Is Personalised Service Possible? PDF Print E-mail


have a confession to make. Sometimes, when I have experienced service from a company with which I have been doing business, the thought occurs to me that customer service in South Africa is so poor, that I wonder where this country is heading. Hardly a day goes by without me having to experience broken promises, bad manners, negligence, shoddy workmanship, abrasive telephone manners or downright incompetence. "You should be delighted" I can almost hear some of you say. The more bad service there is, the more work for consultants like yourself the more cynical among you are probably thinking. Yet that is not the point. What concerns me is that the level of customer service provided in South Africa today, on the whole, is a reflection of South African society. How on earth can we possibly hope to care for our customers if at first we do not care for one another? And caring for one another goes beyond basic manners. It means caring about the feelings, sentiments and emotions of our fellow man, no matter who that person is or what his or her background happens to be. There is simply not enough of that happening in this country. I also get the feeling that many customer care initiatives are mercenary in nature in that they are meant to quickly generate extra revenue in the short term, or get a company out of a corporate hole that it has dug for itself , instead of genuinely seeking to build long term, value adding customer relationships. It often appears that most of us strive to get as much as possible for ourselves out of every customer interaction and to hell with everyone else, even the customer.

One could endlessly debate the reasons behind this scenario. In previous articles I mentioned the lack of competitiveness in South African business as a strong contender for the cause of our business ills. This truism has had far reaching consequences for business practice in this country, and sadly enough, the momentum from the old days of protectionism is still going strong. Many people are more interested in watching cricket or rugby than they are in doing their job properly. I know the case of a general manager who had his entire management team into his office to watch cricket and have a light meal, whilst everyone else had to knuckle down and meet targets for the day. Getting together in an informal basis after hours is acceptable practice, but to pull people away from their work at half past nine in the morning, is a bit much even for the most liberal thinkers among us to stomach. Its no wonder that when this self same manager decreed that customer care had to be improved, that no one paid much attention to him. He not only succeeded in losing credibility in the eyes of all concerned, but he also created a lot of resentment amongst those employees not invited to watch the match, as well as with the shop floor workers who had recently been told that in order to survive the company had to become more competitive. Cricket to him was more important than looking after his business. Or what about the case of the logistics manager for a well known industrial manufacturer who was in the market to purchase a forklift truck. The salesman from a potential supplier, having made an appointment to see this potential customer, ( who, incidentally confirmed the appointment the afternoon before), telephoned half an hour prior to the scheduled meeting to postpone his visit, saying that "something had come up and could he reschedule the appointment?" All very well you may be thinking, but as the logistics manager told me, it was pretty obvious that this salesman was phoning from a pub and was watching sport on the television, as the background noise betrayed him and his lie. To that salesman, sport was more important than serving the needs of his customers. I am sure his foreign principals would not have been amused to learn how their product was being represented in South Africa.

We all know that South Africa is a sport mad country. However, the fanaticism that exists is often to the detriment of issues like productivity. Sure, sport in its proper place is a healthy aspect of anybody's lifestyle. But we have to get it into perspective. I know the case of a Natal based organisation that lost a major order to supply a company in Taiwan, because when the customer tried to contact its potential supplier, no response was forthcoming, It transpired, that everyone from the switchboard operator upwards was busy watching a particular world cup rugby match on television. I have often had seminars rescheduled to accommodated sport, or meetings postponed because someone is off to watch a Test Match. Whilst countries like Singapore, Malaysia and Korea are busy forging ahead with their economies and the building of their industries, South Africa is too busy with its mind on other matters.

At the end of the day, it has to be company management who must bear the responsibility of ensuring that the organisation that it represents is truly focused onto achieving its objectives. The Chief Executive in particular must be seen to practice and drive this kind of attitude. If he or she does not set the right example, it is unlikely that the rest of the company will have the right attitude. However, other stakeholders also have a responsibility to ensure the survival of the organisation. Employees, to play their part in creating and sustaining a sound culture of customer care. And also the Trade Unions, who have to realise that their own survival depends on their members having jobs, and any attempt to exert pressure on the company by affecting its customers could rebound on them in a highly negative manner. Put simply, South Africans, whether they be businessmen or trade unionists, salespeople or buyers, management or shop floor employees, even people employed in the public sector, must realise that in the new international economic order facing the country, our ability to effectively deal with and respond to competition will be a major factor as to whether or not our nation will be able to climb up the global economic rankings.

Its not only South African companies locking horns with international competitors that sets the scene for competition. Its also about South Africa as a nation competing with other countries, who will be only too glad to outmanoeuvre us economically. As in a war situation, its going to take each and every one of us to play our part to ensure that South Africa emerges victorious. With the current attitude to the work ethic in this county, that does not look likely. Sometimes I feel that it is not until this country starts to suffer economically, that people will come to their senses, and the arrogance often displayed by many organisations will start to disappear. Very often, hardship brings the best out of people. Maybe a little hardship would not be a bad thing , and would be a good wake up call for local companies many of whom believe themselves to be better than they really are.

Y et it need not be that way at all. If only people would realise that they can make a contribution towards assisting this country to become economically stronger. One way of doing so, from a corporate perspective,is to take customer service to the level of personalising it. This can only assist local companies to become stronger, thereby benefiting the individual as well as the economy. For personalised service is a value adding exercise that build customer loyalty. Instead of seeing a customer database of say two hundred customers for example, a company must view that business as comprising two hundred markets of one. Recognising that treating customers as individuals instead of a mass market is the key to customer retention and development. Its amazing to think that a company like Federal Express, which is probably the world largest express shipping company has just under two and a half million packages going through its system, in 210 countries in the world, every single day. Yet any customer, at any time, can identify the location of his or her package, anywhere in the world. Its almost incredulous that Nissan's vision for the year 2000 is what the company calls its Five A's, namely, Any Volume, Anytime, Anybody, Anywhere and Anything. Its even more alarming for our local clothing industry to realise that companies like Levi and Wrangler, are now able to customer tailor a pair of jeans for an individual customer ( albeit for a few Rands more), out of the millions of pairs of jeans that they produce every year. This is the level of competitive and personalised customer service thinking that local companies are going to have to contend with. The world's progressive companies are focusing their attention on to developing corporate infrastructures that will cater for building relationships with and serving the needs of individual customers. Many of them invest in technology such as sophisticated database technologies, flexible manufacturing and highly sophisticated call centres, as well as a process of continuous dialogue with customers to ensure that they can learn more about their customers' tastes, preferences, and requirements from an individual perspective. The quest for creating and sustaining longer term competitive advantage has for them become more ruthless and sophisticated. They are making personalised service work. The question which begs to be asked is can that happen in South Africa? Yes, it can. However, whether or not it does happen depends on the extent to which companies in this country feel the need to make it happen. My view is that in the not to distant future, they won't have a choice.

Reprinted from Dorrian, Paul.Is Personalised Service Possible? Successful Salesmanship , May 1997.