South Africa Needs More Demanding Customers

Published on 8th April 2008

One of the things that first struck me when I moved to South Africa a decade ago was that the locals don’t like to complain. I don’t mean that they don’t have complaints, nor that they won’t complain to each other. They just won’t express those complaints where it might have some effect.

Have dinner with a group of locals and see this for yourself. The service can be surly and slow, the food can be overpriced and badly prepared and everyone at the table will mumble about the terrible dining experience they are enduring. But if the manager walks by and asks, “How are things,” you’ll find scowls replaced by smiles. Someone will say that everything is “lovely” and the others will nod in acquiescence. In the parking lot as they leave they will all vow never to eat in that restaurant again.

And this is a problem. Not just for the diners in question but for South Africa as a nation. This country needs a better group of consumers. Demanding customers may be a pain in the neck but they are also vital if a nation is to compete in the global market.

I’ve watched South African consumers waiting patiently in stores for a clerk, who is chatting on the telephone, to hang up and serve them. I’ve seen lines at grocery stores where the cashier and the packer spend more time chatting to each other than doing their jobs. The typical shopper says nothing about it. At most they might try to look impatient and give the clerk a “dirty” look.

This resignation to poor quality and poor service harms the ability of South African firms to compete. Not being a South African native I’ve never had any hesitation in filing a complaint when justified. I’ve always reasoned that it’s my money and I have a right to ask for something in return if I’m handing it over. On numerous occasions my complaint has been witnessed by some locals who usually smile, shake their heads and whisper, “How long have you been here?” The question implies that I’ll learn eventually to stop expecting quality. Another typical response: “This is a Third World country you know.” My response has always been the same: “We don’t have bad service because we are a Third World country. We are a Third World country because of bad service.” Have low expectations for local industry and you’ll get corresponding low productivity in return.

When one of America’s biggest fast food chains opened here I took a South African friend there for lunch. She ordered, stepped back, and prepared to let several other people order, assuming that her food would take the typical 15 minutes to prepare. The shop assistant, meanwhile, was trying to get her attention. He was waving the food furiously in her direction and trying to call her. I pointed to the counter. She looked, saw the assistant and said: “No that can’t be mine. I just ordered.” Of course it was hers. We sat down to eat and she kept looking around in surprise. Cleaners were wiping tables everywhere you looked; one was washing the floor continuously. My friend leaned over and asked: “How did they get permission to bring in so many workers from overseas?” And she was being serious.

I don’t blame local businesses for having bad service. They give South Africans exactly what is demanded of them. So many people complain that we need better quality businesses. I think we need better quality customers. We need customers who will walk out if the service is poor. We need customers who won’t patiently wait forever for service or accept every excuse offered when jobs aren’t finished on time.

Michael Porter, the author of The Competitive Advantage of Nations wrote about how Italian women purchase shoes. They “try on dozens of pairs of shoes before making a purchase. They carefully scrutinise the quality of leather and workmanship, the shape and size of the heel, the comfort, the fashion, and other qualities. Shoe manufacturers able to survive and prosper in such a local laboratory can feel confident that shoes that are successful in Italy are likely to be successful when exported globally.”

Now the reverse can be true. In a culture where customers surrender their expectations to poor service then, in return, all they can expect is more poor service. And companies that are used to competing in this type of economic environment simply won’t make it when they move to other markets.

Demanding customers are not the answer to all our economic woes but we have to recognise that they do play a vital role. When a critical mass of the public starts complaining, businesses will take notice and be forced to improve their service. When that happens they will be better prepared for the realities of a competitive global market.

But instead of demanding quality South Africans resort to campaigns promoting “local is lekker” saying nothing about quality or service. Well, often local is not lekker and while we may be “accustomed” to poor service much of the rest of the world isn’t. And the slogans won’t carry much weight in the global marketplace.

Next time you are short-changed by a local business do the economy a favour: complain.

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