Kigali — Poor customer care among Rwandan businesses which should be a problem for individual business owners to address for their own benefit has turned into a national priority even winning itself a slot on the Prime Minister's busy schedule.
Instead of costing private businesses, poor customer care is believed to be costing the country billions according to recent surveys as disgruntled customers are more likely to spend less at a firm where he perceives to be mistreated.
A 2009 study by Gloria Lwakabamba a research fellow at Institute of Policy Analysis and Research (IPAR) found that at least 25% of tourists experienced bad customer experience during their stay in Rwanda concluding that the beautiful country also ranks as one with the worst customer care standards in the East African region.
More studies undertaken since Lwakabamba's research have proven the same with even more alarming figures.
Like many research reports, those on poor customer care could as well be passed on unnoticed if it wasn't for the biggest voice in the land to echo the concern.
"We can no longer accept a culture of mediocrity either from Rwandan business and government institutions that give poor services, or Rwandan customers who quietly accept substandard 'customer care', if I can call it that," said President Paul Kagame a speech three years ago.
It's a statement that has been the basis of so many initiatives by various stakeholders many that by now you are obviously familiar with.
Early this year, the Private sector Federation (PSF) concluded a national wide campaign to improve customer care among their members.
Bull Dogg a local hip-hop artist has earned himself more fame than he previously had after releasing a hit single dubbed 'customer care' which has been backed by RDB and now receives massive air play earning him some income in addition to fame. Many other artists have since followed suit.Many local radio stations including Contact FM and Radio Flash have even designed slots in their popular programs to include customer care notes for business people in addition allowing callers to report poor customer care.
Last month, Dominique Ntirushwa a 27 year old employee of MTN published a book on the 'seven most important aspects of customer care' a handbook which targets business owners to read for tips on how to improve customer handling.
The Rwanda Development Board (RDB) the government agency that has taken centre stage in the campaign to improve national customer care has gone a notch higher training 'customer care experts' that will be moving from one firm to another to mentor in house personnel especially in hotels and restaurants.
The most recent development in this rather bizarre challenge is the launch; two weeks ago of a three month national wide customer care campaign by the prime minister Dr. Pierre Hubumuremyi.
Under this campaign, a taskforce headed by the Director General in the office of the Prime Minister Jean d'Amour Gatera and assisted by officials from Ministry of Public Service and Labour, Ministry of Local Government, Rwanda Development Board and Rwanda Governance Board will traverse the country in a bid to spread the customer care gospel.
While all the efforts are welcome to address a cause which means a lot to the economy, many still wonder whether the text books, conferences and expert visits will finally do the trick and teach our traders how to smile and woo their clients to dig deep into the wallets to make that deal.
On a sunny evening a week ago, two nicely dressed Rwanda Tourism University College (RTUC) female students were modeling on the balcony of the second floor of their college located in Remera, they were practicing how to smile as they looked out for results from a reflection of their images in the wide mirror. They did several rounds one at a time to the amusement of passengers who were waiting in a bus at the stage just outside Rwanda's first tourism college.Customer care is one of those terms you would call 'abstract' in English. There are details one has to know and smiling is one key element in customer care, a simple parting of the lips in a warm gesture of friendliness but one many still lack.
To some like RDB's Rica Rwigamba, Clare Akamanzi and Vivian Kayitesi ladies who are blessed with infectious natural smiles the act is effortless yet it's amazing how many thousands need textbook notes to learn how to smile.
The two RTUC female students might have been practicing one of those text book smiles and I hope they perfect the skill.
But it's not only smiles that matter. Customer care is about so many other tiny things including how fast you serve a customer after getting their order, how you address an angry client, what type of music you play at your pub, when at what volume.
In a hotel, providing the small services might make the difference, providing tooth brush or shoe shining services might make the person return.The bottom line here is, no customer care text book is going to have all details or tips on handling customers as they are different depending on which business. It's going to take time and a closer interaction of the business owner to know the needs of their customers to address them.
Spending time in customer care conferences, dancing to Bull Dogg's hit or reading Ntirusha's book might help but it might not be the ultimate solution to the problem of wanting customer care skills among the business community.Maybe the EAC integration will help turn this around. A bit of the Kampala food vendor who will practically pull your hands or kneel down to have you dine from her restaurant.
Or still in Kampala, in Owino Market where many Rwandans have been to shop, where clothes vendors will call you names from 'boss' to 'my lord' to just have you do business with them.Some elements of good customer care can't simply be taught, you can't teach someone to smile really or that will be some really boring plastic notebook smile.