COLUMN | Chris Kabwato: ‘Customer is king’: Nothing more than an African fairy tale

The 31st of December 2023 was supposed to be a special day for different reasons for my clan, gathered in Manicaland. Of course, it was the last day of the year and we had stocked enough firewater to quench the thirst of the proverbial 5,000 dudes on the shores of Galilee eyeing a boy’s bread and fish.

It was also a day after we had unveiled my old man’s tombstone, so we were rubbing our tummies with satisfaction like some cat that had chowed some fried chicken livers. My niece Wynona had just turned 25 and my daughter felt it was important to celebrate her cousin’s milestone in some style. I was commandeered to drive Wynona and her four cousins to a place called Tony’s Coffee Shop up the Bvumba mountains. We had heard stories of the cranky owner of that place who told tall tales about his cakes and the secret recipes passed down to him by his mother. The young posse I was carrying looked forward to chilling at this restaurant nestled in the magical place that is Bvumba – green valleys, blue mountains, tropical-like canopies, and winding roads. It is a place God created for Instagram.

At exactly 16h00, I dropped off my crew at Tony’s Coffee Shop and asked them to alert me when they were done so I could come back and fetch them. Within thirty minutes they sent me a message saying they were ready. I was a little surprised by that.

When I fetched them, I was taken aback by what they told me. They said the owner of the coffee shop had come to the gate just as the five young women were entering and shouted that the place was closed and that they should go back. Although there was a sign by the gates clearly indicating the closing time was 17h00, the proprietor shouted:

“We are exhausted. We are closed now. Please go away.”

But one of the waitrons at the coffee shop realised the young women’s transport had left. He allowed them in. The owner, who had pleaded exhaustion, went off to gaily entertain two families that occupied tables by the balcony. It was obivous they were his regulars. He had his back to my family the whole time and never spoke to them again.

On Tuesday 23 January 2024 at 08:50AM I called the mobile number of the owner of Tony’s Coffee Shop. I started civilly, trying to understand what had happened. He clearly remembered my family members and he stuck to his story of being exhausted:

“There was nothing left in the tank. But I did allow them in because I heard that their taxi had left.”

I tried to be reasonable: “I wanted to let you know that this experience traumatised them. Look at it this way, you are a white male shouting at five young black women who have come to your place because of your brand. They were looking forward to an amazing experience, but you ruined it for them.”

He said: “I did not know they were traumatised. What can a brand give when it is exhausted?”

It was at this point that I realised further civility was not going to take us anywhere…

Tony has company – more customer service horror stories

Tony Rudeboy Coffee – or whatever his real name is – should take comfort in that he is not alone in offering horrible service to customers.

Sometime in 2008, I was at a Harare internet café called Fast & Easy which was by the corner of Samora Machel Avenue and Julius Nyerere Way. I was in a mad rush to go and present a concept to a potential funder. I wanted to print a one-page document that captured my proposal. The cashier/overseer pointed me towards a desktop computer where I stuck in my memory stick and punched the print command. I heard the lovely purring sound of the printer and went over to collect the document. I was puzzled.

“The paper is blank,” I said.

“Yes, there is no toner in the printer.”

“So why did you make me pay to print?”

“You are paying for the paper you have used.”

It was a surreal conversation. The internet con artist then proceeded to tell me that there was no refund. I locked the door to the café and my refund magically appeared.

However, this experience pales in comparison to how I was treated by a now long-defunct airline called Air Afrique. Air Afrique is a great case study in France’s infantilisation of Africans and a sad indictment on the intellectual bankruptcy of African leaders. But that is an argument for another day. Let’s stick to my customer experience. In 1997, I was transiting through Abidjan’s Félix Houphouët Boigny International Airport to Johannesburg. I had an Air Afrique boarding pass that I had obtained in Ouagadougou, my original point of departure. We had to collect our baggage in Abidjan and re-check it into the Joburg-bound Air Afrique flight. I dutifully went to the counter to check in my luggage and showed my boarding pass and passport.

The gentleman serving me slowly went through my passport like he was an immigration officer.

“Sorry, the flight is full,” said the dapper Mr Air Afrique.

“Pardon, sir. I do not understand. I reconfirmed my flight two days ago and in Ouagadougou they issued me with a boarding pass for this flight.”

“The flight is full. The next flight is on Wednesday.” That day was a Saturday. The man asked me to move to the side so he could assist other passengers. I was puzzled. I had never experienced this before.

I sat on the baggage carousel directly facing the check-in counter. The flight was delayed several times. From 2PM when I landed in Abidjan to about 3AM the next morning, I just sat by the carousel staring at the Air Afrique staff in disbelief. The man who had told me the flight completed his shift and left. Another one came and told me to wait – again. It took pleas from a Zimbabwean filmmaker who spoke some halting French to get them to accept me on the flight.

Air Afrique, which was also nicknamed “comme ci, comme ca” (maybe it will fly, maybe not), collapsed in 2002 with the French having greedily stepped in to take over its mountain of debt and usurp air routes. However, les Français did not anticipate the downturn in aviation travel that came in the aftermath of September 11 2001.

Africa and the customer experience

Our cries for service are a daily ritual for many of us. I live on a continent where exceptional service is an oddity. However, we are not short of preachers of brand and customer service. Most corporate organisations hire chief marketing officers who contract agencies to generate meaningless strategic plans about customer experience, customer obsession, customer journeys, brand blah blah. In almost all the cases it never really leads to any meaningful change because they neglect to address the flip side of brand: culture. If your employees are your greatest asset, then a toxic organisation can never deliver an exceptional experience to its customers. The inside of an organisation is reflected in its interaction with the outside world.

You can do a three-day workshop in Nyanga, give everyone a T-shirt and a gift, provide a lovely presentation deck, do team building exercises riding ponies, and still that will not change the rude tone of the call centre staff member who has no clue how their salary is generated. You have to fix the culture of an organisation first, or in tandem with your brand positioning or repositioning. Everyone – from the cleaner to the board chairperson – has to be involved.

Anyway, that is too much preaching. Whatever your profession, please just give your customers value for their money. A great experience is part of that proposition. Don’t be like that guy at Tony’s Coffee Shop.