The Search for Customer Satisfaction: Charm vs. Force

When moving to a place like Rwanda after living in a place like America, one is sure to struggle with the common standards of customer service. There is actually a furniture company here with the motto: “The Customer is a King”. Yet the excitement of seeing such sentiments will quickly wear off when this company fails….

…to build the furniture you requested

…to understand the customer (‘king’) is the one who should dictate which design is best, even when the craftsmen feel it looks better with the alterations they made

…to apologize or inform the customer that the furniture they ordered will be as much as one month later than promised

H.E. President Kagame has made a concerted effort to address the customer service culture in Rwanda. He and others claim that low customer service standards will stunt the desired development of tourism and other key sectors of the economy. Immense amounts of training and funds have been channeled toward addressing this shortcoming, but commonly accepted cultural attitudes do not change overnight.

This common problem presents Westerners like ourselves with a couple viable options: charm or force. I’ve made a mini-study of the effectiveness of each strategy and will attempt to illustrate them in the example below. (Disclosure: The following example is based on an amalgamation of many actual customer experiences)

Let’s assume you visit the nicest coffee shop in town, the one that aspires to be a model of customer service for retail businesses in Kigali. You order a lunch.45 minutes later, you ask the waitress if it will arrive soon. One hour after arrival, you have seen the people at surrounding tables, who arrived after you did, receive their orders and leave. Your waitress is clearly apologetic, but clearly unable to deliver your lunch. You consider your options and then…

Option A: Force

…you slam you hands on the table and yell at the waitress. While she runs away in tears, you scan the restaurant sure others will affirm your customer service injustice. While bystander reactions vary, some look as though they feel sorry for you… you are someone who simply can’t understand local ways (and perhaps doesn’t belong). You also feel embarrassment and disdain, for you have just exemplified the stereotype that Americans are selfish, loud and individualistic. The ‘net’ result: you still don’t have any food and you’ve perhaps lost current and potential friends as well. In my experience in Rwanda, the harder you attempt to force a quick resolution in your favor, the more resistance and resentment you face from all involved in the interaction.

Option B: Charm

…you smile, tell the waitress you know it is not her fault, and ask to see the manager. When the manager arrives, you step aside and speak quietly so others cannot hear, and explain the problem you’ve experienced. Smiling, you explain you are not trying to blame the waitress, the manager or anyone else for the problem, but you hope the manager has the authority to resolve it in an acceptable fashion as this clearly isn’t the type of customer service a store of this caliber wants to be known for. If this doesn’t work, then the same smiling and charming style may need to be applied to the owner of the restaurant.In my experience, customers who take the time to employ such charm until finding and reasoning with whoever has authority generally get satisfied in the end. Often, they even make friends along the way.

Onward & Upward,

One Client’s Troubled Story

There is a wonderful man we have had the privilege to know for the past few months. He is the founder and lead investor in a tomato processing company we have engaged as a client. The more you understand this man’s past, the more inspiring and endearing he becomes. He started the tomato processing company in 1986 because he hoped it would be able to provide stable employment to thousands of farmers at wages above the norm. Given the Rwandan climate and conditions for tomato farming, this seemed a promising concept.

The Rwandan market for processed tomatoes was being satisfied by manufacturers in Italy and other distant countries, so it was hoped a local factory could provide better quality and a better price. He and his wife were both heavily involved in managing and operating the factory in these early years. Prior to 1994, the company made good progress. Then, the tragedy of war and genocide ravaged Rwanda. Employees and their families perished in huge numbers. The buildings, infrastructure and utilities, which the company required to operate, were decimated and looted. For those who managed to survive, they were required to find a way to do so without the work and income on which they had depended. The founder personally lost his wife and four boys.For many years, he lost hope and the will to re-establish his company.The very sight of the factory re-kindled painful memories as his wife was so integral in its operations.For 10 years, the factory remained out of commission.

In 2004, public officials and new investment partners convinced the founder to revive his company. Eventually, the founder re-married and his wife gave birth to three sons. At the processing plant, he remained as Managing Director for over two years, but it soon became clear employees were stealing company funds. He took measures to address the issue and appointed a new Managing Director to take his place.Recently, Karisimbi Partners was engaged to work with this new management team and help the company reach its next stage of growth.

Unfortunately, we learned two weeks ago that the founder’s wife and middle son were both being treated for cancer. Days later, we received the tragic news that, at just 11 years of age, the boy lost his fight with cancer. We were asked to join part of the week-long ceremonies to commemorate the boy’s life. We met the founder at his home to offer condolences and a customary gift. As I have an 11-year-old son, my heart broke for this man.

It is an honor to work with clients such as this… individuals that have experienced tragedies, both past and present, yet still do what they can to help their communities. Our privilege is to partner with such people…indeed, those who need it most.

Onward & Upward,

African Guidance Required…

For almost two months now, I have been taking classes to learn Kinyarwanda, Rwanda’s local language.It was approximately eight months ago that it became clear the long-term impact we were hoping to affect with Karisimbi Partners would require a long-term residence in Rwanda and long-term relationships with clients.Appreciating the cultural and language translation required to truly understand and help these client companies, it seemed one of those on our team should speak the “language of the heart” which Rwandan’s often prefer to use to when Westerners are not around. Besides… Greg Urquhart speaks French very well, Dano Jukanovich speaks Mandarin Chinese and I felt like an under-achiever (and my weak Spanish is of no use here).They say that your capacity for learning a new language quickly diminishes after your formative early years.Since I’m about to turn 40, I thought I’d better get started!

My twice-a-week tutorial sessions have been led by Silas Twagirumukiza, the warmest and most patient guide you could have for such a journey.It has been a huge blessing that Jennifer Jukanovich has also joined us on the path to learning Kinyarwanda, proving that difficult journey’s are made easier with the right traveling companions.Together, the three of us share a cup of tea on weekday afternoons, struggle with the homework, laugh at the “foreignness” of the language and perspectives.We do take time to admire our surroundings, indulging in the occasional tangent to admire afternoon lightning storms, colorful birds, or cultural insights along the way.But one phrase from our study guide continually jumps out at me…

“This (word/phrase) must be learned with the help of an African”

Rwanda is a small country, and Kinyarwanda is not a major language, thus there is nothing like “Rosetta Stone” to show us the way.We have a book written by a Western missionary over twenty years ago and copied so many times that many pages are hardly legible, and most of those have writing in the margin.There are some efforts to facilitate learning Kinyarwanda using more ‘modern’ methods, but Silas is effective even with such materials (and students such as us!).The reason the phrase “must be learned with the help of an African” jumps out at me is because of the humility of the author and the profound relevance of the statement.It really doesn’t matter how long I live here and study the language, it is likely I will never be as good a teacher as a native Rwandan could be.To expand this notion further, there are many things besides language that require translation here: customs, traditions, assumptions, preferences, etc.I’m fairly certain I am learning more each day here than I have learned for weeks or even months in other places.Rarely have I ever felt the need for so much trusted advice and guidance.Since many things can’t be understood without the help of an African… we are grateful many African friends have joined us on the journey.

Onward & Upward,