Professor Grafton Whyte has been the Director of the Harold Pupkewitz Graduate School of Business (HP-GSB) since 2014. He walks New Era’s Senior Journalist for Business and Economics, Edgar Brandt, into his 15 years experience as a lecturer and researcher at various institutions of higher education and the newly formed Customer Service Association of Namibia.
New Era (NE): According to your research and your own experience, how would you describe the current state of customer service in Namibia?
Grafton Whyte (GW): Customer service in Namibia is currently in transition. We are moving. It is impossible for so many people to be talking about customer service and for it not have some kind of impact. I’m old enough to remember when customer service in the United Kingdom during the early 1990s was still horrible. This only changed during the mid-1990s when people started to complain more effectively and there was a lot of activity on the market place. People realized that if the UK wanted to compete internationally we need to be much more customer sensitive and it worked because the UK today is one of the leading lights in terms of customer service in the world.
NE: What do you attribute Namibia’s slack attitude towards customer service to?
GW: One of the reasons for the state of customer service in Namibia is historical. In the same way that children who were abused often become abusers when they are adults. You would’ve thought that the last thing you’d want to do if you’ve suffered abuse is to dish out abuse. But that is the learned behaviour and it becomes engrained in your psyche. So, when you find yourself in a difficult situation you revert to what you know. In Namibia, we can’t seem to escape the horrors of the apartheid history and we’ve learned some behaviours that we need to get rid of and we’ve learned some attitudes that we need to get rid of.
NE: What are the man aims and objectives of the association and how do you hope to achieve these?
GW: The association is the facilitator of the customer service movement. So, the customer service movement is about instilling a sense of excellence about customer service throughout society and the association is the means by which we hope to achieve this. There are two elements to that, namely the Professional’s Forum, which is a community of practice where professionals in the customer service industry, managers or frontline staff can come together to share ideas and acquire professional qualifications. One of the things we are doing as a graduate school is to put together a post-graduate diploma in Business Management and Customer Service. We plan to have the first intake in 2016 and we are part way through the process. The idea is that people working in this area get some recognition for being professionals. The aim of all of this is to impact on basic service delivery and this is where the real problems are in the economy with issues such the delivery of water, housing, sewerage, sanitation, education and those kinds of services.
NE: Will the Customer Service Association work in collaboration with existing consumer protection groups?
GW: We are in the process of talking to consumer associations and other bodies. We are not trying to replace any of the customer or consumer advocacy groups. In any movement, you need a diversity of voices coming at the problem from different perspectives. It makes for good academics and makes for good life in general.
NE: How do business and individuals become members and what fees are applicable?
GW: Please visit our website at customerserviceafrica.org. Go to the home page and you will see the link to the Customer Service Association of Namibia. We encourage individuals and corporates to sign up. There are fees applicable because nothing runs on air. For individuals, it is N$1 000 per year and for corporates it is N$2 750 per year. We have kept the fees fairly low because this is really just to cover administration fees.
NE: How does the association intend to deal with businesses that provide poor customer service, particularly those that are not members of the association?
GW: We have to rely on education because we are not a regulatory body. We are not in the business of singling out companies for negative performance. Our motto for this year is ‘Expecting better: Delivering more’. What we are saying here is that we are trying to bridge the gap between customers and their suppliers by creating informed customers and motivated suppliers. At the moment, we have complacent customers and shoddy suppliers.
NE: In your opinion, what are the most crucial areas that need urgent attention to improve the level of customer service in Namibia?
GW: I think the most urgent area is dealing with people’s attitudes. We need to really educate folks to realise that if I want excellent customer service I must be willing to first give it. If I am willing to give it then I have a right to expect it. If we change the attitudes then it will proliferate across the country.
NE: What are some of the repercussions to companies that provide poor customer service?
GW: Our ambition is for shoddy suppliers to wither on the vine. We are giving them breathing space now because there is no other choice. Many people spend their very small incomes where they are abused and they keep going back because there is no choice. If someone provides poor service then complain constructively.
NE: What are the benefits to companies that provide excellent customer service?
GW: People who deliver excellent customer service will, when customers eventually wake up, and they will wake up, are going to be the people who will still be in business. Increasingly Namibians are going abroad and experience what real excellent customer service and when they come back they want the same service. Companies that engage in excellent customer service will remain while companies that do not engage will not survive.
NE: What do you recommend individuals dealing with shoddy customer service to do and does this differ from how companies should react when they experience bad customer service?
GW: Individuals should just complain. I encourage strongly literate individuals to write in and complain. Most people don’t want hassles with emails and letters complaining about their service. They won’t ignore you and they have to write back. For corporates, they need to bring these companies to account. If your supplier is giving you poor service then stop using them.