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Culture of complaints and positive change

By Peter Nyanzi

In most developed countries, the fear of costly complaints forces businesses to be creative

When complaints are freely heard, deeply considered and speedily reformed, then is the utmost bound of civil liberty attained that wise men look for.” – John Milton

Some time back, a friend posted on Facebook advising his friends; “Go 24 hours without complaining – not even once, then watch how your life starts changing.”  I thought deeply about that statement and wondered if the Ugandan society does indeed need a makeover by ‘complaining’ less.

I immediately disagreed with my friend.

In many African cultures, children are raised with their heads being pumped with the idea that it is ‘bad manners’ to complain; indeed you are punished for it. Parents, elders, teachers, leaders (the boss) ‘are always right.’ So, you just shut up and suffer silently.


Those who had a religious background are taught that God ‘hates’ it when people complain; we should give thanks instead, not just in, but for everything. Yet, the Bible is full of people who complained and God did act on their situations.

Sadly, it’s a negative mentality that we have carried over into service delivery, products and business. We take crap and suffer silently because ‘it is bad manners to complain,’ as we were taught.  Little wonder we are still described as a ‘least developed country.’

Take for instance the United States – home to arguably the world’s most complainers.  The average American won’t just take crap of a service or product and suffer silently. He will lodge a formal complaint, and that is if the service provider or vendor is lucky. On a bad day, the customer will sue you – the US is not the world’s most litigious society for nothing – and you will pay very good money in damages or compensation.

A recent study by the Consumer Federation of America found that American consumers complained about almost everything ranging from cars to financial services, construction, health services, retail sales and utilities – telecommunications, water, electricity and gas. Many Africans think Americans are just lucky, they are not; they just nurtured a culture that respects value for money and honesty.

In Africa, we don’t seem to mind scams or rip-offs, even when they lead to terrible losses on our side. We seem powerless to raise a formal complaint because we were taught that ‘it’s bad manners to complain.’ That has had negative consequences for us on the social, political and economic fronts.

In most developed countries like the US, the fear of costly complaints from customers has forced the business community to be creative and to invest heavily in research, innovation and product development. Also, new entrepreneurs have made billions by snatching disgruntled customers from the old carefree companies. That means that businesses cannot rest on their laurels. They cannot take anything or anyone for granted anymore.  They know that disgruntled customers can cost them money. They know that complaints can be expensive. Even politicians, religious leaders and corporate leaders know that pretty well and are always on the alert. They are always on the lookout to ensure that there are minimal complaints from their esteemed customers, voters or employees. In many businesses, there is a ‘Complaint Box’ placed in a conspicuous place. The manager, who is the only one with the key to the box, checks it before the end of every day and does take appropriate action. In Africa, we still shy away from being seen to complain. See where we are; everyone loses in the end.

Throughout history, innovation, entrepreneurship, creativity, business success, even personal growth, have always thrived on complaints. Development and advancement is basically all about dealing with issues that people complain about. Many of the world’s greatest inventors – in all fields such as medicine, technology, science and politics – listened to people’s complaints or saw the problems people were grappling with, and devised ways to solve them for the benefit of all humanity.

Some people preach to us that we should be thankful instead of complaining. Of course we should appreciate when we are served well. But when we don’t get value for our money and when promises are not kept, we should not give thanks. Instead, we should express dissatisfaction so that action can be taken to rectify the situation.  If a customer pays for a service, he/should not be expected to be thankful even when he/she does not get value for his/her hard-earned money. That is called docility or naivety; these are not virtues for God’s sake.

Yet, we see this crap all the time in the name of service delivery. In all the various sectors – telecoms, financial services, medical, education, hospitality, utilities, politics, just name it, customers, clients, patrons, citizens are being taken for granted with careless abandon.

Instead of being assertive and raising complaints to those concerned, people just swallow all the crap under the false cover of being ‘humble’ or ‘civilized.’ Then we turn around and say; “Well, this is Uganda.” How I’ve come to detest this phrase.

Now, if we don’t come out to reject the crappy services or products that are being forced down our throats, who will bring about the change we crave? Some people have blamed it all on the low consumer awareness and empowerment in Uganda, and the absence of active consumer protection groups to educate consumers about their rights. As we wait for the consumer protection groups to wake from their stupor, let us – the individual consumers – not keep quiet when the products or services we get do not measure up to the standard of what we expected. Firmly but respectfully, we should hold service providers to account for their promises. It’s our money and our lives after all.

Most times, the language of complaining is the one that service providers understand; not just in Uganda by the way, but worldwide. If they are to be innovative, if they are to be true to their promises, if they are to give value for money, service providers only react to one thing – complaints. I guess it’s in their DNA.

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The writer is a journalist. Contact: [email protected]

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