EAST AFRICAN FLYER – LETTER FROM KAMPALA – CUSTOMER SERVICE A LA UG
Customer service is a relatively new concept to Ugandans, seeing as we have only just started owning businesses of our own. In October we will be 50 years independent. For years before that we were growing cash crops to send to our British colonial bosses; for a decade or so after that, only Asians knew what to do with a business. After that, Idi Amin did the bad thing he did and a breed of business man who had not ‘earned’ the business took over. It was another 10 years before we started to own anything more advanced than a little duuka – service-based things like restaurants and mobile phone outlets. Before the dawn of customer service, things were so bad it was almost hilarious.
In the little downtown shops that sold materials, clothes, shoes, groceries and the like, there were a few unspoken rules Ugandan shoppers had to be aware of. The first rule was to remember that the shopkeeper was doing you, the shopper, a favour. They opened their shop out of the goodness of their heart and you were well advised not to waste their time by browsing, asking questions, bargaining or showing indecision. Furthermore, their lunch break was sacred. If you entered a shop and they were eating (or on the phone for that matter) you were likely to get shooed out of the shop to let them eat in peace. The final rule was that the shop owner reserved the right to guess if your wallet was loaded. If they thought you did not look like a big spender, they would treat you with outright disdain. There were even stories of shop keepers who told the customer outright not to ask after a certain grade of items because they did not look like they could afford it.
Fast forward to today and the shops have become more numerous and the customers a little less frightened and a little more aware that their earnings have value. However, there are still places where you will not be served first even if you were there first. A more aggressive and ill-mannered person can come and slap their money down on the counter even as you make your polite enquiries and patiently wait your turn.
The relatively new kids on the block are the mobile telecom companies. Given that almost all the players have international roots it is unbelievable how much for granted they take the Ugandan customer. The first player on the scene charged exorbitantly and tried to turn mobile phone ownership into an exclusive club. Five or so changes of management and several years later and the public has still not forgiven them. The next players refuse to invest in infrastructure and now employ hacks who have no idea how to fix a smartphone. (Forgive me, I am still smarting from a personal experience with one such hack who destroyed the rubber housing of my phone with his long and highly disgusting fingernail. And what’s up with that anyway? Why do some guys keep one horribly long fingernail?) The third player on the mobile phone market has tried to appeal to all Ugandans, but overdoes it with the adverts. You get 5 text notifications every time you load airtime and at least 5 others during the day informing you of one competition or another. It is highly annoying. The other mobile network regularly drops calls and charges you exorbitantly for the nuisance.
The customer help lines for these mobile phone companies tend to be manned by people who mumble and cannot solve your problems, but hopefully one day we will get there. At least they pick up the phone, unlike quite a number of government offices. But then again, since when has it become easy to see a government official in Uganda? For a lot of officials, bureaucracy is a perk of the job; the more difficult it is to see a person, the more important they feel or are perceived to be. Therefore, to expect someone to pick up the office phone and arrange you an appointment without hassle is, frankly, ridiculous. Forget I even mentioned the government offices.
In the hotel industry, where the service is supposed to be excellent, Uganda is lukewarm. There are places we go where we are the only black people in the restaurant. In these places, the staff have seen enough colour to know that all customers are equal. In return, we Africans are learning to tip. In other (slightly more downscale) places, you still have to ask for the menu. And then you find out that seeing the menu is pointless, because the waiter will say the majority of things are unavailable and then reel off what is available verbally. Overall, the art of keeping your customer happy has yet to be honed over here. And it will take a while because the customers do not yet know that things can be done their way. It seems our appreciation of customer service is tied very closely to the way we vote – without asking questions, without demanding accountability and without a sense of our own power.