Sabbatical postcard – kawhe i runga i te ara i roto i Aotearoa

purple coffee swirl

Kawhe i runga i te ara i roto i Aotearoa – or coffee on the way in New Zealand – prompts fresh reflection on the microeconomic importance of engaging with fellow human beings.  In Wellington to present an element of my PhD research (to a symposium on the accountability of international organisations), I was struck by the strength and novelty of profit-making capacity in some very modest businesses, and the ingenuity of the decision making involved.

Travelling for work has provided me with a considerable diversity of ‘experiences’ – not least, for example, a whole gamut of ‘welcomes’ when checking in to accommodation.  Thankfully, a woman alone on a business trip can now expect a little more than ‘yeah, waddyawant?’, accompanied by a yawn or snarl depending on the time of day.  When travelling to all corners of the planet, one does not necessarily expect each greeting to rival the Savoy in London or Georges V in Paris.  However, it is great now to be shown something other than the suspicion, hostility or disinterest with which I was routinely greeted in the 1980s and 90s, when on business trips for the Royal Australian Air Force or Qantas Airways Ltd (meaning I hardly looked like a backpacker, a hobo or a ‘ne’er do well’ of some kind!).

So believe me when I say that the duty student at the Victoria University of Wellington last week set a new standard in pleasant and appropriate service – especially after being woken at 1am to let me in as a late arrival!  It all seemed a little surreal to be greeted with genuinely thoughtful assistance and information, and I’m pretty sure my perception was not unduly clouded by the aftermath of landing at Wellington. (The runway is not getting any longer and it still feels like the aircraft is landing across, instead of along, the runway – and that from someone familiar with the old Kai Tak Airport in Hong Kong!)

Of course, I won’t say I was exactly surprised – a long career of travel in strange places is also a long experience of finding great customer service in unexpected places, including that a student, in their jammies no less, can surpass the standard of a concierge at a five star hotel.  Seeing the moves of an illiterate and innumerate market worker will do that for you – when, with less than 100 words of English and nothing of anything else beyond their mother tongue, they sell armloads of clothing goods to a crowd of very demanding tourists – who are then observably delighted in a dozen different languages.  Similarly – a nun may show more commercial acumen in running a modest hostelry than a bright young MBA does in marketing an internationally renowned hotel chain.

What was surprising to me was the extent to which this calibre of customer service experience prevailed, as I made my way around downtown Wellington over several days.  As a marketplace, it certainly has its own characteristics, features and peculiarities. There were international franchise outlets that were doing well and a few doing very badly, and there were (NZ) national and local businesses across that same spectrum.  Premium outlets were operating on a par with international standards, albeit not universally so, while price-oriented outlets were by no means as devoid of service as they could be elsewhere.

Overall, though, unless my microeconomist’s calibrated eyeball has completely malfunctioned from disuse due to PhD activities, the preponderance of outlets seemed to be thriving well by exceeding their clients’ expectations, whatever they might be.  Those that were not were doing very poorly indeed in marketplace of reasonably limited volumes (Wellington is only half the size of Canberra and a fraction the scale of Sydney, Melbourne or Auckland).

The distinction seemed to occur in the form of the ‘boss’ of the premises, for want of a better expression – all the more impactful because the premises were, on average, smaller than one would expect in a larger/more populous main city.  Whether a solo worker or leading personality in a team, if someone showed engagement and judgement about how best to solve the customer’s problem, even the casual observer could see that good things flowed.  Otherwise, it was very evident that they did not.

Sure, on site roasting of beans, organic ingredients for their snack range, and a great line in sustainable practices, made one local coffee house a magnet for the knit-your-own-yoghurt types.  But they were in the company of a much greater number of hard-pressed office workers clamouring for the life giving brew.  The fact that the quietly spoken barista also remembered the order of every regular customer was good old fashioned time saving, getting them in and out at light speed (aided and abetted by a colleague who was magic on the till) – and was clearly a factor in succeeding against lots of competition.

Where the person or team was slack, disinterested, misanthropic or just in the wrong job, customers closed their wallet and walked out.  Several mornings I was fascinated to watch people rush towards the ‘come hither’ aroma of a ‘fresh baked cookies’ franchise outlet and queue up.  That aroma would elsewhere be a licence to print money, but a goodly proportion of shoppers stopped only to frown and walk away without buying.  Observation revealed that slow service meant that shoppers had time to notice that they were standing in Lambton Quay’s ‘pigeon central’ and the staff did not seem bothered by the feathers blowing in to the shop or the impressive piles of droppings on and around their doorstep.  How well their profits would have been served by an engaged team member noticing this ubiquitous pattern of behaviour and actually doing something about it.

Compare that to the one person handling quite a crowd where shoppers were faced with a bewildering array of menu choices.  The outlet specialises in premium prepared meals for the harried worker to take home (commensurately priced – think Marks & Spencer’s M&S Fresh outlets in London).  One question (general, low fat, gluten free, budget or vegetarian?) got them a targeted menu card to peruse at leisure and allowed several customers to be served at once to a very evident high level of satisfaction, despite the premium pricing. (That one could teach most airlines a thing or two about ‘queue combing’ – the menu cards were more than half identical, but the customer was given the impression of tailoring and superior service even while they waited in line.)

A query later revealed that a team member had observed that if people took time to make up their mind they bought more, but when there was a queue they felt pressured to decide quickly and often walked away without buying because ‘there were too many choices’.  Rather than skinny down the options as they were advised, the outlet listened to this local leader and found a more thoughtful way to actually solve the problem, to the betterment of their sales – can you tell that this it made my hard little microeconomist’s heart beat faster?  (One wonders what it means for the ‘pressure selling’ school of thought.)

To my eye at least, the common factor is that each case shows that customers were still ‘real’ – not reduced to a line on a graph, or a percentage in a report – and that the person in question had discerned in context the crucial ingredients for making a sale.  The memory of an observant market worker using just a few dozen words of English to highlight answers to commonly questions about clothes – size, colour, fabric, cleaning instructions – resonated as I rambled around Wellington watching these service episodes unfold.

In particular, I very much doubt that our fresh baked cookies team could have described customer choices about their product in any meaningful way.  With an international franchise business model supporting them, no doubt they had all the details of standard staffing requirements, sales targets, and volumes of each and every variety sold.  However, they clearly lacked a crucial piece of local knowledge about actual customer choices, self-evident in the ‘turn away’ factor.  There to be seen by anyone who remembers that customers are actually people (not an amorphous ‘they’), what was missing from the picture was a leader in that outlet to take note and follow up with action.

So once more with feeling, we applaud these business ‘leaders’ (including those disguised as students and service delivery workers) without whose decision making skills their workplace would be, literally, the poorer.  As with our ingenious market worker and a commercially-astute nun (that story for another day), they are keeping the actual object of their endeavours in mind when showing thought leadership, a practice strongly recommended regardless of the activity or the nature of the organisation (commercial, nonprofit, government, whatever).