Turning bad habits around 1 On Customer Care

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The word habit refers to the way we normally do something. It is a tendency or practice, which has become routine. There are good and bad habits. While running a business we sometimes demonstrate habits, which negatively affect our sales. The next few weeks we will look at some business habits I have observed and see how we can turn them around. In this first article we will look at habits in relation to customer care. A few examples:
While on my way to an appointment, I decided to quickly check on some items in a shop nearby. Just as I was to enter, the shop attendant turned the Open sign around to Closed. I asked, whether I could still come in and check on something but the young lady answered that it was now lunch time and I could come back after one hour. I wondered why she couldn’t wait another five minutes and felt turned away. I proceeded to my appointment and never went back to the shop.
A few weeks ago, I needed wood for a small construction, somewhere in the country side. The location of the enterprise, selling what I needed, was quite far away and it took me some time to get there. After my order was taken and the necessary authorisation papers were prepared, I wanted to pay and go to collect the wood, which was stored at another distant place. To my surprise I was informed that the supervisor had gone out of the office and had taken the stamp with him, without which we couldn’t proceed. I was becoming nervous as it was getting late.
I sent my car for a routine service the other day. As part of the service, the garage sent the car to a nearby service station to have it washed. After I collected the car, I noticed that the area around the dashboard was quite wet with water. A few days later, the radio cassette player stopped working. It turned out that the electrical connections failed as a result of the moist. I went back to the garage owner to complain, who in his turn called the owner of the service station. The owner of the service station totally denied any responsibility. I felt really angry and mistreated.
I needed some information from a company and picked up the telephone. My call was answered by a lady but I couldn’t understand what she said. After my inquiry whether this was the office of company X, the lady replied with a repeated “huh, huh” and later “hello, hello!” As I now took a few seconds to rephrase my inquiry, she hung up on me. I felt frustrated.
In all four examples, I developed a negative feeling towards the way I was treated and I won’t go back to any of them if I can avoid it. And I’ll advise my friends the same. What is happening here? It seems that none of the business owners or their employees was really interested in me as a client. They didn’t seem to care about me as their customer at all. This in my perception is more the rule than the exception. It seems that the business sector in Ethiopia has developed bad habits towards customers over the years, which can lead to critical business failure. Why is this so? In developed economies, customer care is an important part of marketing and is used to create a competitive advantage over others in the same sector. Customers themselves care about the way they are treated and the business sector knows it. In developing economies, people are occupied to a large extend by making ends meet and getting the basics for their lives. As long as they get the basics, they don’t care so much about how they are treated by the supplying company. But as the middle and upper classes grow, so do their expectations as how they want to be treated. Looking into the recent history of Ethiopia, we are coming from an era in which the basics were difficult to get and we are now moving rapidly into a situation, in which the market is becoming more competitive and in which customers have a choice. There are for example quite a number of supermarkets now with a wide range of products and soon international travellers will be able to fly yet another airliner into Europe. So while customer care was not really important some time ago, it is becoming an essential part of marketing now. Where customers have a choice, they check out the quality of service and the price they pay for it. They also take recommendations by others serious. The management of some companies are aware of this. Ethiopian Airlines for instance is trying to improve on its services, which was really low not so long ago. Supermarkets and fuel stations are now open throughout the evening or even the night. But when it comes to serving customers we still seem to be stuck with the bad habits of the past, while we desperately need to turn them around in order to develop a unique selling point in a market which is becoming more and more crowded. A few suggestions for your own and your staff’s development in customer care:
Demonstrate a positive attitude always, paying personal attention and trying to provide immediate answers to the customer’s inquiry. Do not attend to others or the telephone at the same time.
Demonstrate courtesy and develop excellent communication skills, also on the telephone.
Walk your talk. Advertising in the papers and on tv has become popular. Make sure though that you deliver what you promise. You don’t want to sell “no” or “yellum”, not even with a charming smile.
Be honest. If you can’t deliver what the customer wants, say so and discuss alternative options. Don’t deliver something you think the customer might want. If you have bad news, tell it, don’t hide the truth.
As business owner, focus and check on the quality of your product before delivery. Do not leave this to your workers.
Make employees aware that their salaries in fact depend on sales and therefore on the goodwill of the customer.
Train your employees. Hospitality and customer care training is available. I will be happy to provide details on where you can find such training if you are interested.
Coming back to the example above, the garage owner called me up a few days ago and said he would refund my new audio-system. Happily surprised I checked a few stores and selected a system which was reasonably priced. I took the invoice to him and he refunded me immediately. What a service! I’ll go back to him forever and I am happy to recommend him to anybody who is interested to know who gives such a service in this country.

Ton Haverkort
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