Last impressions

Anyone who does business in our region understands how important Nairobi’s Jomo Kenyatta International Airport is as a travel hub. Friends in Kampala and Dar talk ruefully about ‘having to go through Nairobi’ to make connections East and West. But JKIA faces growing competition. Addis Airport is home to the wide-ranging Ethiopian Airways fleet. Rwandair now flies to the US from Kigali. Gulf State airlines all offer hubs where the passenger experience has been walked through (and thought through)  again and again.

JKIA looks good from a distance, but delivers a disconnected passenger experience. I’ve just flown to London on Kenya Airways, an airline whose staff and management are pulling the brand up by its bootstraps for the third time. I flew the Dreamliner and the scheduling was perfect – arriving in London at 3.30pm. The 9.30 am departure avoids a really early start, and misses the early morning rush at JKIA – so should be stress free.

And it would be, without the combined efforts of three public sector bodies. All of whom project their ‘don’t care’ cultures onto passengers, creating a lasting impression. Continue reading

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Good neighbours

Last week I heard about a brand whose senior management team literally lives by its promise to the market. The story came from one of the CEO’s we mentor under the Amalgam Leadership programme.

His brand is a microfinance lender that targets businesses. One of the many that have sprung up in Africa over the last decade, addressing a fundamental need. Someone once said that the difference between a pauper and a millionaire is access to credit. Microfinance is now doing giving that access to unbanked people and under-supported businesses, and doing it so well that it is shrugging off traditional perceptions about money lending.

The Company in question now employs several thousand people, and has strong operations across. In Kenya, the company’s staff is notable for long service.  Very many of them have been with the business since foundation. Thanks to an extensive mentoring and development drive, the Company now only recruits externally by exception. Strong candidates are developed and promoted from within. I have known the business from its earliest days and I have always been struck by the alignment of its staff and the cohesive nature of its management. Continue reading

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Talk straight

So much business communication is on email these days.  And so disruptive is that medium that I spend much of my time inside organisations encouraging face to face conversation.

Face to face is how we were meant to communicate. According to Yuval Noah Harari in his book ‘Sapiens’, it was our sophisticated and nuanced conversational ability that powered our species to dominance on this planet.

Harari notes that there were seven types of ‘Homo’ co-existing on Earth 70,000 years ago. But only Homo Sapiens could communicate abstract concepts and ideas. This led to the development of strategy, when every other species was limited to tactics.

In addition (you may be surprised to hear) our ability to gossip had the effect of building team coherence. Everyone developed a deep understanding of individual behaviours and worked out from that whom they could, or could not, rely upon. Continue reading

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Constructive Complaint

I have a friend who loves to complain. In fact, for him, complaining about service is less of a hobby and more of a second career. He is persistent; he is detailed. He reaches far into the targeted organisation and causes them pain. His nostrils flare at the slightest hint of evasion or untruthful responses. Like the bounty hunter, he usually gets his man or woman.

While this behaviour borders on the obsessive, my friend is right to pursue redress for poor service. We all are. And thanks to email and social media it is getting much easier to complain publicly and gather a following behind you.

But let’s give some think about how best to complain.

Vituperative attacks produce defensive reactions that are counterproductive. My advice is to start with a reasoned and constructive complaint and try to find someone who gets the point. By constructive complaint I mean something with the emotion taken out of it, and with something more positive than personal redress as its initial aim.

When a professional manager gives feedback to a staff member, they are often taught use the SBI method. I think it’s a good starting point for a customer complaint too. Here’s how it works:

Situation: what has happened, when, and how often.

Behaviour: the response of the organisation.

Impact: how this has made you, the customer,  feel. Continue reading

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Customer Service Weak

Did you notice that last week was Customer Service week, everywhere on the planet?

The Internet says Customer Service Week is celebrated annually during the first full week in October when customer-oriented organisations around the world recognise the importance of service excellence. Well, that is a noble intention and it’s been going since 1984. In 1992 the US Congress even wrote it into law as a National Event in 1992.

I wonder whether you found being a customer a more uplifting experience during the Customer Service Week? Or whether, like me, you experienced mixed reactions. Some companies (and most banks) were clearly just going through the motions. Happy to clog our inboxes and messaging apps with platitudinous salutations. Dull, duller, dullest.

There are two reasons why such activity is counter-productive; both rooted in the science of communication. The first is all about relevance. Communication is not about what you transmit; it’s about what people receive. That depends on their mood, their environment and other distractions. If your message contains nothing of relevance, it’s simply not going to overcome these barriers.

The second is all about the medium you use. Last century, someone very sharp coined the phrase ‘the medium is the message’ He was a University of Toronto Professor called Marshall McLuhan, and his work helped to shape our understanding of how media work.

McLuhan suggested that the medium, the channel you use, has an impact on the message that influences the way it is perceived. As simple demonstration of this, a message shouted through a police bullhorn carries a harsh authority that causes anxiety in the minds of most recipients.

So customer service messages on email (a highly stressful medium for most folk) are unlikely to be positively received. Nor are SMS or Whatsapp great channels for your bank to use carelessly, because these are social channels and commercial messages strike a dissonant chord. Especially if the very next day your bank uses the same medium to tell you that they are now passing on additional excise duty on transaction charges. Dumb, dumber, dumbest.

On the upside, two initiatives from clients of mine raised genuine smiles. Chloride Exide, the regional battery giant, had all their male managers dress as ladies in visible support of womens’ health and, in particular, Breast Cancer. A nice, quirky way to express their humanity that certainly caught the attention of social media.

While at DPO, Africa’s largest online payments business, someone came up to me, thanked me for my custom, smiled and gave me a tiny parcel of sweets. So, of course, I said, ‘You’re very welcome.’


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Strategic Imperative

It’s October, which means budget time. This is the month where we combine the last drive to deliver the the current year target with the drafting of strategies for the coming year.

Most established businesses have their templates and formats. But as heads bend to the task it’s surprising to note how small some ambitions can be. If you’re business has incremental objectives based on last year, you are already in the trap. The trap that predicates eventual disappointment.

You see, great strides are never made without bold thinking. Some business gurus advise you to practise ‘disruption’ – to have the determination to break category norms. McDonald’s was an early disruptive brand. Long before Ronald, the business made the decision to feed customers without cutlery. This allowed for significant cost reductions in service delivery.  McDonalds exploited this by presenting customers with a new kind of behaviour: eating food quickly and without frills. It took some time to take root. But these days High Court judges, clergymen, businesswomen and members of the the disciplined forces are all equally at home ordering food standing up; eating it sitting (briefly) down; then clearing their waste into the bins provided.

Yes, disruption is a great thing.  But be careful that it doesn’t become an end in itself. Continue reading

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The Uber Effect

In the so-called developed world there’s a lot of antipathy towards Uber. Much of it seems to be from people who have turf to protect (London’s Black Cab community), or drivers (in India) who were dissatisfied with the initial commercial arrangements. Also some whingeing from consumers who frankly don’t know how lucky they are to have efficient public transport supplemented by on demand chauffering.

Here in Africa, as with so many of the technological revolutions of the past two decades, we seem to be gulping down Uber with gusto. And now we’re literally consuming ‘Uber Eats’ home deliveries for food. The US$62 billion brand is already creating new options for both physical and social mobility in Uganda, Kenya, Tanzania, Nigeria, Ghana and South Africa.

Recently I used the service repeatedly in Cape Town and Johannesburg and, my, what a change Uber has made. These are cities where, until recently,  taxis were simply a low value combination of illegal immigrant plus wrecked car. I have travelled to South Africa for 20 years carrying my own road atlas because I never found a driver who knew the address I wanted to go to.

Now, thanks to Uber, the cars seem to be newer and are certainly cleaner. The greeting and conversation is, well, just that. Not a random combination of grunts and sign language. Drivers are polite and engaging, and that encourages politeness in the passenger too. The confrontation anxiety you get when entering a vehicle driven by a stranger is defused. Continue reading

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Join the dots

Sometimes a company’s website bears little relation to its business purpose. In the third decade of the online age this is disappointing. It suggests that online activity is not central to the enterprise, when it has to be.

Those of us who laboured through the early years of digital faced countless obstacles. For example, the primacy of the IT Department. How amusing it now seems that the people charged with cabling networks, setting up servers and fixing our mice were also given a say in how we went to market. Simply because they were associated with technology. Rather like appointing the person who cleans your birdcage to pilot an airliner – simply though their association with flight.

After the IT department came colleagues who were early adopters of technology. With their enthusiasm for digital watches, PDAs and in due course the much-vaunted Blackberry  (A device that required not just opposable thumbs but superior short-range eyesight). Their opinions about online communication were as welcome as those of the analogue marketer, for whom printed collateral was not a means but an end in itself.

It seems a wonder that we got to First Base: putting up our first websites. Now roundly condemned as ‘brochure ware’ –  a strange descriptor for something that was at once less interesting and less practical than the traditional glossy paper document. But, up went the websites and off went a whole section of the business community, distracted by the need to refresh content and disquieted by not knowing whether anyone was looking at it. Continue reading

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Be the best

I’m often amazed when very established businesses cannot say what they are good at. It’s symptomatic of worrying indecision.

Any business that survives the test of time will develop a range of capabilities. With luck it might even develop a culture – a way of doing things that recognisable both to employees and customers .

But from that list of achievements it pays to select one that your business must be well-known for. Why one, you may ask? Well, communicating more simply costs more money makes it harder for your audience to remember.

Commercial law Firm Skinem and Skapah might  decide to build their reputation on Mergers and Acquisitions experts. This in no way  limits them to clients who want M&A advice. As we all know, if you are good at something in particular, people tend to  impute that you are good at other things too.

Now, coincidentally, the way brands are built is by being very good at something that makes them different from their competitors. Marketers call this Differentiation.  Being highly differentiated means that you are on your way to becoming a niche brand. Being really good at something that a defined group of people would very much like to have. Continue reading

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