Putting people first in Alan Paton country

Ixopo Workshop - IanI was privileged to spend three days recently in Ixopo running a workshop for ward councillors. Driving through that magnificent, though presently brown and dusty, countryside, I was reminded of Alan Paton’s words, ‘There is a lovely road which runs from Ixopo into the hills. These hills are grass covered and rolling, and they are lovely beyond any singing of it.’

In the workshop, we studied customer relations management and customer service as it applies to the municipality as a whole and to ward councillors and ward committees serving on the front lines.

When thinking about customer service from the point of view of a local-government politician it is easy to imagine that it is all about getting re-elected. And, of course, that is the selfish goal just as in business the selfish goal of customer service is to make a profit and increase one’s return on investment. But, in attempting to understand the day-to-day concerns of the counsellors, I was reminded that neither getting re-elected nor improving the bottom line will ever happen if satisfying the customer does not become the focus of all we do.

Only by improving service delivery, only by meeting the customers’ needs, especially their emotional needs, can we hope to achieve our own personal goals. If we fail at this hurdle, we not only fail to deliver but we are likely to lose our business or our seats.

But no manager, whether in politics or in business, can do the job alone. We depend on employees and support staff who engage directly with our customers. The first rule of customer service then, often ignored by management, is to treat employees as we want them to treat our customers. If our actions towards our employees suggest that we don’t care, why should they?

Some managers would say that employees should not have to be told that the future of the company, and their own jobs along with it, depend on having satisfied customers. I couldn’t agree more, but having satisfied customers depends upon having employees willing to go beyond their job descriptions to meet their customers’ needs.

Some employees will do what is necessary because it is in their DNA, but even they need encouragement. The care and attention to detail required for excellent customer service has to be part of the DNA of the whole organisation, something that courses through its veins from top to bottom. Every employee from the CEO to the cleaner has to appreciate that their own job depends on the ability and willingness of front-line, customer-engaging staff to exceed customers’ expectations.

It must be inculcated into how we do business that, if we are not serving customers ourselves, we are serving other employees who serve the customer. We can demand high standards of our staff, whether they are responsible for multimillion rand deals or serve behind a municipal counter, only if we are willing to demonstrate in our dealings with them that we, too, believe in excellent service and are willing to go out of our way to provide it.

Some would say that, if you employ the right people with drive and determination (and you must), you can treat them pretty much as you please and they will get the job done. That is true at the higher levels of employment, where there are other rewards and incentives for high-performing individuals. For the majority of ordinary employees, who occupy the front counters of our shops, offices and municipalities, there is no reward on offer other than recognition and encouragement. Without that, their initial drive and determination quickly degenerates into treating the customer with the same disdain they experience from their own superiors.

What can you do differently this coming week as you interact with front-line and other staff?

Ian Webster

From Methodist minister to Customer Relations manager in a computer bureau to HR Manager in a newspaper printing and publishing company. Now focussing on training and developing people and HR & people-management consulting.


  1. Lindi Redfern on 16 September 2014 at 7:30 am

    Ian, your recent blog is excellent. How we treat each other one-to-one is so important but easier said than done. When folk are operating under stress (be it personally or in the workplace) they seem to find it near impossible to treat others respectfully. It seems this then sets off a vicious chain reaction. If only folk can look at their own lives, take responsibility, discard the unnecessary stressors then maybe a healthier pattern of interaction will start taking place. Thank you for cutting to the chase!

    • Ian Webster on 16 September 2014 at 8:16 am

      Hi Lindi,
      Thank you so much for your encouragement. It is much appreciated. Yes, we tend to think that managing time, budgets and machinery is more important than managing the people who fill our time, bring in the money and run the machinery. As you so rightly say, trying to cope with our own stress is difficult enough, and now I must cope with everyone else’s!

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