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Competition propels customers to high seat

By | November 24th 2011

By John Kariuki

Harry Truman was one of the earliest shopkeepers in a settlement scheme in the outskirts of Nakuru town in the early 80s. For miles around, there was no other retailer or hawker who could "seriously" give him a run for his money. Truman would hike prices, hoard goods and choose what to sell to whom at his whim.

He would make us children, then, queue when buying goods. Frequently, he would impose a no shouting edict at his premises.

It would be too bad if anybody knocked at his door to wake him up at any hour of the day or night! His wife and children were always right and were deemed as fountains of knowledge in village affairs. I don’t remember anybody ever getting credit form this veritable village tyrant.

When sugar shortages hit the country, then, Truman would impose an order for all shoppers to buy any of the non-moving items like toilet paper or cornflakes before they could get a kilo of sugar! His most revolting excess was when he ordered people to queue up for kerosene with the exact amount of money in hand, because, as he put it, he had no time to offer change.

Truman never knew what hit him when several shops sprung up around him. While he focused his business on the competitors, or lack of them, and made a career out of it, today’s entrepreneurs have totally oriented themselves to the customer.

From the recharge card seller who scratches the vouchers for buyers to some buses that offer "baksheesh" by taking clients to their estates after arriving in Nairobi in the wee hours, the trend everywhere is making customer the king.

Making nonsense of the formal warranty certificate, neighbourhood carpenters, beauty therapists and mechanics always give a "free" retouch of their work when blemishes are discovered in them too soon. And local mama mboga and butchers know very well that you retain customers by cutting up the vegetables and meat, respectively, for them.

Dunford Marani, a Nyahururu kiosk owner, says that ‘customer is king’ and a business that ignores this reality does so to its peril. "I go out of my way to give early rising people change after buying cigarettes and other small items with the Sh1,000 banknotes on their way to work," he says.

On a typical day, he gives change for at least Sh6,000. "What with other kiosks lining up the entire road?" he asks rhetorically. Marani understands their peculiar needs for small change with which to pay bus fare and therefore rises to the occasion every morning.

Business scope

And the benefits of ensuring the convenience of his clients are many.

"These clients give my kiosk priority when buying milk and vegetables," he says.

Often, his clients mandate him to source for items outside his range of merchandise —charcoal, hardware items and live animals when they have parties.

"All these challenges have widened my business scope and networks besides earning me extra profits," says Marani.

George Njoroge, a manager with the Cleanshelf chain of supermarkets, says customer retention is paramount in their business.

"We often save our shoppers the hustles of taking their shopping home by delivering it at their doorsteps," says Njoroge.

He adds that this service is free of charge up to a certain radius of any of their supermarket branches.

"Beyond this range, the shopper pays half the price and we foot the other bit, which is still a bargain," says Njoroge.

It is not only the small and medium businesses that focus on customer satisfaction, but large corporations have followed suit. Millicent Wanyonyi, a personal banker with one financial institution, says the top management cherishes what dissatisfied clients say.

"Credit officers are routinely taken to seminars and the top management demands that all loan officers recall what unsuccessful applicants said about the company in general and specifically about the loans officers," she says.

Friendly Terms

This way, adds Ms Wanyonyi, the financial institution is able to craft customer friendly terms and conditions and widen its business reach.

"It is from the outbursts of frustrated customers that we have maintained a winning edge in the competition," she says.

According to Antony Ngatia, who holds an MBA degree, customer orientation is the degree to which customer information is collected and used in the business unit.

"Closer focus on the customer often leads to improved performance in many firms," he says.

Ngatia says after being lethargic for too long, public institutions like schools, hospitals and universities have joined the fray by focusing on the customer to remain in business. He says intense competitive forces businesses to forget their clients and move towards competitor orientation.

"This scenario creates a dilemma on whether the principal business orientation should be towards the customer or the competitors," he says.

He says customer orientation helps firms increase performance and enhance customer satisfaction.

"But too much customer orientation can be dangerous," he warns. He says: "a business may get blinded by its current focus on the customer and become oblivious of the changes brought about by the competitors."

Too much focus on the clients may stifle innovation because customers may not be able to explicitly state their expectations or anticipate future needs.

"Customers are often resistant to change and this may force the highly customer-focused business to maintain the status quo, thus refraining from game changing innovations," Ngatia says.

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