Need to radically scale up our customer service experience

In the last few years a number of surveys have been conducted by the Institute of Policy Analysis and Research, On The Frontier and recently (2013) by RDB to establish the level of customer service satisfaction.
Gerald Mpyisi
Gerald Mpyisi

In the last few years a number of surveys have been conducted by the Institute of Policy Analysis and Research, On The Frontier and recently (2013) by RDB to establish the level of customer service satisfaction. All reports indicate that compared to the level of customer service in the other EAC member states Rwanda ranks below our neighbours. In the last world rankings Rwanda’s performance was similarly below what is expected of us. With the recent introduction of a common tourist visa for Kenya, Uganda and Rwanda it is critical that we scale up our service delivery in order to compete favourably.

The government is cognizant of the fact that good customer service gives a competitive advantage in business and plays a key role in attracting foreign investments and has prudently placed customer service high on its development agenda. To radically scale up its efforts to improve cus­tomer service the government has initiated a number of strategies including the launching of the “Na Yombi” campaign to sensitize the public on the need for practicing quality customer service. Recently the Office of the Prime Minister launched another campaign to promote good customer service within private and public institutions. Under this campaign a Customer Service Task Force has been established and has been evaluating the level of customer service in the hospitality, finance, transport and health sectors.  

For several years Rwanda has been extolled for being the best reformer in the ‘ease of doing business’ index. Quality customer service is fundamental to any business and is critical for the service sector. Unless we dramatically scale up the customer service experience our efforts in improving ‘ease of doing business’ will lead us nowhere. 

Singapore has held the top spot in the world ranks of customer service for several years because quality service has become a national culture. The same can easily be implemented in Rwanda. Not long ago it was a common thing for people to spit and throw rubbish in public. When the city authorities planted palm trees and green grass along our streets men and women of the local defence force had to be hired to prevent people from walking over the grass and trees despite designated crossing points. Those were the days. Today anyone who tries to do these things will face citizens’ arrest. Cleanliness has become a national culture – an attitude central to social and economic development. There is therefore no reason why exceptional customer service cannot become a national culture just like it is in Singapore.

Customer service is a function of several factors among them the level of development of a country, business competitiveness, consumer behaviour, employees’ and employers’ attitudes and interestingly, the culture of the people.  Looking at these factors it becomes obvious that in order to improve customer service there is need to put in place policies and systematic procedures bearing in mind that behaviour change does not take place overnight. It is developed and nurtured.

Many people have the mistaken perception that great customer service is the sole responsibility of employees. Total quality service involves among other things a customer centred mindset of both the employer and employee, a people development policy by management, empowered and skilled employee workforce, customer focused procedures and standards, professionalism, infrastructure, technology and an inspired and visionary leadership. These are the policies and attitudes that Singapore has been practicing for years and which have made it the number one in the world. In order for Rwanda to start moving in this direction several strategies will have to be considered. 

The importance of quality service is too critical to the economic and social development of the country to be left unregulated. Just as the financial sector is regulated by the central bank and the health sector by the ministry of health etc, a government agency should be established to regulate service delivery in the country. The role of this agency will be to oversee and ensure the implementation and observance of quality service delivery in all private companies and public institutions. Countries whose level of service delivery is persistently high have such policies and mechanisms to ensure their observance. The regulator will be responsible for formulating standards and mechanisms for enforcing them. These will be the standards by which performance and service delivery will be measured. The standards will cover all aspects such as infrastructure, policies, procedures, qualifications and capacity building to enhance employee skills etc. 

In addition to regulating service standards it is vital that the quality of courses being offered by various training institutions including individual consultants be assessed by the regulator. Substandard training will only produce half baked people resulting in substandard service. The standards will include qualifications of trainers, course content and quality of training material. 

One of the biggest challenges facing service in Rwanda today is the low level of qualifications of the employees. This is particularly true in the private sector where hiring of people is often based on relationships instead of qualifications. One of the roles of the regulatory agency will be to ensure only qualified people are hired.

A working environment that enhances quality customer service is the responsibility of the business owners and management in the private sector as well as leadership and management of public institutions. Poor working environment – infrastructure, policies, procedures and standards, can be an obstacle to great service delivery despite knowledgeable and high skilled employees. It is therefore crucial that business owners and public institutions management be informed of the required customer service standards and a system put in place to ensure strict observance of the standards. There should be consequences in the form of penalties and ultimately closure of business for failure to comply.

The starting point towards the realization of a national customer service culture is the sensitization through mandatory training of all stakeholders. This includes business owners, private companies’ management teams, ministers and permanent secretaries, heads of government institutions, provincial governors, district mayors and heads of institution of higher learning. The training will focus on the policies, procedures, standards, infrastructure and technology necessary to ensure quality service. It will also include strategies required to ensure professionalism among employees, and perhaps, the most important - employee motivation. In addition to giving them the knowledge and skills it will be an opportunity to ‘pass the buck’ to them so that they take ownership and become the customer service champions within their companies and institutions.

Very few organisations in Rwanda have a Customer Charter or Code of Practice. This instrument tells customers the standards of service to expect, what to do if something goes wrong, and how to make contact. All companies in the service provision business and all public institutions must formulate their Customer Care Charter and ensure it is readily available and well exposed. A mechanism should be designed by the regulator to ensure compliance. 

Supervision of junior staff to ensure quality service is a standard practice. One of the most glaring reasons for poor service in Rwanda especially in the hospitality industry is lack of supervision by managers. I once was sharing coffee with the Country Manager of the Serena Hotel and his eyes kept darting from one table to another. When I asked him why he was doing so he told me that any time he is outside his office he takes on the hat of a supervisor to ensure every client is taken care of. This was despite the fact that there were supervisors around. This is a skill that must be practiced by all business owners and the regulator must enforce it.

Research by Harvard and Stanford Universities indicates that while knowledge and skills are important in life (combined contribute 15 percent) a positive attitude is much important as a measure of one’s success in life and at work, contributing a whopping 85 percent. In service delivery maintaining and practicing a positive attitude at all times is critical. A positive attitude or mindset for most people is developed and nurtured. It is therefore essential that every company or public institution puts in place a strategy to develop and nurture a positive attitude not only of its employees but also of the management team. This strategy will be in the form of regular trainings and discussions designed to motivate and develop employees. Every company and public institution will submit to the regulator its strategy on how to achieve this objective including other strategies for capacity building.

Quality service delivery is developed over time through constant review of company policies and procedures and continuous skills development through training and coaching. Developing employees, which is central to quality service, should be at the heart of every company and institution. Jeffrey Immelt, CEO of GE, has this to say. “Developing and Motivating People is the most important part of my job.  We recruit, we train, we develop, we think about people constantly. 

We invest millions of dollars each year in training to make them better”. Every company and public institution should be mandated by the regulator to submit its annual plan for capacity building.

Quality service is a result of performing professionally combined with a customer-focused attitude. To achieve this level requires continuous training and coaching. Research has shown that for an employee to develop a customer-focused mindset to the point where it becomes his/her second nature, he/she will have to undergo training in different customer service modules spread over a period of 2 years attending a module every 3-4 months. This service culture plan is highly recommended for an effective customer service. This is the training policy that Service Quality Institute currently employs and has been successful in a number of companies and institutions in Rwanda.

A major challenge to quality customer service, especially in the public sector, is the failure by institutions and companies to respond to communication especially to formal correspondence. This failure results in numerous visits to the concerned institution or company by the client simply to check on the status of the correspondence. While a system has been designed to improve communication such as the requirement to indicate a client’s telephone number and email address, the contacts are rarely used. The only institution known to respond and update clients using the client’s contacts is the emigration and immigration and perhaps this is why it is rated the best in customer service.

I was once pleasantly surprised (shocked might be a more appropriate word) when I received a call from a district in Kigali advising me that my documents for an application for a plot were ready and that I should go and collect them. I will never forget the feeling. I felt so proud to be a Rwandan that I immediately tweeted on how great customer service is in Rwanda. This should be the standard by which Rwanda’s service delivery is measured. Unfortunately I am yet to receive another pleasant surprise. The implementation of the procedures required to ensure timely responses to clients is simple and should be achieved without much hustle. There should be an open forum where clients can air their complaints and if necessary name the culprits. The timely response should be spread to telephone calls, emails and websites.

Another area that requires immediate mindset overhaul to improve customer service is the use telephone. Local perception is that it is demeaning to answer calls unless the caller matters and certainly not appropriate to return a call when you have acquired the ‘Nyakubahwa’ status. Unfortunately everyone seems to have acquired the title. During the era of the “Tuvugane” fixed-wireless public payphone service many citizens complained of the persistent refusal by people in position of leadership to answer calls from this service and yet it was the only affordable means of communication available to them. The situation has not improved much especially that of returning calls. I can count on my one hand the number of ‘banyakubahwa’ who have bothered to return my calls for official business.

It is possible that indeed the ‘Banyakubahwa’ is not in a position to answer or return calls. In such a situation there should be a procedure to let the “Nyakubahwa’s” assistant handle the messages. An effective Call Centre could also greatly improve telephone communication. These techniques can be monitored periodically by the regulator especially where there exists a mechanism to receive feedback from the citizens.

A system or forum should be put in place by the regulator whereby citizens can air their customer service experiences – negative as well as positive. There are several avenues for such a system including institution or company website, radio/TV chats, social media and newspaper columns. The regulator can determine which of these or combination is appropriate. Once citizens are sensitized and given an opportunity to complain companies and public institutions will listen.

As a customer service strategist I have always wondered why, despite the importance of quality customer service to the growth of our economy, customer service is introduced at the working place. Considering its role in our development, a policy should be introduced to start customer service training in schools beginning at the primary education level. This can be instituted alongside financial literacy. The customer service regulator in collaboration with the ministry of education can develop the curriculum. 

In today’s competitive customer-driven business world, we have to stand out to survive and our key competitive edge is to develop a national customer service culture. It does not matter whether we see ourselves as ‘lion’ or ‘gazelle’, when dawn breaks we better be running.

The contributor is a customer service strategist and trainer

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