The struggle for good customer service in Uganda

Customer care agent
A customer care agent at a telecommunication company - Internet Photo.

Kampala, Uganda | By Lindsey Kukunda | Want good customer service in Uganda? Good luck!

The exchange of money for products or services rendered in Uganda is just that: a commercial exchange. The odds that the person supplying the products or services looks upon the individual handing the money over as a valuable ‘commodity’ in and of themselves is very, very rare indeed.

The only time the term ‘customer service’ pops into the head of a supplier is when a customer reaches their breaking point. And that’s the problem with Ugandans as a whole. They do not complain consistently. They hold it all in until they reach this ‘breaking point’, which is usually fascinating in its occurrence if you are blessed enough to be present.

I was one of these blessed people in a taxi one day (best place to see someone reach their breaking point, I assure you). A taxi conductor decided that the fare had suddenly increased by USh300 after a smartly dressed young man had already handed him USh1000.

When the customer asked for his balance, without even giving him the courtesy of a backward glance, the conductor curtly rapped out, “It’s USh1000”. The taxi stopped, the conductor opened the door, and the young man grabbed the conductor by the scruff of his collar and flung him out. The implication was clear. Time to take this outside.

What happened afterward can only be described as this young man deciding that this one conductor was going to pay for every single conductor who had ever ripped him off or treated him without courtesy. Blood flowed. The taxi driver developed ‘customer service’, and gave the young man all his money, apologizing profusely.

Poor customer service is so much a part of Ugandan society that it is hardly noticed. However, there are extreme cases that need to be witnessed.

A popular discotheque in Nakulabye, L’atmosphere, had just opened up and Suzy and her friends decided to check it out. Being a large group, they ordered drinks worth USh30,000 in the first five minutes. Being a smoker, Suzy lit up a cigarette. As soon as she did so, a waitress approached her and warned her to put it out as L’atmosphere was, without any visible signs whatsoever, a non-smoking club. Suzy obliged.

Ten whole minutes later, a six-foot-tall bouncer, and almost just as wide, approached Suzy, put his palm right against her cheek and said, “I heard you were smoking. If you do that again, I am going to beat you.”

Preposterous. After he walked off, a shaken but indignant Suzy walked round looking for the manager. The bouncer was informed that she was looking for the manager. Next thing she knew, she was dragged to the entrance where the bouncer proceeded to punch her in the shoulder and throw her against the wall. She pleaded with three other bouncers to help her. They grinned.

Her attacker then grabbed her roughly by the elbow, literally flinging her down the stairs and out of the club into the street. She had no bag, hence no money or phone to help her get out of Nakulabye as fast as possible.

Luckily enough a man entering the club asked Suzy to describe her friends to him and he went in and brought them out. Any attempt to reach the owners or general management to explain the ‘customer care policies’ of L’atmosphere was for naught.

That’s an extreme case that outshines the usual circumstances of poor customer service in Uganda, where the pretty young receptionists in offices are chatting ‘pakalast’ on their cell phones as you wait for their attention. Those are boring, basic scenarios.

Paul Baryamureeba is a lecturer of Human Resource Management in the Faculty of Social Sciences at Makerere University. He explained why we have almost zero customer care in Uganda.

“All Ugandans simply do not demand the treatment they deserve,” he said. “It’s not in our culture. We are taught to smile, be polite and pretend no matter what. I teach students how to deal with people from all backgrounds, but as soon as they leave the lecture room, they forget because it has not been integrated with their personalities straight from childhood.”

Baryamureeba himself is confounded at the treatment he receives in corporate offices, straight from management.

“I went to JM Freights one day to speak with the administrator,” he related. “I was kept waiting for 15 minutes because she was on the phone. When I was ushered in, she was still on the phone.”

He was kept waiting an incredulous 20 minutes while the administrator chatted with her sister. His request to then see the managing director was refused, with the director standing right in front of him.

Meanwhile, certain telecom companies in Uganda have taken poor service to a whole new level. Take Orange and Warid Telecom. Their office parking spaces are for staff only and customers are left to find whatever parking they can outside.

On one occasion when I was there, one customer on leaving the Orange offices found his vehicle clamped. So how does this work? You buy their products, your money pays their salaries, but you do not even deserve a provision as basic as parking space when you go to further provide business directly to their offices.

And then there is the issue of long queues because certain places do not provide enough tellers to deal with customers. What’s the point of having six tills if only three are going to be utilised?

I had heard a lot about MTN and long queues in some of the notoriously busiest places. So one day I decided to use the outlet in the Nakawa Game mall to send Mobile Money. Sure enough, there were only two tills operating. After standing still for 15 minutes, I proceeded to the MTN Towers in Clement Hill to speak with the head of customer service directly.

When I told the male receptionist what I needed to speak with him about, he stared at me for a full two minutes, smiling. I learned why when he said after that time had passed, “Oh, he just passed you to go for lunch. You can try again in two hours. Look, there he is in the white car pulling out!” He pointed helpfully.

Oh, right. I was supposed to chase the car at that point. Spontaneous exercise. Now that’s customer service.

The telecom company Airtel has some of the worst personal service available. Robert is the marketing manager of company that sells tracking devices via the use of SMS service. He has been pursuing Airtel for a basic post-paid SMS service proposal for three entire months. At some point, the account managers he was speaking with stopped answering his calls.

This lack of professionalism extends to the walk-in customer as well. One day Dora, a secretary in a law firm, developed an ill-fated desire to purchase a modem from Airtel. She was directed from one centre to another until she lost her temper, and purchased one from Orange.

Again, it was impossible to pinpoint whom exactly to speak with in Airtel about their customer care policies. I was given a range of email addresses and received no replies to my request for an interview.

Kudos to Orange when it comes to modem purchases by the way. As opposed to Airtel personnel telling you to trek around personally, Orange staff will pick up the phone and call their centers to determine the nearest place to send you to receive immediate assistance.

It is simply absurd that government-run organizations take customer service more seriously than private run ones, who one would think need the public’s blessings to succeed. Institutions like UMEME and the National Water & Sewerage Corporation have excellent call care centers, running round the clock.

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They have also gone out of their way to partner with banks and telecom companies to ease payment for their services. When was the last time anyone ever had to visit these offices physically to make a complaint? It doesn’t happen very often because their customer service offices have taken the time to make sure they have all their bases covered.

But enough of the rosy scenarios and back to another typical example. Rose, a journalist, was yelled at by the manager of Barbecue Lounge in Centenary Park for passing through to the next restaurant.

“I don’t want trespassers here,” he shouted at her. “We don’t need your money!”

I just had to try and see him. I was refused his name and phone number and told to come and sit all day on Sunday. “If you’re lucky, he will come in,” I was told by the staff. Sounded familiar.

Let’s hope one day, when the teachers and doctors and traders have stopped their strikes in protest of the current difficult economic conditions, we the ignored consumers shall also unite to make some noise about the kind of treatment we are entitled to – whether or not we have money falling out of our pockets.