This is part of a series of articles I’m writing on customer service in Africa, the basis of which is my upcoming Marketing Africa magazine column titled “The End of Customer Service As Usual.” For your viewing pleasure, this version is unabridged.
The Cutting Edge by Watchman reads the popular column in Kenya’s The Daily Nation newspaper. Opposite the editorial cartoon lies what for decades has been Kenya’s equivalent of the public suggestion box. From apt questions on government departments to quick and witty opinions on current affairs, this column featuring a carefully selected array of 6-7 edited comments from the Watchman’s inbox. It has since morphed into the modern day bulletin board for comments, complaints and compliments.
If a company was praised or berated, a response was all but guaranteed if not put in writing in The Cutting Edge days later by a senior representative of the mentioned organisation. Often addressing and typically acting on the feedback that was shared by the correspondent. But ask any Kenyan of their everyday experience and there are far more frustrations and challenges they face than a 12 by 3 inch column could ever capture. Whether utilities such as water and electricity or consumer products within the home to the moment they step out and have to deal with the bedlam known as Kenyan traffic (overlapping, anyone?)
But closer to us are the brands we interact with. The companies whose products, services and representatives we pay for or are in a position to make demands of. It is here there for all the +4 million readers of the Daily Nation in a day, they couldn’t print a newspaper big enough for all of us to comment, complain and compliment the peculiar Kenyan experience. Note: Circulation is +220,000 copies and their estimates are approx. 20 people read each copy (source).
The advent of technology and more importantly the age of social media has foretold a new chapter in empowering people to speak up and take action. And the very real challenge of customer service in the age of pervasive technology, be it the mobile phone, which boasts some 26.4 million subscriptions in Kenya or be it the internet, which an estimated 5.5 million Kenyans have access to. What would happen if the mandate of The Cutting Edge was re-imagined today?
“The suggestion box in Africa is dead.” Went the beginning of the pitch many a time I had my slides deck up in a boardroom somewhere in Nairobi. The bold declaration complemented by a corresponding image of a deplorable suggestion box aptly netted with cobwebs. The metaphor represents where we find ourselves today. The concept and theory of a suggestion box, from its purpose to its practicality are in question. Customer service and the reality of the everyday consumer experience are fragmented at best.
In the past, a business could get away with offering substandard products and below average service. The effect being that we as Kenyans generally came to accept lower standards of service. Rude tellers, faulty products and false warranties some of the challenges of being treated like a statistic or if you like, “the customer.”
The business models behind customer relationship management and BPO’s favourite son, call centres, are being challenged and assumptions being called into question. The rapid nature of interconnectivity and specifically with regard to social networks means that typical turnaround times and “standard operating procedure” manuals just aren’t good enough anymore.
I was part of a team reimagining The Cutting Edge for the segment of people in Nairobi and urban centres in Kenya active on social networks, with disposable income and ready to speak to brands they interacted with; the company, GotIssuez. A platform, a tracked and monitored Twitter hashtag and most importantly closing the all important feedback loop by involving and engaging businesses. I got to speak with dozens of businesses, from publicly listed enterprises to parastatals and even small and medium sized enterprises in Kenya; many of which are leading in their respective efforts on Twitter today. What are the questions the business owner has before they begin to listen and respond to their consumers and more importantly, potential and future customers? We made it our business to listen.
The challenge is two-fold. On one hand you have the disgruntled consumer, at times eager to recommend and when empowered, even persuade others on behalf of their favourite brand. But more often than not, they have a pertinent issue to raise with the said brand and need access and an informed and empathetic response.
On the other hand you have the disillusioned business leader or organisation. More than likely an organisation built from the traditional recipe for a great business or a strong brand. Between the consumer and the business leader or the brand, in the endless web of bits and bytes is the possibility to connect these two like never before.
Sunny Bindra shouldn’t need an introduction to many Kenyans, but for those unfamiliar with him he is a respected management consultant, author, speaker and columnist. He joined Twitter towards the end of October in 2010 and social media has since become an integral part of his writing and sage advice to business leaders and the nation at large. Most recently, on a television interview with Jeff Koinange and in his writing he predicted 2012 being the year of the Kenyan corporations, brands and companies realising the power of social media thanks to the #TwitterBigStick (an ode to the Big Stick ideology)
I would go as far as to say he not made only this prediction, but is probably one of the essential components in it becoming a reality. Here are the 4 ways it must adapt to transform customer service.
1. Captains of Industry to Endorse It
For customer service to truly change and for it to be transformed it will need someone with the respect of business leaders. One not far removed from their circles of influence; someone with the credibility to demonstrate it not only in their word but also in deed. Whether a CEO who’s barely figured out his Blackberry and intimidated by technology and the kind of conversations he occasionally hears among his junior senior executives, to an emerging business leader getting acquainted with social networks and his iPad but still not set on thinking beyond responding “that’s the IT guy’s job.” What Arthur Goldstuck refers to as “Elephants.”
This captain of industry, this champion, this persuasive and influential individual with the social capital to stand the gap of both the personality and profit driven business world and the undercurrent of ever-changing technology is Sunny Bindra himself. His reputation and clout within business circles, not to mention his leadership courses like Fast Forward and its alumni list are testament to it.
2. The Potential of Platform
One thing that can be said about #TwitterBigStick and #TwitterThumbsUp for those who have observed social media and digital over the past 4 years now is that they are stopgap measures. The first step in the road to recovery, if you like. Sadly though, the transient nature of Twitter makes it such that to record, analyse or track hashtags is especially difficult on its own. Also, as Twitter isn’t built with this in mind, there’s plenty of ways to improve the experience of everyone who participates in #TwitterBigStick and #TwitterThumbsUp.
Let’s say there was a platform where one can sign in with as little as their existing social media footprint: Facebook or Twitter. From there, one sees a list of trending brands, products and services from businesses the crowd approves of and those that the crowd has spoken against. With consumers commenting, voting up, voting down and promoting brands that respond.
The biggest part of this equation, I may add, is that businesses could get involved. They could see who their real ambassadors are – you would be surprised what it takes to convince and convert a riled up consumer into a brand advocate. The businesses could see a dashboard with sentiment analysed so that if the comment is tagged as neutral or not tagged at all they are in a position to analyse it. And best of all, they can reward those that help them do business better. So it’s not so much that businesses shouldn’t tweet back or respond, or join Twitter for that matter. It is that businesses need the systems in place to deal with the rapid nature of social media and need time to understand how this transforms how they do business. I will take a great example that I’ve witnessed, Safaricom.
Heralded for their social media efforts today, not all was as rosy as one would imagine. And even as they joined Twitter under @SafaricomLtd they had a lot to learn and quick. The hand of the social web was a gentle but firm one. They would retweet and share company news, while politely teaching Safaricom’s account executives and agency reps that you didn’t have to begin all tweets with Dear Sir or Madam and hadn’t discovered the brand’s tone or voice (and from below you will see neither had their competitor, Zain). It took time, but the community hand held them until they could serve them better.
The most critical turnaround was when issues were raised and Safaricom said they would respond in 3-5 business days. The community immediately responded (in some cases quite harshly) to prove to them that this was the wrong approach for on social networks. It took Safaricom’s overhaul of their CRM system including their IVR and streamlining processes and internal information sharing (no more silos) for them to get where they are and contrary to popular belief I believe they are yet to hit their stride just yet.
Speaking to even smaller businesses and some that aren’t as consumer-facing as Safaricom (certainly with less budget and resources) they are faced with the same challenge. How do I adapt my systems as a business owner to cope with the rapid nature of social media? Or how do I wire it in from the start? To which I reiterate, a platform would be in the best position to not only create technology that would help them manage their reputation, but to allow them to streamline their business as well.
3. A Small Matter of Semantics
#TwitterBigStick and #TwitterThumbsUp are great and very visual, not to mention they are gaining a following. If you look at the who’s who appearing in profiles when you search the trend on Twitter, you can tell the community is buying into the idea. But that notwithstanding, there is an inescapable challenge of those two phrases and that is their structure.
Gamification will be a big part of the experience. Rewarding and incentivizing users and consumers to be honest and constructive is critical for the businesses to act and change and for the consumers to experience the change. Lastly, by virtue of them being hashtags, and Twitter’s pithy 140 character constraints I would recommend dropping the “Twitter” part of the word i.e. #BigStick and #ThumbsUp. However, having worked as a copywriter myself I can say that alliteration is a key tool in any creative’s chest. So I hereby propose some alternatives;
– At GotIssues we used: #GotIssues and #GotLove for example.
– An option that works well and complements the platform listed above i.e. a variation of its name/points system/currency, etc
4. Buy-in from Business
All in all, with all the businesses I met the thing that enlightened me the most when hearing all their hesitation and trepidation to joining social media was that if this is packaged correctly, this is a solution that they were willing to pay for. The key is less of the “hellfire and brimstone” approach towards social media evangelism but rather a persuasive look at practical ways to get listening, get ready and get started; both have their place. I’ve seen firsthand though that for most businesses addressing them with the “social media or die” approach doesn’t elicit the best response upfront.
Business leaders, whether ticking on the bourse later today or stepping into their sole proprietorship businesses want to know what their consumers are saying (once they are shown the power of the consumer contributing back to business.) And though it is a debate for another time, when it comes to getting buy-in for businesses, the idea is to think and become a social business not just an organization with a few social network profiles.
I will definitely support Sunny as best as I can. Tweeting, sharing and leading the conversation on where this goes from here and how he puts the audience in the driving seat moving forward. Continuing speaking, training and workshops with government, corporates and their respective marketing and communication agencies.
If there’s one final example I think that marks the times we are in now for business leaders. I got to speak to MBA students at the Graduate School of Business at the University of Cape Town in 2010. The course was ran by my good friend and fellow collaborator Dave Duarte who runs the ODMA which I’ve contributed to. Business leaders in Kenya and the rest of Africa will lead by participating in the age of Nomadic Leadership. A new style of leadership where part of creating a thriving enterprise is to engage the attention of digitally distracted people in the market, the company and the network, as well as being productively present in the face of complexity and change.
Sunny’s got his work cut out for him, but I know Kenyans on Twitter and across the web are here to help, and so am I.
Are there any blind spots I missed out on? What part will you play? Sound off below. Your comments, compliments and criticism are welcomed as always.