"CEOs can't wait to read Sunny Bindra's articles every week."

Still abusing customers? Time to close down

Someone I know recently told me a story about a well-established restaurant in Nairobi’s Westlands. He was there with his family, and ordered a fish dish. Upon tasting it, he found that the fish tasted stale and unpleasant. He complained to a waiter, who immediately replaced the fish, no questions asked.

So far, so good, you’re thinking? There’s more to this little tale. As he was leaving the busy restaurant, my friend had a chat with the owner, whom he knows. He mentioned the incident with the fish, and received the following bizarre reply: “Oh, that fish. Yes, you see, we received a bad batch from our supplier. But I told my cooks to serve it anyway. The thing is, most people here don’t mind – they don’t even notice any difference.”

The restaurant proprietor continued: “However, when a discerning customer like you complains, I have instructed my waiters to replace the item immediately without question. So you don’t have to worry at all!”

This is one of the more depressing things I have heard of late. This restaurant is popular and it’s always full. Yet the owner seems to hold his customers in utter contempt. And he is not alone. Far from regarding customers as the very point of a business, too many of our business owners seem to actually despise them.

I wrote a book called “Crown Your Customer” on this very subject last year, and it was fairly scathing on the lack of customer focus in Kenya. After it was done I sat down and thought: Have I overdone it? Are things really this bad? Surely businesspeople can’t be this blind?

All of my experience in the year that has passed suggests that the average businessperson is indeed that bad – worse, in fact. Should my book reach a second edition, I intend to go nuclear. Because the manner in which far too many of our businesses regard and treat their customers is beyond the pale. Far from crowning our customers, we seem more intent on clowning with them.

Recently, I have observed the owner of a uniforms shop shouting at customers for crowding his shop on the day before schools open. I have heard of the bicycle-shop owner who berates customers loudly for buying ‘cheap’ products from elsewhere. I have watched travel agents who simply don’t bother to get back to their customers regarding holiday plans. I have seen shop-owners get shirty with customers who browse for too long without buying.

Why do these people behave so badly – and stupidly? Why are they in business in the first place, if they can’t stand their customers? They have no place being in the market. They are pollutants who should be cleansed out.

Mahatma Gandhi, a fellow renowned for things other than his business prowess, nonetheless had very wise things to say about customers. “A customer is not an interruption of our work; he is the purpose of it. A customer is doing us a favour by letting us serve him; we are not doing him any favour. A customer is not dependent on us; we are dependent on him.”

(Note: whether this was indeed originally said by Gandhi or by someone else is a matter of some debate)

If anyone out there has a reason for being in business other than serving customers, I’d like to know what it is. Throughout history, the great businesses are the ones that create great bonds with customers. The ones that stand the test of time are the ones protected by their customers – even in a downturn. In fact, very happy customers often become ambassadors and evangelists for the companies they love – they are the business’s greatest friend. I’ve lost count of the number of times I have extolled the virtues of companies I regard highly. I do it all the time, with everyone I meet. And it costs the business nothing.

Equally, an angry customer is your worst enemy. At least 20 people (on average) will get to hear about a bad experience (and they’ll pass it on to their friends). 90 per cent of unhappy customers won’t come back – but nearly all will return if the problem is addressed to their satisfaction.

(Note: this piece was written before the advent of social media. Today, a single resonating tweet in Kenya can easily reach 100,000 or more customers of your product in a single day – as we’ve all seen)

If you think that it’s enough just to provide a good product in a good location at a good price – think again. Nearly half of all buyers base their decision to make a repeat purchase on the SERVICE that they received.

The purveyors of bad business have no business being in business. They can only be flushed out if customers stop buying from them. In this regard, we are way too docile. We tolerate too much and accept awfully low standards. If you want a better customer experience, you demand it – and take your custom to those businesses that care about you.

Those who do it well can create a genuine phenomenon. The Pike Place Fish Market in Seattle, USA is so good at dealing with its customers that it has become the city’s leading tourist attraction. People come a long way to observe the fun-filled market – and the cash tills keep ringing.

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  • Job Mapesa

    Every time I read such inspiring articles, I feel like getting on some roof top and shout ” did you hear that”. We as Kenyans, not just a humans-but as Kenyans we forget so fast-putting up with the arrogance we face in the name of doing business. I just hope and pray that some day you are going to do this in a bigger way. Do not tell me that is your small way of contributing to the world, because you already did that before.

  • Its good to write an article like this.If our business many are people to hear then Mr Bindra has it all let them read and try to put into practise if they can and the market will be a better place to shop.

  • andrew

    It is indeed an emerging trend that some businesses,big or small, take their customer’s goodwill for granted. It as if they think the customers are pinned down to coming to their premises every time they require such goods or services that these businesses offer.Ii fully support you in your second edition project to expose the arrogant behaviours that some businesses exhibit in relating with their clientele.

  • Nancy

    Customer may be King but provided as Kenyans we don’t realise the power we wield as customers, businesses will continue to treat us as a nuisance.

    I had an experience in a cafe in the CBD that’s been operational at least 20years. My meal came with a strand of hair (or some unidentiable foreign object anyway) and I rejected it. But as I had previously dined there without any problem, I accepted the offer of a replacement meal. Upon receiving the bill, I asked what, if any, was the ex-gratia offer they would make to me in compensation. The proprietor rudely responded that he had already replaced the meal. I replied that that was what was expected and so, what else could they would offer? I even offered suggestions e.g. a complimentary coffee or a discounted meal on another day? While mumbling under his breath, he accepted that the tea I had ordered, could be on the house. Suffice it to say, I will not be patronising that business again.

    But perhaps we now need to name and shame these businesses – let us stop protecting them behind names such as ‘leading hotel’ or other descriptions that don’t quite identify them. While we are quick to name places that offer good services, why not also name the offenders? The truth is mightier than any litigation action they would threaten!!

  • carol

    couldnt have said it better myself customer service in Nairobi is non existant about the fish market worked for a company in dubai and they training was based on it called fish philosophy it ust amazing

  • Well written piece Sunny. I needed to hear that. Again. Perhaps I need to make a large print and stick it on every wall in our office:-)

  • Dear Sunny

    This is, as usual, a very good article that I like sharing with my Rwandan friends. One of the big issues we face here is being able to name and shame service providers.

    We are still in an age where business owners take it personal when customers write about them..;especially after receiving poor service. I hope we will reach the level of the Kenyan consumers who have understood that they have rights that need to be respected.

    Thanks again and have an excellent day

  • Sunny Bindra captures the essence of what good customer service is about. I agree with Sandra (as I am a Kenyan living in Rwanda). If we protest about bad service, surprisingly , you the aggrieved person will be lambasted and the institution doesn’t take responsibility for their bad service. Quite frankly, customer care is a crisis in Rwanda and its very sad as this country has so much potential. I’m willing to train people if given the opportunity to help our East African brothers and sisters.

  • Christine Wairimu

    This article is really hitting it home for me. Customer service in Kenya is surely falling behind in comparison to other countries where customers are treated with respect, polite and friendly behaviour.

    I was at the new Java in the mall on Thika Rd, and the service was just ridiculous. I ordered a ginger and lemon drink that usually comes with some syrup (or honey). The drink was too bitter, so i politely asked the waitress for another shot of syrup. She nodded and left. Ten minutes later, I reminded her about the syrup. She left again. Ten minutes after that she ignored me as i waved to get her attention. I got up, walked to the counter and asked the man behind the counter for some syrup which took literally a second to get. She watched me walk back to my table with no apology. My mother who was also with me also noticed how rude she was being. And that’s just one of the rude things she had done, there were more.

    Next time I might dine next door especially since the quality of food there is failing as well. (I had a grilled chicken with salad and chips. The chicken was so small compared to other portions served in other Java’s, that i had to pinch a piece of beef from my sister’s plate. And the salad, don’t even get me started… the meal and service were definitely not up to standard.) I dont mean to go on and on, but I had to put it out there as an experience.