About that mediocrity…

My friends and I went into a Nairobi restaurant once. The waiter claimed that there was enough seating for all of us. Two of us were supposed to share a table with a couple who were halfway through their meal. Our other friend was directed to another table where she was expected to be the awkward third wheel. I was puzzled by this arrangement and my facial expression relayed my sentiment. “You guys can talk across the room,” the waiter said. What!? That was our cue to leave. I later find out that a number of restaurants do this and it is an accepted practice. Now, I have no problem sharing a table as long as the other already seated party is fine with it. But why split a group? If we come as group then isn’t that an obvious indicator that we expect to sit together? It’s OK to let people know that you don’t have a table for all of them or inform them about how long of a wait it will be to get a table. That’s part of good customer service. Why force a situation on people and then become rude and disrespectful when they decide to leave?

Good customer service – that is something that lacks in many places in Kenya. I went to inquire about bus tickets on another occasion. The lady at the customer service desk did not once look up from her cellphone. I was asking her questions and her responses consisted of mumbles and shrugs. She seemed more interested in whatever was on her phone screen than assisting a potential customer. I wondered whose brilliant idea it was to put such a person in a position that required them to interact with people when she clearly did not have time for that. I walked away and had an experience that was more or less the same at the next bus company I went to. Why do people act like they are doing you a favor when you are bringing your business, both current and potentially future, to them? “You just have to learn how to navigate their rudeness,” someone said. Why should I!? There are not enough hours in a day to make me want to deal with such. Even if I was going to get the bus ticket or service for free, I still wouldn’t “navigate that rudeness.” 

This behavior spills over even to unexpected places. How else would you explain the dramatically long queues at banks that have more teller windows unmanned than manned? Why go through the trouble of putting up all those fancy windows when they won’t be staffed? Let’s not forget the way in which the employees drag themselves when serving clients. This sluggish service is often punctuated by catch up sessions among the few tellers available. Woe unto you if you happen to be a victim of fraud. The bank employees will be sure to make you dance circles in their rectangular halls as you watch them take their time in figuring out your situation. I have a relative whose account was hacked and money withdrawn. He went to the bank and they proceeded to tell him how there were people who had lost much more money than he had. What that had to do with his particular case remains a mystery. He did get his money back but that was after many a visits to the bank. These multiple visits could all have been avoided if the bank actually valued its clients because then they wouldn’t have to be pushed to respond to any crises.

The guru, and perhaps even the inventor, of this brand of customer service is the government. Some government officials make you wonder exactly how they are still employed. I went to get a temporary travel pass once. For some reason the passport office that day was under a tent next to Nyayo House. One of the people behind the desk was busy reading a newspaper and the other one was drinking tea. At some point a shirt seller came along with his latest wares. The newspaper-reading official proceeded to put the shirts on the table and inspect them for quality. Meanwhile, we were all waiting in the queue. He didn’t seem perturbed by our presence neither did he make an effort to hide the fact that he was attending to the personal while on the job. None of us complained for fear of being chased away or denied travel documents. This is unfortunately a scene that is repeated in various government offices. This shouldn’t be the case though. We shouldn’t have to be cowed into being treated like non-factors and held hostage by someone’s misplaced priorities.

How can we expect change when we constantly accept mediocrity? When we entertain behaviors that stifle our progress? When we swallow the accept-and-move-on pill without once questioning what its side effects are? Or is that we have just become resigned due to decades of the same suffocating cycle of poor performance? 

I think that if we start demanding better we will get better. If we accept mediocrity then all we will get is mediocrity. If we all, or maybe a good number of us, decided that we won’t try and navigate people’s rudeness, then there will be change. If we stop frequenting restaurants manned by staff that lack people skills then the owners will be forced to either hire reasonable people or train their current staff to do better. If we stopped taking our business to establishments with employees that cannot be bothered with our presence then that will force management to rethink the quality of the people that work for them. If we stopped taking nonsense from our banks then they will eventually be forced to stop dishing out the nonsense and start treating their clients like the valuable assets that they are. It really is possible to force a behavior change. If you don’t believe me you should read Malcom Gladwell’s The Tipping Point. All it takes is a group of people to say enough is enough, realize their value as customers and demand better.

As for the government, I still haven’t figured out how to force a behavior change with that lot. That’s a mule of a different caliber. As Thomas Jefferson once said, “A government afraid of its citizens is a democracy. Citizens afraid of government is tyranny.” Yurp…that is all I have to say about that.




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