This article first appeared in Commerce and Industry Vol 2: 009 of Dec 2013
The government of Kenya is in the process of enhancing the way in which Kenyan citizens access public government services by putting up integrated one stop shops, in every county where citizen services will be provided from one central location. These citizen centers will be known as Huduma Centers. The key objective is to provide efficient, courteous and comprehensive services in an atmosphere of integrity and value. Having been involved in facilitating customer service training for the Huduma Center Staff, an interesting discussion kept arising about manning of the ‘customer care desk’ and who amongst the participants would be ideal to handle this role.
This begs a critical question about what exactly is a ‘customer care desk’. Many institutions across both the public and private sector have customer care desks. The common assumption is that this is a desk where customer care will be provided, customer information disseminated and possibly customer complaints handled. The organizations instituting these desks also run on the assumption that by having the desk they will be viewed as customer friendly and endear themselves to their customers and visitors alike.
In the service delivery circles, it is often a re-education process to rewire organizations’ thinking that customer service is not a department or not the domain of some select staff, but an organization-wide responsibility. Customer service is often not perceived as strategic and therefore not placed by top management as a key element in the organization’s corporate strategy. The element therefore of a customer service desk, then relegates the process further down the food chain, in the maturity level of organization customer centric rating.
And even if we are to cut the organizations with customer care desks some slack and acknowledge that indeed they have made some efforts towards focusing on the customer albeit in an untactical format, what has been the experience in general with regards to receiving service from these desks? To begin with, very often these customer service desks are actually operational business areas to conduct other functions. Let’s take the supermarket customer care desks for example. These are desks that are used to process non cash payments, hand out straws for yoghurt and other drinks and in some instances also double up as left luggage receptacles. How then would one access ‘customer service’ services from these already very busy personnel who more often than not are processing customer transactions and hardly have time to listen to customer issues?
Other organizations are currently swinging into the ongoing wave of outsourcing and have outsourced their customer service desk to security personnel. If at all the customer service desk is to provide knowledgably exceptional service, it behooves the organization to place on of its own loyal brand ambassadors who lives and breathes the organization’s mission, vision and values and is a demonstrable example of the same. How would outsourced personnel, specialized in providing security service possibly be a replacement for this role?
That notwithstanding, the fact that customer service in this country is still in its infancy with regards to provision of courteous, respectful and competent service consistently, renders many of these customer service desks a contradiction of their very purpose. Given the level at which customer service is often placed in corporate strategy, the frontline personnel assigned to man customer service desks are hardly ever the organization’s best and most valued resources. This naturally translates into service delivery that is commensurate with the level of persons deployed to the service. Is it then any surprise that the feedback received by customers visiting customer care desks is rarely positive? Granted indeed there are exceptions to the norm, these indeed are just that – exceptions. This is often evidenced by customer excitement over what should be the service norm, with customers quickly taking to social media to post their ‘exceptional’ experience on FaceBook or providing the service a #TwitterThumbsUp.
I am compelled at this point to emphasize that ‘customer care desks’ should be abolished. Yes – completely disbanded and done away with never to be reinstated. The desk should be labeled with the specific role for which it has been put up, be it an information, reception, or enquiries desk and the specific service applied. Organizations should stop segmenting customer service and start to handle it as a corporate wide responsibility that needs to be ingrained from top to bottom.
Customer service is a culture. It is a way of life that is lived and breathed as part of an organization’s brand should it wish to be customer centric. This tenet needs to be taken up by organizations across all levels of the economic divide to turn around economic performance. We need to start a movement to have this adopted for a win-win outcome for both customers and businesses alike. Africa has a long way to go to completely turn this around and achieve the gains.
The Global Customer Experience Management Survey conducted in 2011 by Beyond Philosophy (http://www.beyondphilosophy.com/2011-global-ce-management-survey.pdf) indicates that for most companies in Africa, the focus is on acquiring customers and building relationships. It goes on to say that the pressure to retain customers is not a factor that influences strategy in most organizations and yet is still relevant and critical to business growth and long term success.
But this is not to say that we should despair and throw in the quality service achievement towel. Not in the least. An uprising has started, with customers starting to demand better service, organizations starting to put customers at the center of their operations and the government bringing service closer to the people and defining courteous service as a deliverable.
Indeed the maxim driving the Huduma Kenya initiative captured as a slogan in their logo is Service Excellence. What better way to lead change and to transform Africa into a service delivery conscious continent, one service at a time? There is hope – rise up and be part of the change.