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Organised customer service, the secret to business success – Umeano

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By Moses Nosike
Mrs. Uloma Umeano is the  CEO, Customer CentriCity Limited. Her years of experience in advertising, banking, marketing and communications from reputable companies both at home and abroad has positioned her to understand what the Nigerian business environment needs.

In this interview with Saturday Vanguard Business, she insists that more needs to be done in customer services  of  business models  in Nigeria. Excerpts:

Uloma Umeano

What gap  did you intend to fill in the economy when Customer CentriCity Limited came to being?
Customer CentriCity was set up about five years ago to fill the  gap that  existed. I saw that there was definitely a major move in respect for a service-based organization .

You had the right concept, methodology, but the people could not just fit in. So, when we set up the company, we asked ourselves which industries were key, and of course, it was the financial services and any other service-based company like hospitality, among others. We were not sure what to offer them except the fact that we knew they had a problem.

I  teamed up with somebody who was very strong  in a human resource concept called ‘organisational development’ and I had a marketing background. At that point, I was really groomed in stature as far as marketing was concerned. So with marketing and organisational development, we came together and structured what became an organisational culture development consultancy.

That was really very interesting because under that heading came all sorts of things. It became everything that has to do with people, their talents and getting them properly skilled to be able to communicate the essence of brand. That was what we did.

How has  the achievement been so far?

We found that there were lots of clients who were telling us we had a fantastic brand. We did a job for a particular bank in the country when it had a major case of lack of identity. The bank merged with three others during the consolidation period. They wanted the culture of the four different banks collapsed into one culture and were looking for a way to project that one culture.

For us, it was a fantastic and exciting time. We worked with the bank for almost three years. What we did was to have a-direction-setting-meeting with the executive management of the bank. There were all sorts of strands that went into the activity, but majority, it was about creating cultural elements like an anthem, dress codes, how to answer phones and self-presentation. All this was very exciting.

We have also done a lot of customer service trainings in other banks, both first and third generation banks. There are other smaller organizations that we have also helped to do some culture works and trainings. That is exactly what Customer CentriCity Limited has been doing for the past five years.

How do you perceive gaps in Nigeria’s customer service/care?

The truth about Nigerians and Africans is that our very nature means we should be very good at offering customer services and care. We are a very warm people as observed by foreigners who come into the country. But the minute it becomes a job, something happens to Nigerians. Either they believe that to be officious means to be less warm . So you find somebody who ordinarily is a very warm, loving, caring person and the minute they sit behind their desks at the reception, they become stiff and are unable to exude the same  kind of warmth.

For us, it is a simple thing and what we do is: We have localized the customer service concept and told people that it’s not a strange concept to us. All we are asking for is let’s do the things we were brought up to do. As Nigerians and Africans, we are supposed to respect and be warm to people. That is what customer service is.

How unique is your training style?

Our style of training is always reaching into what people understand by adding the principles and theories behind that, so that they can see we are not really bringing a strange concept to them. We are just saying, do it the way you have been brought up to do it.

A typical example is the training we concluded two months ago. It was customer service training for security guards. They totally understood it and why did they understand it? It was because we were able to connect them to the actual application of customer service.

They were to connect with instances where they had done  things wrong, how they could correct them  and other such real life examples. I think, to a large extent, what works for me is the fact that I studied Drama; my classes are a bit of a threatre.

I get very playful by expressing whatever I need to express in whatever way I need to express it. And so, it always connects very well with the target audience – whether it is the higher managers or security guards.

Having been in the industry for a while, what can you say on driving customer service concept?

I think what we have discovered, having been in the industry for a while, is that what exists is a totally undefined segment. Customer service in Nigeria is like the blind men of ‘Indostan’. Some of them would touch the leg of an elephant saying it’s like a tree; some would touch the body, saying it is like a wall. So there is no one body that has been able to put together the concept of customer service in Nigeria.

Every time we drop standards, we will have this type of penalty charged as practitioners in the industry. In other words, it is everybody’s game and as long as it remains that way, there is never going to be progress. That is why we are launching the Customer Service Practitioner Association (CUSPA) on May 5, 2011.

What is the initiative behind CUSPA?

What we are trying to do with CUSPA and some of  the other initiatives that we have is to begin to ask people to come together and decide how we want the industry to be. Should any one person be able to get up and say that ‘we are a customer service trainer?’ Should we let that happen?

If we do not want that to happen, what should be the minimum training that every facilitator should have? What should these facilitators look forward to by way of career path? How can they develop in the customer service world? Can we create some kind of long-distance map that makes people realize that customer service is just as reputable as any other function, whether it is like that of a lawyer or banker? That is what we are thinking about, how to bring all practitioners together.

The last part to that is the monitoring. How do we go back and ensure that at the end of the day, people are doing what they have been taught to do;  people are doing what they have promised they would do and are practicing what they believe is best.

That is what CUSPA has been designed to do – to set up a standard, offer a training opportunity and ensure there is monitoring and control along the way so that at the end of the day, the entire industry has a full cover.
Also, CUSPA is designed essentially to cater for the private sectors since Servicom addresses the public sector.

What we want to do on May 7, is to introduce the CUSPA Board of Trustees.  On a one-on-basis, they know what we are doing. So, we want to have an opportunity to present CUSPA to them and to other guests such as the media. We believe that if the media is able to key into this and give it the kind of support that we want, they ill be able to project all the relevant things that we want done. So the launch is what we are planning on May 7. It is a very understated event.

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