By Nana Kwame Asante Owusu-Sekyere for Graphic
It is sad to note that the quality of customer service in Ghana leaves much to be desired. First of all, it is very difficult to reach most offices and public buildings by telephone. Telephones ring endlessly without any response whatsoever. If one is lucky, the call is answered after the sixth or seventh ring with a localised American southern drawl, "yedooooww!!"
This is not because the offices are closed for lunch, empty or closed for the day. I found to my utter surprise that one such office, which I had tried endlessly to reach one whole morning, had all the staff at post. After several attempts to reach them by telephone had failed, I drove over, stood in front of the office, called from my cell phone and it was unbelievable! The endlessly ringing telephone was actually nobody's business and the staff just couldn't be bothered!
A slightly interesting variation to this is that sometimes the telephone would be engaged for a while, and suddenly the call goes through. To one's utter dismay the telephone would ring several times till it finally cuts off, which makes one wonder whether it wasn't the same number, which was constantly engaged less than five minutes ago.
In more efficient business environments, telephones are answered after the second ring if there are people in the office. This is because after the third ring the call is directed to voicemail or if the number is for both telephone and fax, the fax tone automatically switches on. The question is, Does the Ghanaian customer service staff perceive prompt answering of calls as a relevant and integral part of good customer service? Does he or she know what that means to the customer?
Promptly answering the customer's call means prompt attention to your customer. It could further be translated to mean that your company is readily available when the customer needs you. It improves the customer's perception of your company's reliability, and promptness in handling customer queries and requests.
Even if the service delivered itself falls below the customer's expectation or exact satisfaction, the ease with which you were reached, and your readiness to assist leaves a very positive impression on your customer, which in the long run, affects corporate image and the market positioning and perception of the quality of your service (or product).
A second outstanding trait of customer service in Ghana is the typical "I am doing you a favour" mentality. Basically it is perceived that the customer needs something done for him or her and is therefore at the mercy of the whims and caprices of the customer service staff.
This translates into very hostile, rude and arrogant behaviour by customer service staff in response to any customer perceived to be demanding. Such customers are perceived as "beggars with choices", or "Oliver Twists", asking for more, instead of being appreciative of what is being done for them.
There are specific examples in each of these cases but I do not want to mention any names or persons, dates, companies or industries. Additionally, I have heard so many complaints from customers from all walks of life, that most people reading this article will not only readily agree but also add to the issues raised in this article.
Third, customer service in Ghana seems very disjointed. A simple service that could have been rendered by one person is divided into several irrelevant and small functions. One cannot tell whether this is meant to achieve better levels of efficiency through specialisation and division of labour or simply create employment for more people. The unfortunate consequence of this is that people build bottlenecks and entire empires with the little functions they play as part of an entire process, hijacking the entire process and in effect inconveniencing the customer beyond imagination.
Nobody else dare attempt to play the other's role even in the latter's absence. This is because it is perceived as an attempt to usurp the latter's authority or position. So the poor customer either has to wait the whole day for something very simple because the officer in charge has not reported to work yet, or is gone out and has locked up the stamps in his drawer.
Also related to the disjointed nature of customer service in Ghana is the fact that once roles or functions are assigned to specific people, they forever remain the only people capable of playing those roles. In their absence, those particular services cannot be rendered, sometimes leading to loss of revenue since the customer walks away to a competitor.
Furthermore, there are three major phrases synonymous with customer service in Ghana that drives customers to nuts. The first of these is, "Go and come", followed by " he is not in", and thirdly "I don't know". "Go and come" sometimes with "tomorrow" added to it, makes one wonder whether work is done within a time frame or any sense of urgency is attached to work in Ghana.
This is because one is told, "go and come tomorrow" so many times with such ease and absolutely no remorse. In fact, a great deal of surprise is expressed should the customer get angry after about the third or fourth time. Ask very simple questions to people sitting in the same offices for 15 years or more and you would be shocked to be told, "I don't know", with absolutely no sense of shame. Then there is the chronic problem of lateness. Punctuality seems not to be part of our genetic construction.
I had the "opportunity" of calling at the shop of a major service provider in this country on the Milo marathon Saturday morning a couple of weeks ago. The first staff to appear came at 10.45 a.m. to meet a front office packed with many customers waiting to be served. We later found out that her coming to the office was even coincidental since she was actually not on duty.
She passed by the office on her way to the Makola market for her weekend shopping. The first staff officially on duty arrived at 11.20 a.m., instead of 9 a.m. and absolutely no apologies were rendered to the customers who had been waiting for over two hours to be served.
While waiting to be served at the front office of this same service provider, another shortcoming of customer service in Ghana emerged -most customer service staff in Ghana are not bilingual. A French-speaking delegation on their way to Dakar entered the office to ask a very simple question. The commotion that ensued was indescribable!
In the end, it took the combined effort of three "tired of waiting" customers employing their entire French reserves in the archives of their memories to sort them out. Meanwhile 70 per cent of the countries surrounding us in the sub-region are French-speaking. How can we be the gateway to a sub-region whose language we do not speak a word of?
I have also personally witnessed on several occasions customers lining up in a queue for several hours waiting to be served. The customer service staff attach no sense of urgency to their work to ensure that the waiting time of the customer is shortened a bit to alleviate the inconvenience of waiting to be served.
In fact, they chat in between serving customers, while staff from other departments interrupt the service to the public with their personal requests or those of people they know in the queue who have solicited their help due to the lengthy waiting time. Customer satisfaction is entirely out of question!
I wonder how many firms have looked at effective queue management as a basis for differentiation and competitive advantage. This is because service delivery points in Ghana are plagued with very long and static queues resulting in a high level of customer dissatisfaction.
I have personally been in so many of these queues over the last seven years and the murmurs from customers clearly express disgust and disappointment at how long one has to wait to be served, which serves as a proxy for the quality of service being rendered in the customer’s perception. Differentiating the mode of service itself is an opportunity for reducing customer waiting time, improving customer service and consequently customer satisfaction.
That way firms also stand the chance of increasing their resale market because customers are happy to come back anytime, any day. It seems completely unknown to staff at the service end of organisations' value chain that customer service is a major source of differentiation for competitive advantage. Efforts at differentiation for competitive advantage have so far centred mainly on products.
Little attention has been given to opportunities for differentiation based on other strategic business units or aspects of the value chain such as service delivery where actual retail and sales occur, or better still where the actual quality of the service (or product) is communicated to the market which in effect directly determines the market positioning of these products and corporate image as a whole.
Customer service staff in Ghana need to be made aware that the customers they serve constitute the market share of the companies they work for, and that the quality of service they render directly has the potential to increase or diminish this market share and consequently the profitability of the company they work for, its survival and in the long run their job security. Put more simply, it is the customer's custom that ensures your job security!