; human dignity, equity, social justice, inclusiveness, equality, human rights, non-discrimination and protection of the marginalised; good governance, integrity, transparency and accountability; and sustainable development.

There you are, 18 of them. All good, all appropriate, but what difference has embedding them in this supreme law made? Then, what impact have we seen from Chapter 6 of the Constitution, regarding the ethical standards required of our leaders?

Who is even aware of the existence of Kenya’s National Values System?

Who is familiar with the values that underpin the economic, social and political pillars of Vision 2030?

So many questions; so few answers. So many laws and regulations; so many institutions, including the Ethics and Anti-Corruption Commission, the National Cohesion and Integration Commission, the Directorate of National Cohesion and National Values… But with what consequences?

I think about these questions every day, asking myself what we could be doing differently that would result in more drivers keeping to that right hand lane on James Gichuru Road.

And I also wonder what holds back those who insist on living healthy values despite so often losing out to those who do not.

What, despite the impunity that allows for so much bad behaviour, explains the existence of many highly ethical sub-cultures here — in government as elsewhere?

Take the often-quoted example of Singapore, known as a “Fine City” thanks to citizens knowing they will be fined if they even drop litter on the pavement. Singapore’s national values are just five: nation before community and society above self; family as the basic unit of society; community support and respect for the individual; consensus, not conflict; and racial and religious harmony.

It is infinitely more powerful and memorable than our endless and highly conventional list, making it easy for leaders and others to quote and hold people to.

The leaders themselves are called upon to act as role models for the values, and they have become embedded in the national culture. It’s just the way life works there.

So what about us? We need not continue to make do with our fatalistic acceptance of the unethical.

But it is not enough to have long lists of values laid out in worthy laws and regulations.

And the more institutions we have that are meant to be helping us improve the less effect any of them will have — never mind that they are largely low profile.

We need a short, punchy set of values.

We need the President and other senior national and sub-national leaders to talk about them and live them.

We need those who do not abide by them to suffer the consequences, and those who do to be rewarded.

Look at your ‘core values’ once more for urgent rework

In much of my management consulting I help organisations clarify their values, and this is often the most interesting and challenging aspect of my work.

Almost all my clients have an existing bundle of “core values” (I’ve never seen the need for the “core”), but few pay much attention to them — even if they can remember what some or occasionally all of them are.

Visions and missions also earn limited ongoing attention from most leaders, but when it comes to values many run out of energy altogether.

A common challenge with values is that there are too many, making it hard to keep them in mind. I recommend a maximum of five, fewer if possible, so they can more readily be recalled and people can easily focus on them.

Anyway, most values relate to each other, so in talking about one — assuming, that is, they are indeed talked about— it is easy to refer to others that didn’t make the cut. (The numbers business is why I am concerned that our Constitution lists 18 values, hardly any of which Kenyans can identify.)

Another challenge is that an organisation’s selected values are likely to appear in random order, without a flow or a storyline. So I prefer punchy phrases to single words, and my favourite expressions are those in Centum’s “Golden Rules”.

Here are some from their list, to give you a flavour: “We escalate the solution, never the problem”; “A bad decision is better than indecision”; and “We do not email where a conversation would do”.

Among values we often see “professionalism”, “teamwork” and “integrity”, each of which includes many component values. So, while we understand what being “professional” means I feel it’s rather lazy to just throw out this word without identifying which elements within it are of the greatest significance to one’s environment.

Similarly with teamwork. It’s just too general, too vague. Which aspects of teamwork does the organisation already live well, that it must hold on to? Which ones are more aspirational and must be worked on, hence also qualifying for consideration?

Is it trust (it often is) — the need to be trustworthy and hence trusted? Collaboration? Being supportive of one another? Listening openly? Engaging constructively? Displaying low but healthy egos? Select whichever of these is the most relevant and powerful, knowing the others are implied.

These days, everyone feels they must list integrity as one of their values —otherwise people will imagine you don’t care about honesty or fairness, compliance or good governance.

But as one participant in a values review pointed out to his group recently, surely integrity should be taken for granted without having to shout about it. And anyway, because the “I” word is so overused, isn’t it better to pluck out a specific component and find a more original and hence powerful way of expressing the concept?

Along with Integrity, other “I” words find their way into the lists, Innovative, Inclusive and Impactful among them. “R” words are popular too, including Respectful, Responsible, Reliable and Responsive — interestingly complementary and also explanatory of one another.

Speaking of first letters, wordsmiths like me enjoy arranging values so that their opening letters themselves form a word — which means finding a good mix of ones that begin with both vowels and consonants. And another way of assisting the process is to have all the values start with the same letter.

The conversations generated around selecting and expressing values are themselves helpful, providing material to share with others subsequently.

But the process must go beyond the selecting and sharing to the living. Which ones should be celebrated because they are strong?

Which ones are in less good shape and what attitudes and behaviours must change, so as to close the gap between the actual and the aspirational?

Finally, are the leaders role models for the values?

And how is everyone encouraged to embrace the values by recognising and rewarding them for so doing, while helping those who do not to change?

These are the conversations we need to have… at all levels and not least at the national one.

Watch this space for more on that.

What Trump letters say about President

In May 2016 I attended a Trump rally in Anaheim, California. I was visiting my daughter and her family, and I was curious to observe this emerging populist phenomenon up close and live.

His campaign had built its strategy around such events, attract huge crowds and creating a political wave the Democrats were failing to heed.

For them, and indeed for mainstream Republicans, the man’s clownishness and demagoguery would guarantee victory for his main opponent Hillary Clinton, whom all polls, all pundits, confidently expected would triumph in November.

On returning to Kenya I wrote a column on the painful experience, noting that after 45 minutes my daughter and I had had enough and walked away, “with just reinforcement of the disgust we had always felt for this vulgar, ill-behaved man and the disappointment that millions of Americans support his arrogant, divisive views and his obnoxious style, ignoring – actually loving – the way he is indifferent to facts; sneers at, mocks and insults anyone with whom he disagrees; and boasts of how smart and successful he is in an endless trail of loosely connected sound-bites.”

Much of Trump’s speech, I wrote, was devoted to trying to persuade us that his winning streak was unstoppable, so surely we should be part of his success.

The media loved it, analysing everything to death, updating their predictions each day, in this most unprecedented and unpredictable of battles – which still had five wretched months to run.

In order to attend the rally we had to apply online for tickets, as a result of which the Trump campaign had access to our contacts. And ever since, at least once a day, I have been receiving mails from the man himself, from his son and from his daughter, from Vice-President Pence, Newt Gingrich and others.

“Friend,” each one starts (quite wrongly imagining me to be part of his base of enthusiastic supporters), before relentlessly stirring me up against all those awful liberals and globalists, against CNN and the New York Times and others of the “fake media” community, and against anyone who denies that Trump is other than the saviour who will Make America Great Again.

The one that greeted me at the dawn of the new year informed me that “President Trump has requested a list of all supporters who have renewed their 2018 Sustaining Membership by MIDNIGHT TONIGHT. These are the patriots who are laying the early foundation for an even stronger second year of our historic presidency. These are the patriots who refuse to let the media define our movement. And this is your chance to put your name up top, Friend.”
As always I am asked to contribute $1 to his campaign fund, “to show the President he has the FULL backing of the American people in the new year”.

“We have now entered a CRITICAL election year,” it continues, saying “the media is hoping to claim that 2018 will be a referendum on President Trump. It’s up to us to prove them WRONG. Let’s show them that we are starting off the year stronger than we started his inauguration. America is waking up to the fake news. We’re waking up to the lies liberals have been feeding our country for decades. We are still fighting to take our country, and we will not rest.”

Reading these daily missives have provided me with excellent insight into how he holds on to his base: by scoffing at the elite; promising to “drain the swamp”; and assuring the faithful that he is there to protect their interests and fulfill the wildest of his campaign promises.

With Trump the drama is constant, reinforcing both admirers and detractors in their views. One day the Fire and Fury book describes his White House as more of a mad house; the next day he tells us he’s a very stable genius.
Now he hosts a bipartisan meeting of congressional leaders that show him as a constructive mediator on immigration, immediately following which he describes African countries as sh**tholes… and then we see Mr. Politically Correct on Martin Luther King Day.

Don’t expect anything to change. I haven’t since seeing him at his campaign rally.

Kenya must entrench basic skills to plug unemployment gap

My sister’s Christmas present to me when she came from London was David Goodhart’s new book, The Road to Somewhere. I’d never heard of Goodhart, but I am an admirer of the thoughtful Prospect magazine of which he was the founder editor. (Whenever I fly with British Airways I find a copy on board, and immediately pounce on it.)

So where is the “Somewhere” in his title? Or rather, who are his “Somewheres? They are people rooted in a specific place or community, usually a small town or in the countryside, socially conservative, often less educated. And these he contrasts to the “Anywheres”, who are footloose, often urban and socially liberal, university educated (the “exam-passing classes”, the “cognitive elite”) and upwardly mobile.

In Britain, he reckons that Somewheres, many of whom are the “left-behinds”, make up roughly half the population, with Anywheres accounting for 20 to 25 per cent and the rest classified as “Inbetweeners”.

Goodhart describes them as belonging to different “Values tribes”. The Somewheres are characterised by an unease with the modern world, a nostalgic sense that “change is loss” and the strong belief that it is the job of British leaders to put the interests of Britons first.

Anywheres, meanwhile, are free of nostalgia; egalitarian and meritocratic in their attitude to race, sexuality and gender; and light in their attachments to larger group identities, including national ones; they value autonomy and self-realisation before stability, community and tradition.

You can readily deduce which tribe wishes to remain in the EU and which craves Brexit — just as you can guess where most of Trump’s supporters fit. With nearly half of British students benefitting from higher education, and — in the developed world at least — with fewer and fewer opportunities for those without significant academic qualifications, the gap between the tribes risks widening further.

I was only a few pages into the book when I began to reflect on Kenyan Somewheres and Anywheres and Inbetweeners. For these tribes exist here as they do in Britain, America and elsewhere.

Our Anywheres are drawn to Nairobi just as their British counterparts swarm into London, expecting that the capital is the only place where they can fulfill their potential. And from there so many Kenyan Anywheres find opportunities elsewhere in Africa and way beyond.

But Goodhart suggests that there can be virtue in staying put and remaining loyal to one’s community — as we are beginning to find with the newfound draw to the counties that has come with devolution.

Just as in the developed world, we have our rising middle class professionals who are at ease in the competitive global village, and we also have our “left-behinds” — those without the skills needed to make them employable and without the unusual character-traits of job-creators.

Goodhart praises Germany for having managed the Anywhere-Somewhere balance best, with its much greater focus on “the middling and the local” — not least through its apprenticeship system that continues to confer respect on even basic jobs.

In Britain by contrast the apprenticeship system never recovered from the de-industrialisation of the 1980s. They “went out of intellectual fashion”, writes Goodhart, perhaps wrongly considered too job-specific to be of use in this era of flexibility.

And like here (indeed perhaps acting as our inspiration) polytechnics were upgraded to universities, leaving an awful vacuum of institutions offering technical and vocational training.

Like here too, in Britain these skills and qualifications are looked down upon, making the low demand for them out of balance with the great shortage of those who possess them.

At least now, here as elsewhere, there is a realisation of this folly, and steps are being taken to fill the void.

Goodhart calls for leaders who not only understand the feelings and aspirations of both Somewheres and Anywheres but can find ways of bringing them closer together rather than merely appealing to one or the other for their support.

His appeal is aimed primarily at the British ones, but surely they apply equally to ours. As we launch on our journey through 2018 I close by wishing my readers a fruitful one, whether they be Somewheres or Anywheres or Inbetweeners.