Saturday, March 25, 2017

What is "Proper" Customer Service for an "Outsider"?

The author has been living in the town of Iringa for so long that, not entirely deliberately, he has become a frequent customer in many of the town's local eateries.  Given that it is rather unusual to see Chinese people hanging out in local eateries to begin with, he has become a largely recognizable face among the staff of these eateries.  And as a recognizable face, he is often treated with smiles, handshakes, and quite a bit of eagerness with it comes to being informed of what are on the menu and recommended for the day.  For the longest time, the author simply thought such behaviors are just the norms of how staff in food places talk.

Apparently not so.  While the author was taking his lunch today after interacting with eager staff today, a local Tanzanian customer came into the eatery.  The man smiled, greeted, but showed a rather uncertainty about his behavior that gave away the fact that he is new to the eatery.  In fact, even the author, guessing purely from the man's body language and attempts to initiate communication with the staff, could easily tell that he was not from around here.  A newbie to the town trying out a local place for lunch; perhaps he wanted to integrate himself to the community fast.

Obviously the staff of the eatery guessed as much as the author by this point.  And the stark contrast by which they treated this man as compared how they treated the author (and other regulars of the eatery) was quickly becoming not ignorable.  The staff, rather than walking up to the customer as they entered the eatery, simply sat or stood in the corner, against the wall, and stared blankly at this new man heading toward them.  No smile, no body language, and only a terse "good" to the new customer's shaky attempt to greet all of the staff in the shop.

When the man proceed to inquire about the eatery's offerings, showing interesting in purchasing food, there was absolutely no increase in the level of enthusiasm from the staff.  "Rice, ugali, bananas.." the staff just mechanically recited the offerings, with no change in tone, no attempt to recommend anything in particular, and not even bothering to make eye contact with the customer.  When the man made his order, he was directed to a seat by a staff, again completely silent and expressionless.  When the food was served later to him, the staff remained completely silent and expressionless.

This awkward experience by a new guy in town at a local eatery reminds the author of how his staff quite often show (or in many cases, enunciate) fears about heading into new locations to speak to people.  They speak of how, because they are from elsewhere, locals will not talk to them, and thus would require many proper documents from proper people (in as murkily legal as it could possibly be around here) before they think that are "well-armed" enough to venture out to the unknown.  Without those documents, they basically imply, going out to new communities to meet the new people is practically social suicide.

Watching how coldly a new guy is treated in a local eatery, it suddenly becomes less ludicrous to imagine what that "social suicide" could potentially look like.  Indeed, if a man is making purchases and is still treated like "thin air with money" by people, imagine going with a purpose to ask for money instead.  If wrong words are used, who knows, maybe the new guy in the village would be treated to the wrong end of vigilante justice that is so prevalent here.  Since the community does not who one is, the community as a collective can only assume the one is coming to inflict harm upon the community.

Previous posts have already discussed the fickleness of trust in a previous post, so will not elaborate here. Either way, what is more interesting in this particular scenario of a new guy in an eatery is just how inconsistent customer service can be.  It cannot be generalized to say that customer service is bad.  The author gets decent service as a regular, and surely, when a white guy shows up, the self-deprecating staff would bend over backwards to make sure the white guy enjoys himself.  But when the customer is not a "friend" or a "higher-up" of some sort, the incentive for good service simply disappears.

Yet, the reality is that, successful customer service is fundamentally about serving new people.  Any business only grows by serving new customers, because demand coming from returning customers is limited.  This is particularly true for the food business, since most eateries cannot all the sudden start cooking high-end expensive food and, after all, a person only eats three meals a day, usually not any more.  Higher revenue has to come from more customers, not making each customer spend more.  So it really does not matter how well you serve your "friends" and their friends, because they cannot help you increase revenue.

Sure, the eatery owner can always argue that he has enough repeat customers and make enough money off them so there is no need to treat new customers well.  But how can they be sure that there would never be a new restaurant in town that lures away all his repeating regulars?  His repeating regulars may be the "new customers" for another eatery who chose to focus on the new guys in town, who were brave enough to wander into new places without "official documents."  When the new restaurant decided to treat the new and old guys with equal smiles and eagerness, people can easily and quickly vote with their feet.

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