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

The bigger you are, the more you seem to forget your customers

Picture yourself at one of our many fruit-and-vegetable markets.

If you frequent these places, I have no doubt that you have a favourite vendor that you habitually buy from. Why is that, when there are usually dozens of stalls before you, all offering very similar products at very similar prices? What makes you choose one seller?

The answer, of course, is in the service provided. I am willing to bet that your preferred stall-holder demonstrates some or all of the following characteristics: a welcoming smile and warm greeting; quality and prices that you feel you can trust, without needing to second-guess every transaction; prompt attention; additional services such as keeping your regular order ready, taking it to your vehicle, even delivering it to your home.

In any market anywhere in the world (I have visited many), there will be a few vendors who “get it”: they understand that when you are selling a commodity, you differentiate it in the eyes of the customer by adding emotional layers to it. Anyone can source vegetables and set up a stall, but not anyone can raise the energy to sell vegetables with a smile and make the effort to go the extra mile. Every single day. With every customer.

And so in every market you will find the majority of sellers just get by, selling just enough to eke out a meagre living. These sellers are invariably sullen and lazy. Then there will be a small minority whose stalls are always buzzing with repeat customers. I have observed many of the latter ilk expanding rapidly, adding stalls and even evolving into proper shops and buying delivery vans. Because they “get it.”

I often ask the chief executives of huge corporations to visit markets. For their own education. To remind themselves of the essence of business. To remember that what separates winners from losers is how good they are with their customers.

Peculiarly, the larger the company the more likely it is to forget this basic fact of business life. Today’s large organizations find it intensely difficult to deliver those same basics to customers: a warm smile; emotional bonding; quick attention; concern for the customer’s wellbeing.

Large organizations become like zombie zones peopled by the unfeeling and the uncaring. They are ruled by inviolable systems and governed by unyielding processes. They worship manuals, rules and codes. All because some leader, somewhere, lost his soul and began worshipping efficiency instead of customer delight.

Why else would big companies set up automated call centre systems that keep you in horrible loops and whose purpose is to prevent you from ever speaking to a human being? Why would they accept a situation where customers are kept on hold for 20 minutes? Why else would they keep two teller counters out of ten available during rush hour? Why would they reduce headcount in customer-facing activities?

Because someone started prioritizing short-term profitability over long-term customer loyalty. That is one of the biggest mistakes you can make in business, yet it seems to be made every other day.

In essence, business is simple. It involves the glueing of customers to your product. That glue is not created by machines and systems; it involves the day-to-day attention of human beings.

The larger the enterprise, the harder this becomes. It is not at all easy to keep customer-facing employees motivated day in, day out. It is very hard to ensure a consistent service experience across units and geographies. It is hellish to ensure a certain standard is met all the time. But difficult or not, it is vital and natural. If you have forgotten this as a business leader, you have really forgotten too much.

So don’t just picture yourself in that market; go there today.

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  • Mungai Kihanya

    You’ve hit the nail on the head!

    There is a fallacy peddled in business circles: that the main purpose of a business is to make profits. This is not true!

    I was speaking to a group of insurance managers recently and they explained to me that theirs is a hard product to sell. Then the topic of the purpose of a business came up.

    Obviously, they all said that it is to make money. So I asked them why they chose such a difficult product to sell. I posed a question: “If all you wanted was to make profits, why aren’t you selling mbogas; which, I suspect are easier to sell than insurance policies?”

    You should have heard the silence in the room!

  • Kimenyi Waruhiu

    Mr Bindra, as ever, you tell it like it is. On a related note, I was pleasantly surprised this weekend when I needed to sort something out with Safaricom – the biggest of the big boys in Kenya – and my call to customer service was answered on the first ring!

    No boring recording followed – a real life agent was on the line! My query was answered quickly and efficiently, and when I called back because I’d forgotten to clarify something a different agent picked up where the last one left off and dealt with my forgotten question as efficiently as the first.

    This was a far cry from the Safaricom of old who used to make me feel like they were doing me a favour by providing a customer service line in the first place. Some big boys forget the little guy as they grow, but those that remember to treat each customer as if he might one day be their biggest partner deserve credit when it’s due, and Safaricom are amongst the latter group in my book. Now if only they could stop dropping my calls mid-sentence…

  • wamoronjia

    Hi Sunny
    Richard Branson wrote recently that Northern Rock employees don’t wear ties. Can you picture Kenyan banks letting their employees to permanently shed that rope?

  • veeral

    I hope to see the “Nakumatts”, “Tuskys”, “Uchumis” and “Budgets” employ this customer facing principal. You’re absolutely right that some market vendors have adopted these principals as they have to deal with cut-throat competition every day. Having worked in Marks & Spencer, I know how much they emphasize on customer service. They believe in building long-term relationships with their customers and motivate staff with constant trainings in how to approach customers and provide various rewards on great service.
    I hope our local supermarkets start focusing on customer service and managing queues soon because as the supply of supermarkets grows the customers have a wide variety of to go to and soon it will be difficult to only differentiate on price.
    The CEOs/Owners would only understand either if they have ever worked in similar environments or if they are really concerned about the long-term future of their company. Personally I think there are lessons to be learnt from Marks & Spencers and John Lewis in retail service.

  • David Warutere

    I remember with nostalgia those days when Nakumat and Tusky staff would assist customers to carry their shopping to the car. This was until they became too big. They have a chance to go back to the basics.