Africans Are Hospitable, But What’s Up With Service in Africa?
I received a letter last week from a young African woman (whose identity I’ve omitted, in deference to her privacy), currently a graduate student in a leading hospitality management program in Europe. What first struck me about her was that she had taken the time to send me a letter, when she could easily have emailed me, given that she referenced she had found me on LinkedIn through a mutual contact and she must have subsequently googled me to find my business address, where she then would most likely could have easily found my email address, as well. By taking the time to write a letter to me, this young woman already grabbed my attention by demonstrating to me that she understands etiquette — which definitely worked in her favor, given that she wrote to me requesting assistance with a dream she has — to open a hospitality management school in her country of origin, in order to provide less fortunate young people the opportunity to study free in their home country. This would then enable them to qualify for the positions in the country’s major tourism sector — currently occupied mostly by foreigners.
The letter inspired me to think about service, in general and hospitality in particular, in Africa, beginning with experiences I’ve had in the various places I visited on the continent, including in my country of origin, Uganda. I’ve always been baffled by the fact that while Africans are generally hospitable people, when it comes to providing professional service to others, there tends to be an inconsistency in how its delivered. In all fairness, I should mention that there are several establishments I have visited in which I have received consistently great service from accommodating staff and engaged managers. So I asked myself, what is it that’s lacking in the places to which I have decided I would never return? Based on my own experiences and anecdotes from other customers and even staff, many such places tend to be run by ill-prepared and unmotivated managers, who most likely report to indifferent owners. These owners often times have not developed the practices and structures necessary to empower managers/employees to deliver consistently great service, be it internally or externally. The point being, that the leadership sets the tone for the type of service the customer-facing employee will provide. Once the leader creates a culture that is service-oriented, hires accommodating people, teaches and incentivizes them to provide great service, employees are more than likely to perform better.
As tourism gains momentum as a major economic driver in Africa, I would like to appeal to proprietors to consider adopting the following six service delivery best practices in order to deliver customer service excellence. These practices are based on (a) my studies while a graduate student at Cornell University’s School of Hotel Administration (b) research I’ve conducted on my own as an educator developing and teaching university-level hospitality management courses (c) observations I’ve made about organizations to which I or my firm have consulted and (d) methods I’ve successfully employed in my own business.
1. Development of Standard Operating Procedures: Successful establishments tend to develop procedures to manage the full customer experience. These procedures are encompassed in the following phases:
- Customer Engagement Phase (e.g., phone greeting, email inquiry response, website information)
- Arrival (e.g., by whom and how customers are greeted)
- Service Delivery Phase (e.g., when and how customer orders are taken and suggestions provided to them)
- Payment Processing Phase (e.g., flexibility of payment options)
- Departure Phase (e.g., how customers are bid farewell and whether there is a request for feedback on service provided)
- Post-Visit Engagement Phase (e.g. thanking customers for their business and providing incentives to encourage future patronage / referral of others)
2. Hiring Practices: One of the key elements to developing a great customer-facing staff is recruiting those people who are inclined toward service, possibly even have experience in working in establishments that deliver consistently and /or people who have demonstrated an interest in service delivery, through their educational pursuits. Finding such employees is facilitated by the fact that there is such widespread unemployment on the Continent, that employers are able to cherry-pick candidates.
3. Training / Orientation Process: Once appropriate candidates are hired, they should to be taught about the establishment’s service culture and expectations of employees, trained in service delivery procedures and informed about the importance of the service they are providing to customers paying their hard-earned money. By doing so, the leadership establishes expectations of performance and provides clear reasons that the employees can internalize and refer to in various customer-facing situations.
4. Management Oversight: Managers should practice “management by walking around,” which requires them to monitor operations so as to to enable them to identify any issues before they escalate, discover employees providing great service and provide an additional touch-point for customers who may have additional questions.
5. Incentives: People are generally motivated in multiple ways, money being one of them. However, successful leaders recognize that public recognition of performance against clearly defined objectives, the offering of career path options, and support of employees’ extracurricular pursuits are just as, if not more effective means to incentivize performance.
6. Employee Treatment: Leaders of successful establishments understand that the way in which they treat their employees is directly correlated to how those employees then in turn treat internal and external customers. Employers can do so by treating employees in a hospitable manner, developing practices such as providing them with healthcare, transportation and / or meal allowances to supplement wages, and by taking the time to learn about the employees’ individual challenges and helping to facilitate reasonable solutions.
Going back to the letter and idea from the young African woman’s vision that inspired this posting (and with whom I have since communicated via email and a skype video call) my professional opinion as a practitioner in the service sector is that she’s on to something great. So I have since communicated further with her and provided her with some of my own insights for how she can potentially realize her dream. Central to all of this, however, is that as she realizes her dream, she keeps in mind, the importance of developing an institution that not only teaches those interested in working in hospitality, the technical aspects of providing service, but also, the philosophical and human aspects of why and how service is delivered. Additionally, my hope is that she aims to recruit students (all of whom she envisions would attend on scholarship), who demonstrate a pre-disposition to service delivery, and who therefore, with the right training and opportunities, would help to lift the level of service provided in her country, in particular and the rest of the continent, in general.
Finally, I believe that in the short-term, she should be flexible in how she conceives of her institution. With the increasing number of applications available to facilitate e-learning, she may want to consider working with educators / industry practitioners to develop a curriculum that can be delivered remotely to students assembled in an existing structure, such as a local school, church or community center. In such a case, instead of having to wait until she raises the funds for a building, etc., she could literally begin teaching using a laptop, projector and WiFi access — made possible by Africa 3.0.
Unlike my first two postings on Project Diaspora, this young woman and I did not connect via Twitter, 140 characters at a time. However, some of the insights, which I shared with her, were informed by my frequent activity on Twitter over the last 18+ months.
New Note: I was recently quoted in the book Cornell University School of Hotel Administration on Hospitality: Cutting Edge Thinking and Practice book (page 16)
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