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Customer service in Rwanda

By Dr. Pierre Damien Habumuremyi

A lot more still needs to be done to prevent a culture of mediocrity

The osition of the government relating to the need to improve customer service in Rwanda is simple.  A lot more still needs to be done. President Paul Kagame summarises the current state of affairs well, when he observes that: “We can no longer accept a culture of mediocrity, either from Rwandan business or government institutions that give poor services or Rwandan customers who quietly accept sub-standard customer care”.

The landmark study into customer service in the financial sector conducted by the Institute for Policy Analysis and Research  in 2009 and the national campaign on this by the Rwanda Development Board, have done a great deal to sensitise Rwandans on this matter.

Why, however, should we prioritise or even bring public debate to bear on customer service in the face of so many other daunting challenges such as job creation, maternal mortality, and access to clean drinking water, decent housing, internet connectivity, and so on?

While previous studies did a good and innovative job of quantifying the value of customer service in monetary terms, in my view, customer service transcends the transactional relation between buyer and seller, or provider and beneficiary.  At its core, good customer service is partly about social relations based on mutual respect.

This theme of respect, both of self and of others (agaciro), lies at the heart of our rich heritage and culture. And so we are left with a paradox whereby for example; the hospitality that is evident in so many Rwandan homes somehow does not always seem to make its way to our places of work; be they offices, shops, hospitals or schools.

Let me put this differently. “Good customer service” is not an alien notion imported from faraway lands; it is something that should be effortless, or at least not too far from the surface, for the majority of Rwandans!

There is however a very different and ‘hard headed’ set of reasons to prioritise the sustained achievement of good customer service.  The decision of the government to focus on the service sector as a means of developing our competitive advantage simply reflects our predicament as a landlocked nation. With this in mind, while potential clients, whether they are searching for a tourist destination, banking services, or healthcare, are partly motivated by competitive prices, it is difficult to overrate the importance of good customer service.

Aside from competitive prices, good customer service has been demonstrated to hold the potential of creating a unique competitive advantage, without the need for additional, and in some cases, the use of even fewer resources.  Summarising the main finding from research conducted by leading scholars in this field: really good customer service pays!

On the flip side, the research also suggests that on average, an extremely satisfied customer will tell three people about their exceptional customer service experiences; and eleven about their unsatisfactory experiences.  Given the healthy, yet stiff competition faced by service providers in all sectors in a liberalised market such as ours, this is therefore surely a lesson to take to heart.

So where does Rwanda stand today in relation to customer service?  While modest improvements from even a few years ago are discernible, it would be interesting to measure how far we have come in the last three or so years since customer service gained the prominence in our national public debate it currently enjoys.

Given the significant cost of carrying out studies such as those conducted by IPAR, there have not been many follow-up investigations into progress made in this area.  With this in mind, the Office of the Prime Minister has made it a point during its visits to public and private institutions up and down the country, over the last few months, to try and gauge the level of progress in customer service across a range of institutions including: banks, hospitals and schools and commercial establishments, amongst others.

Our findings so far have been mixed. While we noted significant improvements in a number of sectors, the lack of consistency is still very apparent, both between and within sectors.  The Office also interacts with a wide range of people on these issues, both living in and visiting Rwanda, whose views appear to confirm our observations.  Suffice it to say, we look forward to the development of new follow-up studies in this often overlooked area.

Given the above, what has the Government been doing to radically scale up its efforts to improve customer service?  A growing number of initiatives have been set up to address this, such as the Citizens Charter.  However, given the need to take engagement on this to the next level, at the end of April 2012, the Government launched a series of Customer Service Improvement Task Forces covering the hotel, banking and insurance, transport and hospital sectors.  The Government convened all major operators in each of these sectors and begun consultations on how to take this process forward.  Different Government institutions were subsequently tasked with leading these different sectors, in the development of detailed customer service guidelines.

During the month of May 2012, lead institutions sensitised sector operators on planned measures to track customer service improvements and gathered their views.  Guidelines are set to be formally shared with operators at the end of July 2012.

As a next step, the government is expanding and institutionalising the role of these Customer Service Improvement Task Forces, to oversee the periodic enforcement of these guidelines. As the process unfolds, the government will periodically communicate the main trends in the indicators used to measure improvements in customer service coming from the work of these Task Forces.

We hope you will join the government of Rwanda in its work to encourage improved customer service. As noted earlier, it is our collective responsibility to actively hold public and private service providers fully accountable, when their customer service falls short.  At the same time, it is imperative that we all step-up efforts aimed at preventing a ‘culture of mediocrity’, evident in many government departments, public hospitals and clinics, shops, hotels, schools, transport operators and banks, from taking root.  Though the Government has taken the lead, improving customer service remains the duty of all Rwandans.  Furthermore, as both potential beneficiaries and providers of good customer service, the government encourages you all to come up with, share and help implement, innovative ways to help radically raise existing levels of customer service.

Dr Pierre Damien Habumuremyi is the Prime Minster of Rwanda.

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