Africans Are Hospitable, But What’s Up With Service in Africa? | Project Diaspora

Africans Are Hospitable, But What’s Up With Service in Africa?

by Liz Ngonzi on February 23, 2011 · 14 comments

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.

Swimming Pool at Chobe Safari Lodge in Uganda

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.

One of the Beautiful Cottages at Munyonyo Commonwealth Resort in Uganda

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.

Giraffes in Murchison Falls National Park in Uganda

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.

Great Eco-Conscious Decor at Boda Boda Restaurant in Kampala, Uganda

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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@LizNgonzi February 25, 2011 at 3:14 pm

Sheeroh, thank you for your valuable feedback. I do agree with you that courtesy can be innate, as is the case with people who are characterized as being accommodating and thoughtful; and can be nurtured in one's home where parents/guardians can provide "home training".

I also agree with you that perhaps one of the reasons establishments in Africa have yet to raise their service standards is because customers have not demanded they do so. I believe they should do so now!

That said, when I write about leaders setting the tone for service delivery in establishments, I am simply arguing that the human resource management practices they employ (e.g., who they hire, how they treat them, the tools provide them to perform their work) have a direct bearing on how employees will perform and most importantly on how service is delivered.

Hope that clarifies the point a bit further.

sheeroh February 24, 2011 at 8:24 pm

The writer purports …."The point being, that the leadership sets the tone for the type of service the customer-facing employee will provide." … Does the leadership really set the tone, or is it that the people are not demanding better services??….Personally I do not think courtesy has culture.

fatou2002 February 24, 2011 at 10:33 am

I have been contemplating writing a blog post on the poor service I have been receiving in Ethiopia over the last 6 months, and now I found yours.
I am not African, but have lived in Africa quite a bit over the years and it has been my experience that good service is rare, so when I do I am so happy, but when I get particularly bad service, I am always shocked, I cannot seem to learn my lesson.I now live in Addis and last week I waited 45 minutes for my meal, a dish that was invented for its speedy preparation (so shouldn't take more than 10 minutes). All I got was sorry, sorry. I felt like crying, I took it too personally I guess, but it was in a restaurant where I go about 3 times a week and always order the same food, but this time it was a new waiter.
My hairdresser's doesn't have hot water almost every other time (or it is just when I come) and again, only 'sorry, no hot water' – usually after they have already poured freezing cold water on my head) No one takes responsibility, no one offers a discount, or a coupon for next time (only one time, after bitching for a while about an incorrect bill, which charged service charge on a membership fee (because the computer programme was setup that way, and they didn't know how to change it) I managed to negotiate some vouchers for services in the amount that I was overcharged. But it took calling the manager and complaining and feeling like a real B**ch.
I wonder if it is because the people working in service industry are badly paid (the salaries of waiters in Addis are really poor, service charge often included in the bill, but doesn't get into the hands of the staff most of the time). Owner are not around and so the employees don't seem to care or cannot take charge as they are afraid of the owner.
But somehow it doesnt make sense, since on the other hand, relations matter her and regular customers get a bit extra in the market, get a nice greeting at the local shop etc.
Why can it not translate into good service?

@LizNgonzi February 24, 2011 at 5:50 pm

Thanks for your heartfelt response. While not Ethiopian, as an African, I somehow feel compelled to apologize for the treatment you've received in Ethiopia. You suggest that the lack of service may be due to the fact that: "…the people working in service industry are badly paid (the salaries of waiters in Addis are really poor, service charge often included in the bill, but doesn't get into the hands of the staff most of the time). Owner are not around and so the employees don't seem to care or cannot take charge as they are afraid of the owner." In my professional opinion, if establishments are accepting service charges, yet are not at least sharing them with the workers, that may be an indicator of a larger problem that would surely contribute to poor of service delivery. The owner absenteeism could also be a contributing factor, particularly if the managers are poorly trained and/or if standard operating procedures are lacking.

Eugenie February 24, 2011 at 1:39 am

I am an African myself and can relate to this issue of customer services. One major contributing factor to poor customer services is our own cultural value system that isn't necessarily in sync with, or even often compete with what some consider "western stuff". Take for instance our value system about time. In a way, it is acceptable standard to be late because culturally we don't value time as much as everyone else in the world. The problem here is not only that we don't value our time, we also expect others to adopt the same value system because we are hosting them. Worst, we are not even curious about why they value time so much. In a way, the time we make others waste doesn't really feel like it was wasted, rather, we think of it in terms of inconveniencing someone, and even so, expect them to somehow fill the gap with other things such as chatting with whomever is around, reading magazines, or just come up with their own entertainment. One of the reasons why we don't really value time as much as westerners do is that there are no consequences if we fail do to so. In the west, time is money because the minute you wait it you loose money. For example, you pay penalties for not paying bills on time, for showing up late to work, and loosing business because of slow inefficient service. Time also determines how late you can eat out, how cheap you can drink out (happy hours), etc…
Unlike the western mentality about time, Africans in general don't have a pile of bills to pay, or time sensitive events such as theatre shows to keep an eye on. Therefore, I don't think that we can overcome the time value issue until it's addressed in a way that culturally makes sense to our people. We have to prompt a paradigm shift which basically, for instance, instead of assuming that the "inconvenienced" individual could somehow use the waiting time doing something else, focus on what he/she might have lost during the time they were waiting. Time has to translate into money in order for it to have a value that people can relate to. The endlessness myth about time needs to be deconstructed. Until we have a system that rewards good customer service and punished bad customer services, change will not come to Africa. I am working on a database system for consumers to evaluate and share information about services provided to them. Hopefully this will encourage good performance for businesses interested in attracting and retaining customers.

tms ruge February 24, 2011 at 10:25 am

Eugenie! Great comment! You've nailed it on the head. I think it is also going to be imperative we get on global time if we expect to compete on the global market. The world isn't going to slow down for us, we need to speed up to catch up. In that process, the value addition of customer service will pay off big time.

But we can't do either of the above if we aren't sensitized and by that I mean EDUCATED!!! It starts with accountability in the classroom and work place!

@LizNgonzi February 24, 2011 at 5:55 pm

Thanks for your comments and the interesting angle you presented with respect to African value of time. I agree with you that a paradigm shift is necessary and solutions to these problems should be culturally relevant, in order for the shift to occur.

Elizabeth Ngonzi February 23, 2011 at 6:24 pm

@Ida, I believe that by writing about this topic and bringing it to the attention of the right people, we can begin a dialogue at the right level, to get in position to affect systemic change. I also believe that people such as the young woman I discussed in the post, should be given the support and resources necessary to develop curricula and/or schools that incorporate customer service into the teaching equation.

ethnicsupplies February 23, 2011 at 1:54 pm

I love that lodge thanks for the pics- Now on the serious stuff Customer service especially in the service industry is not taught. When I was at college in Uganda, although I was a student of Hotel and Institutional catering customer service was not one of the modules we were offered. So in a nutshell we need to go out there and teach it if the industry is to survive and attract more visitors

@hadjibeye February 23, 2011 at 1:07 pm

As an African, I have to admit that customer service is non-existent in many businesses…I mean they won't kick you out of their commerce but there's no such thing as greeting or may I help you when you walk into an average business (not all businesses, but in a majority).

Of course, there are exceptions…especially in the larger scale businesses such as hotels, restaurants and rental car agencies…my comment was addressing the corner fabric shop or the smaller merchants in markets.

Even in America, many African restaurants or African stores that I've been into have terrible customer service!…this is just an honest observation from one African to another.
It's an area where we definitely need to do better.

Thanks for discussing an interesting topic that needs to be addressed in Africa!

tms ruge February 23, 2011 at 1:32 pm

So I guess the question becomes "How do we even begin to address something so simple in application but so complex in a cultural sense?" It makes sense to us Westernized versions of Africans that good customer service brings in more business than advertising, but how do we drive it home? Ida Horner and myself have had a heck of a time with a particular large hotel in trying to tell them where their fairly obvious downfall was in terms of their business. They spent money on all kinds of renovation but their attention to detail fell apart in regards to training the customer-facing human capital. You can spend a billion dollars on infrastructure, but if you don't compliment the experience with a smile to a new customer, then your money is lost.

It could also be simply that we put up with it. Start demanding better customer service from the places that you patronize. We all need to be less lazy about how we are treated. It goes all the way up the leadership tree in how we don't hold our leaders accountable for bad leadership. I, for one, call a spade when I see it and refuse to patronize any place that has visible customer-centric shortfalls. And I always return to the vendors who give me great customer service, like the boda boda I use every time I am in Kampala. I am always happy to pay him extra just because it is a pleasure to get a ride from him.

@LizNgonzi February 24, 2011 at 6:04 pm

@TMSRuge I think Eugenie is onto something with respect to a need for a paradigm shift. As I presented in my piece, I also am of the opinion that people with the right attitude and adequate training need to be working in these jobs. Additionally, I would like to know the motives behind the creation of these businesses and the skill sets of those who are opening them. Are the owners simply motivated by profit, or are they also interested in contributing to the economy by creating jobs and providing excellent service to visitors?

Elizabeth Ngonzi February 23, 2011 at 6:40 pm

@hadjibeye, thanks for your comments. I agree that customer service is an issue in many businesses in Africa and in the Diaspora. While I agree with you that some of the larger scale business do provide consistently great service, I think it's only fair to mention that I have visited some small mom and pops that do so as well. The larger issue I see however, is that we may simply have the wrong people in service positions working in organizations lacking service delivery and human resource management standards.

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