King, but just for today

2009-03-04 00:00

If I were king for a day (or even if I were just the CEO of a local retail chain), I would send all staff everywhere (or just my own staff) to be trained at the Pietermaritzburg Electricity Department. Or the Pietermaritzburg Department of Water Affairs. Either one would do.

I found myself wanting to issue this decree quite by accident. My husband and I had made an offer on a piece of land that had to be subdivided before we could buy it. And lots of municipal boxes had to be ticked before it could be subdivided. My husband, who does not like busy one-way roads, had offered to look after our children while I navigated the city streets to the Department of Water Affairs.

“Sure,” I said, thinking that I could do with a few hours of staring blankly into space, “but I think we must prepare ourselves. We won’t get our answer from one visit. This could take days, weeks or months even.”

It took one hour, including car time.

Where were the averted eyes that I was expecting as I walked through the doors? Where were the greasy pie fingers sending important text messages while I was waiting patiently to be helped? Where were the shuffling feet that could leave a floor shining?

Where were the rolling eyes, the disapproving sniffs, the under-breath mutterings that I’d grown so accustomed to?

I was suspicious at first. Why was that receptionist smiling at me and making eye contact? Shouldn’t she be pretending that she has something more important to do?

And why is that security guard walking me up the stairs, instead of grunting in the general direction of where I should go? And why was this engineer making a few phone calls to save me a second return trip?

But after a while I relaxed and started enjoying the experience. These people saw me as a customer and themselves as my helpers. I’d heard about this concept before. I’d read it on dusty pieces of paper, stuck to the back of tills and counters: “The customer is always right. The customer is king. Greet the customer with a smile. Ask if they have everything that they want. Call a manager if they don’t.”

Customer service is obviously an issue for a lot of us South Africans. On the hellopeter website, a forum in which customers can rate their service at various companies, there are about 500 posts by South Africans per day. Fewer than 50 seem to be compliments. Are we a nation of complainers? Or are we a nation of poor servants?

Leaving the department I realised that I hadn’t been able to schedule in any time to stare aimlessly out the windows. I pencilled it into my diary for Thursday: my upcoming visit to the electricity department.

But the service there was even quicker. And the staff crowned their service with patience.

“Sorry, can I run through this one more time. I need to take this form to my electrician and this form to the owner and this one I have to fill in.”

“That’s right, let me explain it again and I’ll get a number that you can phone if your electrician has any queries.”

I looked around for hidden surveillance cameras, bugs or wiring.

No. None. It was clear. He was just being genuinely nice.

I leant over. “Do you do staff training ... on the weekends?” I whispered under my breath. “I know a few people who need your help.”

Then I slipped him my card: Sarah Groves — king, but just for today.

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