Reflections on Small Country Customer Service vs. “Modern” Customer Service.
Recently, my colleagues and I have been giving thought to the idea that the Caribbean as a “single” market is a different animal from the mass markets of North America and the EU. Obviously, the size differences are tremendous — the CSME countries represent a market of only 6 million or so. What is not so obvious is that a single “geographic” market of 6 million
is also very different from a group of island markets, the largest of which has 2.6 million. In addition, island markets which insist on maintaining their political and cultural autonomy further emphasize the psychological distance.
The practical result is that managers in the region must think about customer behaviour quite differently. The way that First World managers think will not work in the Caribbean, if the hope is to increase the market share and profits. There are three hidden assumptions that underly the prevailing thinking of how customers in mass retail markets behave that just do not apply.
Myth #1: Customers are Customers for Just a Moment
In a true mass market there is a limit to which one will go to serve a customer. After all, it makes no economic sense to give too much time, attention and energy to a single person when there are many others (millions of others) right behind them. “It would just not be fair to everyone else,” the logic goes.
Therefore, interactions tend to be brief. While the hope is that the maximum value possible will be extracted (from their wallet) there is also a feeling that Customer Service Representative (CSR) productivity must be maximized by increasing the number of people they deal with. In this particular frame of mind, the customer is something to be processed, rather than a person to be connected with.
This is fine, as far as it goes, for a large market in which customers have been conditioned over time to be treated in this way. However, in a Caribbean market it’s quite jarring to be treated like this. Recently, on a series of Digicel customer service phone calls I had the overwhelming impression that they were more interested in keeping the call short than in serving my needs. I imagined that some training had been imported from Canada or someplace, and that the operators were “being incentivized” with bonuses linked to lower call-times.
Myth #2: Customers Are Strangers
Of course, in a mass market, there is no way to get to know millions of people. Instead, front- line staff is trained to deliver a kind of “fake-friendliness” that a Caribbean-grown, first-time visitor to Miami often confuses with authentic caring. There is the smile, the cheery greeting, and the well-trained question — “How can I help you?”
However, two seconds after the transaction is over, everything disappears as the “fake-friendliness” is turned on to the next customer and the prior customer melts into the mass of invisible strangers. I remember being amazed when I lived in the US that a store attendant with whom I had a long conversation would, five minutes later, not recognize who I was when I walked passed them in the mall. For them, the interaction was indeed the first and the last encounter.
In the Caribbean, there is a different belief at play, which is much closer to the notion that when I meet someone for the first time it is just a beginning.
In social settings, we Caribbean people are often amazed upon meeting someone for the first time that we have not met before! Sometimes, we insist that we must have met, and commence a playful game of “Where Do I Know You From?” If time and circumstances permit, and we are sure that there has been no prior visual contact, then the next game we play some version of “Who Do We Know in Common?”
If that game fails to yield a result, a warm game of “Who Do You Remind Me Of?” can be used to round out the conversation. By the end, a tremendous amount of information has been shared that allows for a second, future meeting to be one that now takes place between acquaintances, and sometimes friends.
In other words, that first encounter is the first…. and it is understood to be the first of many.
Once again, it’s jarring to run into a Caribbean person who acts as if the customer is a stranger. A few months ago on a flight I ran into a BWIA flight attendant I’ve seen at various fetes for years, and got “fake-friendly” treatment. (I know there could be many explanations for why this happened.) I played along by falling into my US/North American “stranger as customer” mode, for the first time outside of that country — and it felt quite foreign.
Myth #3: Some Customers are More Valuable Than Others
The idea of a retail mass-market conjures up the image of millions and millions of people who are potential customers. The first strategy that the thinking mind employs to deal with the idea of marketing to so many, is to segment these millions into manageable mental buckets.
Once the bucketing starts, the prioritization soon follows as it seems to make good sense to maximize sales by directing more attention to those customers with deeper pockets — all the better to extract more sales for the company. This works to some degree in mass markets as the sheer number of customers prevents much coordinated action to be taken, unless there is the kind of extreme neglect or abuse that leads to class-action lawsuits.
However, it is a mistake to think that our consumer markets in the Caribbean operate in this manner. Our markets are small in number, and located on islands for the most part. There is a fixed number of people to meet and greet with, and no-one is more than 3 degrees of separation away from anyone else. (This is why the game of “Who Do We Know In Common?” can be so fruitful.)
One of my clients has been wondering, in exactly the same way that companies in mass markets do, whether or not the company should shed its “unprofitable” customers. I guess this means that they are considering ending their relationship with them.
However, in our micro-markets you don’t really end relationships. They can be altered, however, and it is much easier to make them worse than it is to make them better. Furthermore, the close-knit nature of our societies means that an unprofitable customer can be more influential than they seem.
It would be a mistake to systematically rid the company of customers, who may well turn out to be the head of a PTA or a Deacon in a large church, or the cousin of the head of conglomerate, or the neighbourhood “teh-teh” (gossip.) In such cases, the profit that can be made from a single customer is only a single measure of who they really are, and their value to the institution. By and large, Caribbean want to do business with people, and not institutions, Conversely, they want to be treated like people also, and do not want to be treated as disposable profit-centres.
Digicel’s entry into Trinidad seems to have engendered the kind of resistance that I can only ascribe to a severe misunderstanding of the market they are dealing with. At the moment, Trinis are unified in a way they have never been before by virtue of gaining a berth in the upcoming World Cup in Germany. Also, TSTT is not quite equivalent to Cable and Wireless. The difference is that TSTT is not a foreign company, being owned by the government, and also that the name TSTT carries within it the name of the country – Trinidad.
The Digicel backlash in Trinidad at the moment is palpable.
On a recent trip I was told by several people that they would never get a Digicel phone, based on the Digicel advertisements in the press and the aggressive recruiting currently underway for local talent. Digicel’s service is not due to become operational until April 2006, and already the news that Digicel is sponsoring Carnival events and bands had some of my friends rolling their eyes with nothing short of disgust.
Of course, I can’t tell whether or not any of the 3 Myths mentioned above were believed in this particular case, but I do know that the Trinis who I heard complaining were not angry at a corporate oversight, but were reacting to something like a personal insult.
Such is the fate of companies that are unable or unwilling to understand the unique nature of our Caribbean markets.