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one of 20 franchises back in Miami airport. I was convinced that in ownership lay the key to good customer service, even when allowing for some skewing of my research by the balmy effects of Jamaica’s lovely Red Stripe beer. That beer thing bothered me, and so I had to at least consider a few other explanations. This led me back to the “Alette-effect.” To explain – Alette was the name of the woman who answered the phone at a company I ran several years ago, which was part of a large JSE-listed group. Our division supplied South Africa’s garden centres with one of their major hardware lines. Now, have you ever considered that garden centres only have eight days in the month, Saturdays and Sundays, to really conduct their business? And furthermore, that there are only four or five months of spring and summer. Allowing for rain on 30 percent of those days, it means that garden centres must make their full year’s profit with only 28 days of available decent trade. Hence, it becomes rather critical to the average garden centre owner that the supplier of major hardware items successfully delivers by Friday afternoon in anticipation of the weekend. Still, despite a significant salary increase, the completion of long-promised restrooms adjacent to our office, a new coat of colourful paint with matching curtains in the office, a more relaxed dress-code, and several expensive customer service workshop attendances, Alette would still slam the phone down on irate garden centre customers on Friday afternoons when they complained about scheduled deliveries that had not yet arrived. It finally dawned on me that this woman went back home at night to a modest home in a nasty neighbourhood, where her similarly nasty husband at best ignored her before she dutifully took to her nasty local shopping district over weekends where nasty people offered her bad service without a smile. She could not relate to our customers’ concerns. She had never demanded nor received good customer service in her life, and imagining herself in the shoes of our

customers on the other side of the phone was just a plain logical impossibility. Hence, the Alette-effect tried to explain the lack of customer service as a factor of some endemic social neglect and of the lifestyle gap between the northern and southern suburbs of our major cities. That was until I was recently letdown badly by a series of contractors, all at the same time. Among the poolguy, the electrician, the landscaper, the fence company and the plumber, the TV-man was the worst. After running off with a deposit, it took five weeks of legal threats and cell phone harassment before he finally completed a one-day job at my house. I wouldn’t stand close to him for fear of being hit by lightning, for if there was a modicum of truth to his excuses about the death and funeral of an aunt, cancer in the family, children in intensive care, a burglary

in a place “so African.” My own words to an old classmate slaving away at a 120-hours-perweek job on Wall Street came echoing back: “We are moving back to South Africa because it is the easiest place in the world to make money.” Finally, it seemed evident what has happened to our service culture – it is the lack of competition. I did not know enough other pool-guys, plumbers, landscapers and the likes that were hungry enough for my business. The real estate boom of the previous few years had drawn every tradesman worth his salt into the formal construction business, and nobody could care any less about my little fiddling contracts. This is where the back-of-the-bakkie types have zeroed in. Ex-teachers or civil servants now out on their own and in business for the first time, they are as

She had never demanded nor received good customer service in her life, and imagining herself in the shoes of our customers on the other side of the phone was just a plain logical impossibility. and what more, such bad luck was sure to attract more. What really struck me was that each of these contractors defied my previous hypotheses about bad service. These were the owners of their own businesses, own bakkies and own rusted tools. And they all appeared to have attended decent schools, to have decent lives and to share anecdotes about decent wives and kids. White men to a fault, they complained about how things have gone to the dogs as this was “just Africa,” and, upon hearing that I lived abroad, a few mentioned their own ambition to someday pack-up and leave. Yet, each one of them let me down either by not showing on an arranged time, not calling to reschedule, not completing their contract properly, or by breaking something while fixing another – the very things they so badly wanted to blame on some undefined resentment with being

embittered by the loss of their previous pampered existences as they are ill-equipped to deal with building long-term small business relationships with customers in a country with which they no longer made common cause. And so perished my hypothesis about large-scale conglomeration and its effects on a sense of ownership in business, as did my Alette-effect hypothesis about the ability to develop empathy with the customer. The lack of service in our country is a competition thing. Or rather, it is the lack of competition that has killed off any hope of decent service. I thought I would test this new theory with some people in the formal sector, yet my bank only came back to me after three weeks of repeated calls and messages, and then couldn’t reach me because the Telkom guys had not yet fixed my phone. I rest my case. 

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