'South African industry in general has a poor understanding of the concept of customer service.'
- Rodney Rudman, passenger strategy manager, Delta Motor Corporation
CUSTOMER service in South Africa is awful. In my book I Was Your Customer, I reported that South Africa was rated 23rd in
a worldwide survey of customer service in 24 countries.
I also quoted international management guru Peter Drucker
who noted in Management (Harper's): 'There is only one valid
definition of business purpose: to create a customer. It is a
customer who determines what a business is. It is the
customer alone whose willingness to pay for goods or services
converts economic resources into wealth, things into goods.
'What business thinks it produces is not of first
importance - especially not to the future of the business or
'Customers are the foundations of business and keep it in
existence. They alone give employment.'
So, faced by a wave of foreign competition in the wake of
crumbling trade barriers, how do South African captains of
commerce and industry go about providing excellent customer
THEY PAY LIP SERVICE TO THE CONCEPT
Some even introduce customer-care programmes. But quickly
lose enthusiasm. Brian Streak, distribution marketing manager
at Siltek, sums up the situation.
'South Africa is two or three generations away from
developing a customer service culture.'
I intended making this the longest chapter in the book.
After all, South African commerce and industry will depend for
survival in a free market on the quality of its customer
service. But in most cases, when I broached the subject, I
was met by a bland wall of complacency.
For example, in a sector of industry notorious for its
atrocious service, all manufacturers - without exception - claim an overriding commitment to service excellence.
A CRITICAL FACTOR
I refer, of course, to the motor industry.
In 1992, Samcor launched an internal programme. Its aim:
to develop world-class products, people and operations. It
stressed leadership in customer care as a critical factor.
However, sales and marketing controller, Derrick Smith,
admits that customer care has fallen below the desired level.
Neglect of dealerships over the last 10 years led to a
noticeable decline in the quality of customer service.
Now - some would say belatedly - management is tightening
controls. How, Smith doesn't specify.
Nissan is also totally committed to customer service. Or
so John Jessup proclaims. He says it's the key to the
company's defence of market share in the face of both domestic
and offshore attacks.
But how good or bad is quality of that service now?
National sales director Lester Miller adopts a stand
typical of the smug-bound industry as a whole.
'Nissan is a leader in customer service, so this isn't a
new business ethic for us. We undertake a customer
satisfaction index (CSI) survey on a quarterly basis to ensure
that dealers are meeting customer expectations.'
But customers may get a better service deal by buying
They offer superior warranties. Hyundai, for example,
offers a warranty of three years unlimited mileage compared to
Delta's passenger vehicle warranty of 12 months unlimited
And is Delta doing anything to close the gap?
The management team, according to Rudman, aware that a
superior customer service approach is critical to the
company's long-term success, has taken several fundamental
steps towards becoming more customer-orientated.
Could any other sector of industry be more vague?
THE BUILDING CONSTRUCTION AND PROPERTY DEVELOPMENT INDUSTRIES.
Most of those interviewed - particularly in the property
development sector - viewed customer service as an alien
concept. Those who admitted to hearing of it, had relegated it
to the backburner.
They just couldn't foresee any competition from faraway
places with strange sounding names.
But there's an exception.
Derrick Theck believes that foreign entrants will buy
market share by cutting prices. His company's only defence: to
segment the market in accordance with customer requirements.
'Blue Circle has come to realise that it can serve both
the large contractor and the small developer. In order to
serve the small developer we must become more customer-
THE OFFICE EQUIPMENT SECTOR
Only one company in this sector really acknowledged the
importance of customers.
Nashua, probably best known for its photocopiers and, more
recently, computers and cellular phones, has always been
strongly customer-orientated - at least from its management's
Whether its service always lives up to its 'Saving you
time, saving you money, putting you first' ad slogan is open
But I have to give the company credit for trying.
Commitment to customer service
Chief executive officer Jac Moolman, spends most of his
time visiting the 57 Nashua franchised operations around the
country. His mission: to instil the commitment of Nashua to
He believes that it is just as important for the person on
the switchboard as it is for the technician who fixes the
machines to be repeatedly exposed to the service message.
There are no substantial physical or performance
differences between Nashua products and those of its
competitors. All Nashua really sells is service.
You can say the same about banks. Apart from the
packaging, the products are much of a muchness.
The only differentiator is customer service.
And as things stand at the moment, service quality varies
from mediocre to bad to worse.
All the banking groups, including First National,
Standard, Nedbank and ABS (Allied, United, Volkskas,
Trustbank), insist that they provide good customer service and
are striving for excellence.
Not that you'd notice it by queuing in any of their
ABSA chief executive Dr D C Cronj zoomed to the crux of
the problem in the banking group's 1994 annual report when he
admitted: 'Over the past two years much of the focus was
And M Sydney trots out an industry-standard public
relations response to a query about customer service.
'Substantial resources have been allocated to staff
training and development with the particular aim of upgrading
service quality in terms of the Customer Focus Programme'.
Spokespersons for Standard and Nedbank use different but
equally empty phrases to say very much the same thing.
David Kuming, of Investec, is more voluble. Investec is a
group of companies that includes a merchant bank, securities
trading, asset management and property development
Foreign companies, particularly those based in the United
States, will use superior quality customer service as one of
their get-in strategies, according to Kuming.
'In the USA everything is geared towards customer service.
It's one of the most important aspects of business in the
But he isn't unduly concerned about facing the challenge
of US-style customer service.
'Investec, has a very well-developed culture of customer
service. Customer service is one of our major policies.'
Which is something we've all heard before.
Then comes a refreshing breath of candour from Grant
Wilson, of Pizza Hut.
'In the past, Pizza Hut's service was not very good and we
knew it. Customers always considered our service to be
Which he concedes isn't good enough to ward off possible
attacks from the likes of American-based and service-focused
Dominoes, Pizza Haven, MacDonald's and Burger King.
Penny Lloyd reveals that stores in the Sales House chain
could be in trouble when competing with American companies
that are more customer-orientated.
'Sales staff throughout South Africa are notoriously slack
when it comes to customer service. And if they don't "jack up"
fast, we could lose out to foreign marauders.'
And from Edgars, a recent in-house survey found that
customers weren't impressed with levels of service, which were
perceived as 'minimal'.
Nettex is also concerned with falling standards of service
'Foreign competitors from countries such as those in the
Far East,' says M C van Wyk, 'are likely to have corporate
philosophies that concentrate on providing high levels of
customer service. This may have a negative effect on the
Nettex's current share of the South African market for
Foreign competitors have already captured about one-third
of the this market. And they're likely to increase their
share if they continue to penetrate the market with lower
priced, higher quality products that come with better
warranties and higher levels of customer support.
HOW WILL YOU IMPROVE CUSTOMER SERVICE?
The are 10 key elements in good customer service. If you
implement them all enthusiastically and as a matter of policy,
you will achieve World Class Customer Service. These elements
The ability to listen.
A caring attitude.
A focus on revenue enhancement, not cost containment.
Nick Louw, of Commercial Airways (Comair), sums up the
customer service situation.
'Overseas competitors have developed excellent customer
service policies. They could use this as a differentiation
tool since South African businesses have poor customer service
policies that are badly implemented.'
THE ROLE OF PRICE AND PRODUCT QUALITY
Whether the provision of excellent customer service in all its forms will be
the deciding factor in the coming war for control of market share remains to
be seen. What is certain is that it will play a major role, along with price
and product quality, in determining the victors.