What’s All This Business About Business?

I once put up a post on the social media site, Facebook. In it, I said, I was about to set up a university in Ghana and we’d only run three programmes for the first ten years of commencing the university – “Time Mismanagement”, “Customer Mis-care” and “Practical Corruption for Politicians” . I earned a lot of funny comments for this post and for most part, people laughed it off as a mere joke. It did however strike me, sadly, that if I had set up an actual university running any of these programmes, I wouldn’t attract even a handful of students to enrol, not because they couldn’t afford the fees – rather, because they would already have been masters at these subjects.

The reality however is very harsh – majority of us Ghanaians have no respect for “time” and our idea of “customer care” is grossly non existent. Nobody says these things, and when you do, yes, that irritating terminology always gets thrown at you like rotten eggs– “you are too known” (and I have wondered from the day I was born how much knowledge is too much knowledge). Unfortunately, the modern day necessity to play on the same economic and business playground as the rest of the world means that some of these ingrained attitudes are going to have to change (and that’s a word my people LOVE to hear – “change”). In the past, there used to be one playing field for the “developed” nations, their businesses and individuals and a different playing field for us on the “developing” side of the river. Things have changed; most of the barriers of separation are gone. It’s no more them and us; in fact there is only “all of us” now. The traffic used to be developing parts of the world seeking economic and business refuge with the developed parts. With the latter’s economic engines heavily shaken in the last ten years, the opposite of this traffic movement has become true. It mainly used to be the developed nations, deciding the pace of the world’s economy, but with more developing countries now holding the ace of spade card for natural resources, the ace of clubs card for virgin human resources and the ace of diamond card for unexploited markets – the power to influence world economy is gradually changing hands.

What do these all mean for Ghana? – Everything. It means we are at the centre of it all. With our country’s political stability, natural resource discoveries, and expanding development activities – the whole world is going to be heading down here. It can be a good thing or a bad thing. If our businesses and individuals develop the right attitudes, they will reap windfall benefits for the next many years, ceteris paribus, irrespective of how big or small their business is. If they choose however to remain set in their old primitive ways, they will stand still and watch foreigners come in and wipe the slate clean of any profitable goodness that the years ahead will make available to this country. The choice is really ours and ours alone.

Luckily, the spectrum of choices is not that many – and that’s a good thing. To succeed, businesses and individuals really need to make a choice between being efficient and being incompetent. And as I have learnt over the years, it doesn’t really cost a lot to be the former. In this article, I explore three fundamental yet exceptionally necessary concepts that businesses and individuals need to grasp thoroughly in order to be efficient. For individuals, it’s about changed mindset translating into changed attitude. And for businesses, it is about changed mindsets, translating into changed attitudes, translating into changed organisational culture. The important thing is that these changes need to be made.

CUSTOMER RELATIONSHIP MANAGEMENT (CRM)

The first time I came across this concept, I said to myself WOW, my personal experiences have rather been of Customer Relationship Mismanagement or better still Customer Relationship Abuses.
On one of my recent trips to Ghana, I stopped by a bank in Lapaz in the capital Accra, in the hope of opening an account to aid my UK-Ghana financial transactions. It turned out I had to talk to a “Personal Banking Advisor” (PBA). Patiently I waited for twenty minutes and when it was finally my turn I was called to sit in front of a lady I later understood to be the PBA. There was no hello, no introduction it was straightaway “how can I help you?”. “OK” I said, “I would like to open a local account together with a GBP foreign currency account”…..then her mobile phone rang; she grabs it and posts a finger in my face “please hold on”. For the next five plus minutes, I sat in front of this almost “Lady Gaga-like” PBA, thoughts flying in my mind, whilst I listened to her chat away about how she hadn’t had time to do what she promised to do for the person on the other end. Then she finally hangs up and I say “I see you are terribly busy, but is it possible to take some account opening forms away with me, fill them out and bring them back when you are less busy?”. Funny as I thought I sounded, my PBA didn’t even get the gist of my sarcasm. I got this in return “Oh, we don’t give out the forms, you have to fill it here”. I shifted in my chair “that’s OK, can I talk to the branch Manager please?” I enquired politely; now it was her turn to get uncomfortable. She got up “you wait here, I am going to see if I can work out something for you”. Really? I asked myself. I am bringing you business and now, I have to be made to feel like you are doing me a favour? Seriously? Anyway, the story ends with me heading for another bank in Dansoman where I had my accounts opened and some deposits made all in one and half hours. For the first bank, that’s not just one customer lost – it’s also a loss of all the potential businesses and colleagues coming to do business in Ghana that I would have recommended. And the value lost in the process? It could have been £50 or £1,000 or even £1,000,000. All gone!

The gist of the story – we don’t fully get the “customer relationship” concept yet. The term “Customer Relationship Management” means a lot. I’ll simply flesh out here the core and more practical components that could easily be digested into any one’s business or individual transactions. Firstly, the world has moved from the concept “the customer is always right” – that was the sixties up to the Osibisa days. In today’s business world “the customer is everything”. Without the customer, you don’t have a business. For a minute, let’s face facts: if there were no customers, there wouldn’t be any need to run a business. It is NOT the business that produces customers rather it is the customers that produce a business opportunity. This understanding is NOT something that should merely be an organisational catch phrase or top level idea. It NEEDS to become a culture in the organisation; it needs to become the blood that flows through the veins of all the company’s executives and employees. Employees and executives alike need to realise that they only have their jobs because of the customer. The idea should be so ingrained in the fabric of the organisation so much that it should be the determining factor of who gets employed and who doesn’t. In some organisations, it is what even determines who gets fired. Business people need to start understanding that it is not the products they sell that actually equates to money – rather it is the customers they serve. One customer is not equivalent to just the money made off him/her, no, s/he is also equivalent to the 5 – 10 other people they will recommend if s/he is happy with a service or product. Customers are the real cash cows. Their power is so unimaginable I can give you various angles to it. Here’s another one – a customer who is happy with one or more of your products can go as far as tell you what s/he and others would love to see as a new product or service (an innovative idea). And if these ideas are converted well, they have just helped your business define not only a new product or service but a new market too – and they will turn around and buy the products or service they helped develop – that’s referred to as “crowd-sourcing” by the way.

The whole idea of CRM is this – concentrate on your customers, learn more about them, how they behave, and what their needs are and then use that information to become better at selling to them what it is you are already selling to them. But to Ghanaian businesses and their sales point employees, the question really is “how are you going to learn more about your customers if you treat them like they are a nuisance?” Example: if an insurance company collects the appropriate data on a client (and takes time to understand the customer’s NEEDS) whilst selling them a professional indemnity insurance for example, the sales department would be at an advantageous position to know (from the information collected over time) when it is appropriate to approach the same customer with a proposal for a car insurance, or a school children’s scheme, or a health insurance. You see, timing these sales is not the same as telling your customer about all the insurance products your company sells the first time you meet them and expect him to remember to come back to you when he/she needs it. Approaching a customer in this timely fashion not only tells them that you know their needs and value them, but sends out the message that they are your priority. Everybody likes to feel important. Gathering the right information on customers and analysing it not only makes it possible for other departments in your organisation to engage in cross-selling to them but it also helps you identify high value customers and low value ones and who to treat how. In business generally, this ruthless truth remains – “all customers are equal, but some are more equal than others”. I’ll leave it at that.

Customers are becoming more savvier. The market is springing up with more and more alternatives to the brands customers once upon a time used to be loyal to, so there isn’t really any brand loyalty any more. There are now more choices of products and services and consumers now know hey actually hold all the power. If you are going to keep your business running and standing out of the crowd, you HAVE TO offer something more, you have to start making customers realise that even though you are offering the same product/service at the same price as your competitors, yet, they are better off dealing with you. Why? – The proof is how much you treasure your relationship with them. The bigger question however is this – Do you really make your customers feel they are treasured? I once had the opportunity to be asked by a colleague of mine why his business seemed not to be picking up lately. It only took me one visit to his shop and this is what I said to him – “teach your staff to smile and be excited to see people in their shop, even if they are not”.

It is much more expensive, to gain a new customer, than it is to increase how much you earn from an already existing one. Keep this truth.

THE TIME-VALUE OF TIME

I picked up the delegates from the airport and we were just 5 minutes to the scheduled meeting time when we arrived at the La Palm Hotel. They had flown in separately from Norway and USA respectively. I asked the two middle aged gentlemen if they would like to freshen up a little; they almost screamed at me – “No! No! No! We don’t want to be late for this meeting”. I nodded in agreement. The Managing Director and two officers of the Ghanaian Media company we were arranging the bridging loan facility for, arrived 15 minutes later. There was no call to say they were running late, yet, he entered the meeting room beaming with a smile “Oh you are already here… hahahah, you know here, there is plenty traffic”. The American’s cheeks were turning red and he cut in “but you are still late”, to which the Ghanaian MD responded “hahahah don’t worry, this is Ghanaian time”. The following day, he ran late for a dinner meeting again. This time round the Norwegian didn’t stick around for his arrival. He left. He had other business in Ghana and after that he returned to Norway, and so did the American.

That’s a bit too extreme someone may say – yes! You are right! Very extreme! And that’s exactly what has gotten them to the extreme heights of business achievements. For crying out loud, it costs each of them hundreds of dollars and a journey of more than 6 hours each to be in the meeting on time. How can we compare that to the 20 or so minutes it would have taken the MD to be present at the meeting ON time? Its about discipline, it’s about respect, it’s about commitment. That’s the interpretation of time. A true business man does not see “time” as the five-minute divisions on a square or round clock – to him/her it is the only unchangeable element in business that can determine whether he is successful or fails. If you respect it, it will add to you and if you disrespect it, it will take away from you more than its proportionate share.

A very crucial fact most Ghanaian business men and women need to come to terms with is this and it doesn’t matter how debatable anyone wants to get about it – The way you treat time says a lot about the way you’ll treat money. And since money is the bottom-line of most businesses, a good and savvy business person reads into your attitude to time. Truthfully, even if there wasn’t any money involved, disrespecting time simply equates to disrespecting the person whose time has been made available to you. That is not to say that there won’t be times when time won’t work against you. If you think it will, inform the other party (out of respect), that things may work out differently but don’t let it become a routine – it is not a tool for pre-justified disrespect.
And there is really no such thing as “African or Ghanaian time” – there is time. It’s a means of ensuring that we’re all on the same page irrespective of where we are in the world. Lets be frank if we really want to talk about Ghanaian time, then we ought to also talk about Ghanaian days and Ghanaian weeks and Ghanaian years. Well, we should. After all it’s the minutes within “time” as we know it that make up the days and the weeks etc. So you see, if we can justify our “lateness attitude” by using the phrase “Ghanaian time”, then it is no surprise that we as a nation are days behind, weeks behind and years behind. And maybe, just maybe that explains why our development is so late. You see, the crime of the Ghanaian MD I described above losing an opportunity to have secured a favourable bridging loan is not different from the worker who spends 5 out of the 8 hour working day on Facebook, Skype and Twitter neither is it different from the man who arrives at work at 10am instead of 8am and still leaves work at 5pm, no questions asked. And all the above examples will kill a business with the same intensity as would an employee or director, who spends every Friday at a funeral which is not part of his leave days and yet still gets paid a full salary for the month. We really are joking.

You see, I am a Chartered Accountant and most times it’s easier for me when I put numbers to events. If I employed a staff, whom I pay $1,000 net every month, I expect from him 20 days of work every month, equating to 160 hours of work. If this gentleman uses 30 minutes each day surfing the internet, plus 20 extra minutes each day being late for work and returning from lunch etc – ladies and gentlemen, that equates to 16 hours a month wasted or better still, it means my employee has just cheated or wasted $100 of the company’s resources for the month. Now lets multiply that by the working population of Ghana or within your organisation and finally by 12 months and we should be able to get a fair idea how much is being poured down the drain or wasted every year and yet, as a nation we cry everyday – “we need financial support”. I’ll tell you what we really need – “attitude support”. Perhaps if Ghanaians started getting paid by the hour, there would be a change in that attitude. At least for one, we’ll come to the realisation that “you can’t get paid for the hours you remain unproductive”. As drastic as that may be, at least billions of cedis wont be going down the Korle lagoon through the cistern of wilful un-productivity.

I may be wrong; maybe Ghanaians are simply supermen and superwomen. Why not, after all we’ve endured the price rises every year a budget was read since I was 5 years old – that’s enough to make any ordinary human being a super man don’t you think?. Growing up in my teens, I used to think we were the only country with 34 hours in our day. If that were so it would have been a good thing. But now I know it isn’t – if it were, we would have been ahead of the world, in fact, centuries ahead. Indeed the wise King Solomon was right to say in Proverbs 3:16 “Length of days (time) is in her right hand, in her left hand riches and honour”. Surely, time is money.

ENTREPRENEURSHIP – It’s NOT an Individual’s Game.

Entrepreneurs always have new ideas, they always have something they believe will be the next big thing and if indeed it turns out to be the next big thing, then it really is a big thing. The misconception we often have is Entrepreneurs should always be “individuals”. Hardly a lot of corporate people can fathom the idea of an entire organisation becoming entrepreneurial. No! It’s not possible! How is it possible?

One would think however that, it would have been the best way forward for any organisation. It will consistently ensure that the company is ahead of its competitors. Can you imagine an organisation that has adopted a culture of rewarding its employees for always generating new workable ideas around products, systems, services, delivery etc? Such an organisation will not only strive towards efficiency, but it would also be a pacesetter. It will become an organisation in which, entrepreneurship and innovation is seen as an everyday life and where the employer knows for a fact that he/she is not simply paying his staff to do what they have been repeatedly doing for the past 5 years but rather, that they are being paid for moving the organisation forward. This is the kind of organisation where everybody is involved in moving the company forward. It is an organisation where people are encouraged to “think”. Did I just say think? Mmmm! Yes! Think!

I find an interesting difference in the way we are brought up to “think” in Ghana (and to a larger degree, Africa) as opposed to elsewhere. I am going to have to be brutally honest here – Entrepreneurs are not only people with new companies, rather they are people who are always thinking about how to provide solutions. Genuinely, and through no fault of ours, our thinking has been limited to three purposes; in other words, we only think actively (i) when there is a problem we need to get out of (ii) when we have a need we want to satisfy and (iii) when we are confronted with fear. Hardly a lot of people will simply sit back and think out how they can be of benefit to society or in a business sense, how they can do what they do better or serve customers better. Many are just content to do the same routine everyday for twenty working days and get paid.

Funny enough, it doesn’t take a lot to get into a thinking habit, and for organisations that are able to marshal their working force into thinking and learning forces, the rewards are phenomenal. You see, thinking expands the organisation’s innovative resource. You (as an organisation) don’t need to come to a dead end where you are forced to come up with a new service or product in order to survive before you start thinking about a way out. Whereas gradually grooming your organisation’s workforce to continually think prevents such a situation from happening. Good chances are they would have come up with too many good ideas before you get to that point and when you do, the problem will be one of making a choice between the great ideas your employees have come up with.

How do you do it? It doesn’t take a week or two I must warn you, just like it doesn’t take two weeks to teach a new employee how to operate your sales system. It’s more or less like teaching an old dog new tricks – it’s got to be rewarded. But there is a hidden fulfilment for employees too – nothing beats an employee’s excitement in knowing that he/she has been recognized as having made a contribution to the organisation’s progress. It’s something they can always relate to and be proud of. Nobody walks away from something they have created unless they really really have to, so in the end, you get their loyalty too, at no extra cost. It is worth mentioning here, that the flip side of the coin is crucially important; no idea proposed by employees in this “thinking culture” can be considered “silly”. Considering any idea silly will inadvertently shut down the morale and confidence of the less tough-hearted employees and discourage them from future tries, but you see, it may just well be his/her next try, that becomes a useful innovation. In the final analysis, helping employees to become a thinking workforce spills beyond the office or factory into their individual lives thus enriching them greatly. This model has been used greatly by the Japanese. For them, the companies they work for is everything to them, so thinking all the time to improve the company is personal – it’s the way they ensure their own job security. In Japan, people go to work in the morning with the mindset they are going to a company that is “theirs” – if the organisation gets better, its their lives getting better, if it fails, it’ll be them sitting at home, practicing Jukado or Aikido. If that happens in Ghana, you’ll be sitting at home “playing draft” or “working lotto”.

CONCLUSION

Before I finished this article, I asked a colleague to read through it and tell me what he thought – “Charles, these things won’t work in Ghana in the real world”. I said “thank you very much for your candidness”. Then I wondered what the real world people talk about really is. Personally, I strongly believe Ghana is at a point where people are becoming more and more aware of what they need to do to turn their own lives and businesses around to become the best. And they are not only aware; they are willing to do it. That attitude is by far a greater resource than anything imaginable, because it gets them to believe in “better”. The real world is where pessimism reigns and optimism is banished. The real world is where people say things cannot be done and yet those very things turn out excellently. The real world is NOT a place, it’s an excuse for people not to do what they need to do. The real world is real to them, but it doesn’t mean you or your business has to live in it. It’s a choice, you can be a citizen of it or not. For me, the real world is my belief that Ghana and its businesses are just about to get bigger, better and …….. the limit is your imagination.

Charles Kofi Fekpe will be hosting and delivering a lecture on “BUSINESS TRENDS” at the plush ALISA Hotel Auditorium in North Ridge on 28 October 2011. To Attend at a discount of GHC 30, simply email with your full name to reserve LIMITED seats.

Mr. Charles Kofi Fekpe (FCCA, CFE)
Writer; Speaker; Finance Manager (UK); Director, CFekpeConsulting Ltd
All comments to
Email: fekpe@hotmail.com

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