I spent the beginning of the year in Africa: Senegal, Cote d’Ivoire, Ghana. I was there to co-lead a team advising the CEO of a very large public/private partnership agricultural program. We never stopped moving for 11 days during which we visited a collection of government ministers in Senegal and Cote d’Ivoire as well as the most recent past president of Ghana. Beyond that we were out in the field talking with small holder farmers as well as others in the agricultural infrastructure world.
Mostly we stayed in very decrepit hotels in poor areas with a nice hotel thrown in here and there. It’s the dry season so in addition to the heat we were in midst of unending dust so thick that you couldn’t get the taste out of your mouth. I’ve brought quite a bit of it back with me stuck to clothes and shoes.
As usual, I worked hard to pay attention not only to what we were told but also to everything else, to not only listen to the stories but to gather the feeling of the places, the energy, the story behind and underneath the story. Three countries, dozens of people of all kinds, long times in buses and vans on dirt roads, long conversations about things well beyond agricultural, and a visual panoply that stretched the mind.
Reflecting on all this a few things jelled in my mind. The most powerful one is the customer service exhibited by everyone. In the most downmarket hotel of the trip in a very poor area (where when my toilet broke they gave me a bucket to use for the day until it was fixed), the owner was spectacular. He was so helpful and accommodating that we put up with the rooms and general conditions without complaining. All his staff exhibited the same friendliness and helpfullness, often in spite of no language in common with us.
We found the same service everywhere we went. Mostly we were dealing with people lacking in education and training as we think of it in the business world. And yet, they exhibited skill with customers as good as any you’ll see anywhere. Certainly not the most sophisticated service but definitely at the top of the wanting to be helpful list.
I compare this to a very fancy hotel I was in a few months ago where when telling the front desk that I had just been stuck in an elevator and they needed to do something I was told “all our elevators are working” and then they went back to what they were doing.
The other thing that struck me is how in spite of what we would consider dire circumstances of deep poverty with limited opportunity, there is an energy and a hopefulness that they will find a way to improve their situation. Not everyone of course, but many. The small holder farmers are excited about learning new ways to improve their yields and add a few new crops. They grab any opportunity and take full advantage of any help offered.
I never once heard “we can’t do that” or “it’s not how we do it here.” Instead they asked “what else can you tell us?”
As I ruminated on these two things I got wondering how this could be. Those with so little so good at customer service and so engaged in learning new things while so many I run into in the developed world are so lacking in these things.
It’s really hard to be poor. You work much harder and often much longer hours than those with good jobs and a nice middle class life. You appreciate everything much more and learn what to do to connect with people as connecting with people is the path to improving your situation. You learn how to show yourself to your best and take advantage of help offered. You watch carefully for new ideas. And you learn to do these things always.
Those with a much more well off life somehow often don’t seem to appreciate these things even thought they bring just as much to those with as to those without. I wound up thinking how odd it is that the path to better customer service and a more energetic and engaged workforce might be getting your people to think more like those without than like those with.