This piece was initially published in BusinessDNA.
Let’s be honest: when you hear about customer service in Afghanistan, you think about long queues, angry officers, hours of time wasted, humiliations, disappointments, and bad service. Have you wondered why is customer service so bad in Afghanistan? Why is it that we in the business community haven’t gotten customer service right? What really drives bad customer service? It’s a common problem in large, medium, and even small companies alike. It’s not a single company’s problem to fix: we’re all in this together. There is certainly a countable number of companies that are better in treating their customers than others, and we can learn much from their experience. In this piece, however, we untangle the root causes of why customer service sucks in Afghanistan.
We Have Big Egos
We Afghans are very proud of ourselves, our country, our history, our values, and our abilities. It’s a strength that helps us survive and grow despite the extreme environment that we live and work in. However, when we confuse pride with ego, which is usually a sense of self-importance that edges others out, we turn our strength into a weakness. Egoistic attitude is a common problem that leaves customers humiliated, even if the service is good. We asked a prominent CEO of a multimillion- dollar company as to what’s his biggest challenge against addressing bad customer service, he said: “Our officers’ attitude and egoistic behavior with customers.” The big ego partly comes from our idea of customers as people who need us, not the other way around. A perception of being superior to customers, for we’re in a position of authority or know better, also entitles us to treat customers as inferiors to us. It’s common knowledge that customers are the ultimate kingmakers or speed breakers: in a more competitive environment, customers would take their purchases elsewhere and leave companies with bad customer service out of business. Also, some companies have become egoistic and arrogant for there’s limited competition in their industries, and customer service has become meaningless to them. Our big egos and associated behaviors that is bad for business partially stem from our inability to take criticism. We feel defensive about products or services that don’t work. The best way to deal with whistleblowers: exercise authority or hide behind our massive big egos.
We Fear Judgement by Peers
We Afghans, perhaps like much of the globe, care a lot about the society’s, community’s, and colleagues’ perception of us. Our colleagues will judge us for being someone who flatters and butters up people, an image many of us avoid if we are being nice to customers, greeting them, taking care of their needs, or simply smiling at them. This judgement takes away our courage to treat customers like we would naturally feel happy to do so. One pragmatic executive with much knowledge of Afghanistan’s context shared an eye-opening statement that he uses in his training programs. He said, “I ask my customer-facing staff about how they treat their guests at home. Then I ask them, ‘do you put their shoes in front of them?’ Many say, ‘Yes, we do.’ Then, I ask them, how come we don’t treat our customers like we treat our guests at home? How come customers are not our guests at work?” At home, our family members feed our pride with praises when we respect our guests. At work, we are made fun of. To be fair, at times, customers themselves consider employees that are too nice as flattering. In rare cases, the employee could also be judged for expecting a Sheerini [an informal way to refer to small bribes]. Judgement by peers is a dangerous phenomenon that spreads across companies in such an invisible yet haunting way that hurts the employees, the customers, and the companies alike.
We Mistrust Each Other
We have been experiencing conflict, violence, and war for decades. We are forced by the circumstances to avoid unnecessary contact with strangers, mistrust people we don’t know and protect ourselves from evil behavior. The violent and criminal activities of a small group of the population, having continued for decades, has spread suspicion and mistrust throughout the country. As teenagers and young adults, we are taught to be aware of surroundings and not trust people we don’t know. The feeling of mistrust continues to dominate our subconscious at the workplace too. Customers do not feel confident that we can protect their information, documents, or privacy. We don’t trust customers for accuracy of their statements either. This feeling of mistrust discourages us from being proactive, forthcoming, honest, empathetic, or supportive to our customers. We Afghans are generally very hospitable, kind, and empathetic, but decades of conflict forced us to survive by being cautious, reserved, insensitive, and suspicious. After all, there are elements of the country’s circumstances that affect customer service as a long-term issue that can certainly be overcome as Afghanistan becomes more secure, stable, and prosperous.
We Are New to Customer Service
Afghans are great at trading goods since the glory days of the Silk Road. Trading involves many short-term one-off transactions without any repercussions when things go wrong. Investment, however, is long-term and involves dealing with employees, customers, and suppliers in ways that enrich our relationships and interdependencies. Afghan Companies, however, are yet to acknowledge customer service as a must-have element of their business. This puts customer service last, leading to almost no attention to investing in customer feedback systems, employeespecific customer satisfaction ratings, consumer protection units, customer surveys, etc. that could help us learn more about our audience and plan accordingly. We do not provide a distinction in career progression or reward systems for data-driven employee performance in terms of customer service. This leaves employees without much accountability and overlooking customer service, mostly in the form of treating customers right, at the cost of the company’s business. Without rewards for good customer service and punishment for the bad one, employees will have no incentive to treat customers well. Additional organizational issues that feed bad customer service include employees’ dissatisfaction from work; disconnect among the top, middle, and lower management; missing metrics for customer satisfaction, and product-market misfit, just to name a few.
We Need Lots of Learning to Do
Let’s not be too harsh on ourselves and acknowledge our need for continuous learning. An absolute majority of the Afghan companies were established in the past 17 years with dozens of security, logistics, financial, regulatory, and industry issues to deal with. Investing in customer service training has only recently been acknowledged as an unavoidable need. It takes time, resources, patience, and commitment by our companies and ourselves to learn the knowledge, skills, and attitudes that will equip us to get better at customer service. Customer service, or communication and soft skills, are barely seen in the school or university curriculums. We come to the workplace with no knowledge or skills to treat customers professionally. No wonder we make mistakes while we learn on the job and find ways to treat customers well. We should note that effective training can certainly improve our skills in the short-term, however, it’s our own commitment to changing our attitudes and learning for life that can make a long-lasting impact on our ability to avoid giving bad customer service.
We Inherit Nostalgia from the Past
Afghanistan has always had its government as the service provider in almost all walks of life. During the Soviet era in the country, people were used to receiving coupons and free services. Imagine waiting in line to get your share of flour, rice, oil, sugar, and other basic necessities of life from a government official in charge. The official would have no incentive to treat you well, given his business did not really depend on you. Whether you liked it or not, you did not matter. That sort of culture stemmed from the government into the society, and today, the person behind the desk feels no different than the government official: someone in charge with the authority to humiliate or dismiss customers at will. Also, when we feel humiliated at service delivery points in the government, or elsewhere by our nostalgic countrymen, we tend to, unfairly, take it out on our customers. That nostalgia from the past must stop though. Majority of our workforce is young under the age of 35 years. The nostalgia should have no place in the business world if we are to build companies that last and a workforce that thrives. There could be numerous other reasons for bad customer service in Afghanistan beyond what’s covered in this article. The important conclusion is for us to acknowledge that bad customer service, caused by multifaceted factors, is bad business for us. With the underperforming economy, we need to take our businesses’ survival and growth very seriously. We hope you relate to the ideas shared in this article and share your thoughts, experiences, and questions with us. In the next edition of Business DNA, we will unlock many effective ways that you can adopt to improve customer service at your companies. If you have solutions that have worked for you, feel free to share them with us so the wider audience of Business DNA read your solutions in the next edition.
Also read, How to Fix Customer Service in Afghanistan.