“My belief is simply that if reasonable and intelligent people are offered something that is well made, well designed, of a decent quality and at a price they can afford, then they will like it and buy it. This is the abiding principle to which I hold, whether as a designer, retailer or restaurateur. I’ve designed literally hundreds of things, but hardly anyone ever notices them. They tend not to be design icons as such, but are often rather more mundane — designs that involve changing the colour or edge of a plate, or the handle of something, so that it just slips into life…” — Terence Conran

You are in your home and you want to turn on the television and pick up the remote control to do so, but it doesn’t work. It is only then that you know there’s a problem. There’s a service interruption. Worse yet, your life seems to have been suspended for the period of time you might need to change the dead batteries especially when you are looking forward to an important football match.

The event centre is well decorated, ushers show you to your seat, music is playing in the background and gaily dressed friends are greeting you and each other enthusiastically. Then nothing happens at your table as you watch waiters going to other seemingly more important tables to deliver water, drinks and food. A fast thinking person gets up, grabs one of the waiters and promises to take care of him after he has met the needs of your table. Your table then gets served with food and drinks. The drinks fellow makes a show of opening wine bottles with his archaic corkscrew and leaves the foil on around the bottle’s lip. He equally opens the champagne with the same gusto accompanied by loud pops and wasted champagne. He sometimes reaches over your plate with your fork in mid flight to drop an opened bottle on the table and you have to manoeuvre to avoid spillage on your party threads. All the while behaving as if he is angry or doing a favour by serving the table. And then you literally have to beg another waiter to clear the empty plates from the table. I’m sure these are quite familiar events to the average party goer in Nigeria.

We are confronted with service interruptions and bad service almost everywhere we go. We know this because we complain a lot about how we are treated. Customer service is broken in Nigeria and has been for a long time. We are usually victims of service delivery processes rather than beneficiaries.

To change a situation, you must be able to define what that situation is. So it is good to describe what customer service is in functional terms. The writer defines customer service as getting what a customer wants to the customer in the most seamless way possible. Like the Terence Conran quote above, the best customer service should just allow the customer to continue with life without interruptions. The best customer service is designed to be invisible.

When it comes to luxury services, the person spending money knows what they want and will ask for help or information when they want it. On entering a premium restaurant, it isn’t expected that the waiter will educate the diners on the types of wine unless a recommendation is requested in which case, the waiter either answers or calls the sommelier to provide the information. Prices are not even mentioned, only good food served on time accompanied by the best wine poured in accompaniment.

It must be mentioned though that a particular service industry is doing very, very well indeed and this is the events planning industry. This is an award winning industry with recognised leaders. The skills, equipment and capacity required to put together a space for a specific event, decorate it temporarily to an acceptable level of excellence and man that space with appropriately presented staff has been turned into a fine art. Weddings, lifestyle events, and parties have never looked so good.

The ‘last mile’ that is still a clear problem in the events industry, as already described above, is the food and drinks service delivery. It is such a clear opportunity that a chef switched from food preparation to service delivery successfully and is making a name for himself. This is in the person of Daniel Olurin, a polyglot chef who is filling this gap. He told a story to the writer that’s worth repeating. He has trained his staff so well that the difference between his work and others is stark in comparison. At an event where he was in charge of food service delivery, another party was in charge of drinks service delivery. The food service delivery went without a hitch until a staff of the drinks service delivery opened a bottle of champagne with such a lack of finesse that one of the guests turned to Daniel and suggested that he train his drinks people as well as his food people. Of course Daniel simply smiled and then went to demand for the removal of the drinks service people from the event space and took it over. Daniel also agrees with the writer that a bottle of champagne must be opened with as much noise as a contented woman’s sigh…

At the time of writing this article, the writer is sat in a bistro and listening to complaints from customers experiencing variations in the quality of food they were served having experienced better quality at the same place before. Again, broken customer service delivery… (A food critic section will be added to this column soon.)

To be fair, the expected level of service when one goes into a fast food outlet is not the same as when one goes to a bistro or a restaurant, none of which compare with a hotel’s service expectations which also vary according to the rating of the hotel. However, the fundamentals are the same. The service must be properly positioned for the customers served; the more luxurious the offering, the higher the service expectations; and the training of staff must be at par with the expectation of customer service delivery.

Of all the fundamentals, the most important one is training. Staff must be selected based on their natural peoples-person abilities and then equipped with the knowledge and tools to effectively deploy the expected level of service. Only when you have a very involved business ownership/leadership with staff at their very best will invisible service become the standard.

The writer took the time to discuss with the people complaining in the bistro and asked them one question. Where had they experienced an invisible service culture in Lagos food destinations? The answer was immediate with effusive praise given to the owners of said establishment for their staff effectiveness, cuisine excellence and owners personal involvement.

While the subject matter has focused on lifestyle / luxury sectors, the public sector and customer facing financial institutions can definitely implement some much needed improvements where customer service is concerned. Invisible or if you prefer, seamless customer service, with the citizen / customer as the centre must become the standard.

Written by Babatunde Olaoluwa Jeje and published in This Day Style magazine.