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The Intruding Customer

Anyone who sat in a business class and took lessons in customer service, no matter how elementary will be familiar with one or all of the following quotes:

A customer is the most important visitor on our premises. He is not dependent on us. We are dependent on him. He is not an interruption in our work. He is the purpose of it. He is not an outsider in our business. He is part of it. We are not doing him a favor by serving him. He is doing us a favor by giving us an opportunity to do so.

This is customer service 101, but how applicable is it in real life? It is unfortunate and shameful to admit it but in The Gambia, every statement above regarding customer service is in the reverse. Even more shameful to admit is that such nonexistent customer service is more prevalent in the formal establishment as opposed to the informal sector. Walk into any stall at the Serekunda or Albert market and witness the friendly reception you get. One can argue that the interaction between a seller and a buyer is more personal and direct than the one between a customer and a service agent. The vendor knows the customer buying his wares is money in his pocket instantly, so he is extra friendly. The customer service agent gets paid regardless of how an individual customer is treated so no direct impact there, unless management picks up on the poor service and disciplines the employee.

But that is still no excuse for the very poor service one receives at various service stations across the country. From banks to service points for NAWEC (National Water and Electricity Company). From government offices to checkout counters at supermarkets. From ticket vendors to fare collectors in public transport stations; airline staff, customs, immigration and airport security personnel. The poor to nonexistent customer service is pervasive.

When you walk up to a counter in many of these places, there is a degree of nervousness about you and you pray that you get your needs addressed without incident. The stern looks, the authoritative voices, the air of superiority all make you feel both intimidated and defensive. You attempt to put on your best behavior just so you can have your issue resolved without having to cause a scene.

That’s not the end of it, nine chances out of ten your service will be suspended because a coworker needed the agent serving you to render a favor (often related to the needs of another customer) basically having customers jump the line to be served before you based on who they know on the staff list. That in fact does happen; that someone shows up who knows a staff member or is some local big wig and they get called to the front of the line to be served. On this part we cannot blame the staff entirely because we encourage it. We seek who we know when we go for transactions so that we will get served faster.

We created a culture where we have to be in each other’s good books. So if I need a service at the bank for example, I will not consider those customers who obey the rules and joined the line waiting to be served, I will seek out a friend or an acquaintance to help speed up the process for me. If that friend asks me to join the line, I will take that personally and will feel offended. “He/she is bad” will be my reaction and whatever relationship we had prior to that day will be a bit lukewarm after that encounter. So the staff has little option in that regard based on societal norms and expectations.

Be that as it may, the personal relationship between the agent and the customer should be one of a pleasant encounter, not one where the customer feels she or he is being rude by interrupting something very important, which is the feeling once you approach an agent with a question or request. They make you feel so small that you feel embarrassed only because they are “busy” with something totally unrelated to their job. Even if it were job related, a customer’s needs supersede everything else in a good customer service environment.

Every employee, no matter where they are in the world has good days and bad days. Everyone gets burnt out at some point, especially if doing the same unfulfilling work day in day out. But going to a few places and encountering a similar reception can be blamed on more than burnt out staff, it points to a work culture of poor customer service and often times employees get harsh treatments from frustrated customers who get less than desired service and vent out.

The standards are set, policies well-articulated and expectations are clearly stipulated for all concerned, but implementation is where we fall short.

An employee wanting to do things by the book gets ostracized by peers and customers alike. A customer who wants to play by the rules gets left by the way side and we, who are supposed to know better (after knowing the rules) are in too much of a hurry, or feel too important to uphold the rules so we break them. What we are left with is a fatally flawed system across the board.

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