Ethiopia is a developing country where service provision rarely meets expectations. Just as jarring is having to deal with customer service in cases where the service rendered or the good bought is faulty, writes Ambessaw Assegued (firstname.lastname@example.org).
It has been three days since the internet service has been interrupted and the problem is registered with the service provider, Ethio telecom.
On the fourth day of trying to get the system repaired, an irate non-national contacts customer service and is greeted by a smooth female voice, “how may I help you, our dear customer?”
The non-national, an American, is temporarily put off by the “our dear customer” salutation which conjures up images of a North Korean radio announcer who bows respectfully each time she mentions the name of the Supreme Leader, Kim-Jong Un.
The American recovers quickly and relates that he has been without internet service for days, the problem has not been fixed and that he would like an update on the solution.
The voice on the other side of the phone is now slightly annoyed, a little sarcastic and patronising but remains soothing, “let me explain to you, our dear customer. Your complaint was registered just three days ago, right? There are other customers ahead of you, but you are in the queue. As soon as it is your turn,” she does not finish her sentence before she is interrupted rather unceremoniously.
“Look here. How long do I have to wait, a month? How long?” Demands the fuming customer who has cast away all pretences of courtesy and patience that every one of us in Ethiopia display when dealing with customer service.
He did not go very far with the operator, and no sooner had he hung up than the electric power goes off across the entire section of the city where he works and lives. It is the third or fourth interruption of the week, no one keeps count here, and few know the telephone numbers to call and report the power outage.
Sometimes, the electric power, water supply and the internet services all disappear together. It is the unpredictability and randomness of the utility service interruptions; the complete and total absence of information; the absolute lack of a way by which the public can ask for redress; and the near-universal disregard for the care and responsibility of providing good customer services to the public that is most jarring to observers.
It feels like customer service in Ethiopia is as extinct as Australopithecus, our ancient ancestor who roamed the woodland floodplains of the Awash River Valley some 3.2 million years ago. Today, there are few exceptions where a client is spared the disapproving glare of a clerk, who is busy playing with a Smartphone, upon entering an empty store or a government office.
The unpleasant experience of being charged for an unappetizing and foul-smelling food that has been rejected and returned frequently occurs. Beware not to break a bottle in a bar as it has happened to a patron not too long ago.
Upon entering a bar, the customer is quickly ushered by a waiter to a shaky table, where he sits and orders a bottle of beer. The customer settles into his sit, the waiter brings the drink and pours half of it into the glass.
The patron takes a good gulp of the cool beverage and relaxes. All is well until he reaches to grab the bottle and refresh his glass. The table shakes violently, whereupon the bottle dithers, angles down, lays on its side, rolls, and cascades down to the ceramic floor where it lays shattered to pieces.
After a little while, the client asks for his check and fidgets around getting ready to leave. He is told by the waiter that the bill is sixty Birr.
“An additional thirty Birr for the bottle,” retorts the waiter.
“I am not paying thirty Birr for the bottle. Look here, the table shakes and is unstable. You sat me here. This is what happened,” says the agitated and indignant customer, motioning with his hand to show how the table shakes.
After some back and forth, the disgruntled customer pays and departs. The locals have become numbed to receiving poor customer services, shrugging them off as small inconveniences, and satisfied with just a few and occasional outbursts of annoyances.
But poor customer service has become the norm, not the exception. There is great sympathy to customers who purchase the wrong pipe fittings or electric fixtures. The seller will not issue refunds for the purchased items, even if returned in its original condition – because a receipt has been cut. These incredulous but real encounters of the “cut” receipts phenomena have led many to repeated disagreeable experiences.
The rigid tax collection system of the government in the retail and wholesale businesses is probably the main culprit for this particular problem. The government collects value-added tax in a one-way transaction system where only sales are reported, and there are no provisions made to allow for refunds to be issued.
There is the assumption that the merchants cannot be trusted to make honest reports on their own and properly account for any reversed transactions. As a result, the system is checked by a sale and taxation system that only flows in one direction – toward the government’s coffers without provisions for refunds or exchanges. The customer service problem that this creates is conveniently ignored.
By far, the greatest offender when it comes to customer service is the government itself – notably, the municipalities.
The living and breathing public is the unique customer base of municipalities and the transactions between the two touches upon the very core of human survival – shelter, food, movement, safety and the quality of life.
The essential expressions of care and responsibility by a municipality is that it provides and ensures dependable and regular supply of housing, clean water, food supply, communications, electricity, efficient garbage collection, sewer and sewage removals, functional and operational roads, working transportation systems and public safety.
The severe failures of municipal governments to deliver on these mandates, and their abuse of the public trust must be considered as one of the most important challenges facing this new age of renewal and hope in Ethiopia.
In the meantime, the meticulously planned day of ‘our dear customer” has fallen into total disarray. With the electric suddenly gone the open files on the computer were unsaved and now are lost, the lunch cannot be warmed up on the electric stove, ironing the shirt is out of the question as is taking a quick shower, and the Smartphone displays a half-charged battery on its screen.
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