NAIROBI, KENYA: There is a growing circle of personalities on social media who have earned national notoriety. Eric Mwiti is definitely one of them. He, however, is better known as ‘ER’, the moniker he uses for his posts.
ER works at Safaricom as an online support executive, and has built a reputation for his quirky and hilarious responses on the company’s Facebook and Twitter pages.
And with this, ER has become a brand – something he’s managed to turn into a successful business that registers a turnover in excess of Sh1 million a month. This extremely modest and down-to-earth 30-year-old spoke to Hustle about his journey from call centre representative to social media guru.
What does ER stand for?
You’re probably expecting some clever response like ‘Emergency Room’, but the real answer is a boring one. We all have sign-off handles when we respond to customers. Usually it’s the initials of your first name and surname, which would have been EM for me. But by the time I was joining the team, EM had been taken. So I picked the first two letters of my name, Eric.
You’ve turned ‘ER’ into a brand. What makes you stand out?
Honestly, I just do my job; 80 per cent of it is not even the funny posts people know me for. It’s serious responses to legitimate concerns from customers.
I respond to customer queries and resolve issues that they may be encountering. I started off doing this on phone, on Line 100, back in 2010 when I joined Safaricom. I eventually got a chance to move to the social media team in 2014.
Which one do you prefer?
I’m an introvert, believe it or not. I’d rather type words on a keyboard than speak to people on the phone. Is that bad?
Well, handling customers can’t be simple. What’s the worst encounter you’ve had with a displeased customer?
It must be this one gentleman who was conned by fraudsters when they convinced him to give them his details and M-Pesa pin. He was understandably irate. As I tried to explain to him the reasons we couldn’t reverse the transaction, he called me a thief and claimed we were colluding with the conmen to steal from him. He used very colourful language.
How do you deal with these kinds of incidents?
Politely. You take it in and when they are calm, you try again to explain and walk them through to a solution.
Is it a challenge to not talk back?
I am naturally a blunt person, I say what’s on my mind and I can have a short fuse. So you can imagine being insulted for something that isn’t your fault or the company’s fault. The temptation to snap can get real. But we resist.
You must also have got a lot of interesting calls?
Back when I was on Line 100, there was this older lady who called in to complain that her phone rang every morning at 5am. She eventually took to switching it off when she slept so that she wouldn’t be woken up, but the call still came through. When I asked if there was a caller ID when the phone rang, she said, yes, the caller ID was ‘Alarm.’ Turns out it was her alarm that was going off every morning. Someone must have accidentally set it on her phone. Even with my instructions, she couldn’t figure out how to deactivate it, so she gave me a relative’s number to relay the instructions, which I did.
The next morning, I was told she called in to say thank you. That was a good moment.
How did you move from handling customer calls to going online?
Safaricom was interested in making their social media platform more personable. An online response doesn’t have a human voice behind it, so if there is no unique personality, it comes off as cold and customers feel alienated. There was a decision in the company to expand the social media team to make it more human-like and still meet demand. I applied.
What were the requirements?
Good grammar, for one. Safaricom can’t be seen to not know English or Kiswahili – that would trend for days. Another requirement was being conversant with current affairs, from politics to sports.
For instance, I got a message from a customer saying, “Safaricom, munanyonya bundles zangu kama vile Liverpool walinyonya mabao from Arsenal.”
His complaint was that his bundles were getting finished faster than he liked. If I wasn’t aware of the score of the football game he was talking about, I couldn’t have responded to him in his tone, with: “Game ni 90 (minutes). Bundles zina depend on your usage.”
How did your responses move from a more official tone to the casual one?
It was a slow progression because this hadn’t really been done before and we didn’t want to offend anyone. The general rule we were given was to respond in the customer’s language. If someone writes a message in sheng and your response to them is, ‘Bonyeza alama ya reli, moja sufuri, sufuri’, you’re alienating that customer. If, on the other hand, you say something like, ‘Itabidi udial *100#’, then they feel understood. The Safaricom social media platform is geared towards meeting a customer where they are.
Have you ever regretted a response you sent out?
Not really regretted, but I was worried for a moment after hitting ‘send’. There was a trending picture of our CEO, Bob Collymore, with a director from UNEP. They were signing a document and our CEO was leaning over to see what the UNEP guy was writing. Someone sent us the message: “You guys didn’t tell your CEO what to expect in the exam?” Initially, I ignored the comment because we were having a busy day. Then it started trending, with everyone asking where ER was and why I wasn’t saying anything. Finally, when I got a chance to, it was late in the evening.
I said: “We told him asome but alijifanya ako poa.” As soon as I hit send, I wondered if that was a smart thing to do, to make fun of the boss. But responses started coming in. The first one was: “Now we know ER anafanyanga night shift.” That thread trended for hours. Thankfully, my directors took it in stride.
Do you get to see all the questions posed directly to you?
No. The queries on the site are distributed the same way calls on 100 or 200 are distributed. It goes straight to the next available customer agent.
Why do you think there is a fascination with your comebacks?
Mainly? Kenyans like to laugh. But also, Safaricom is a giant company, and when I respond, I respond as Safaricom. People like to know that a corporate has taken time out to joke and laugh with them. It gives a huge corporation a human face, and that’s a win for everyone.
Do you consider your job a personal commitment?
I’ve always believed that if your personality doesn’t come out in what you do, then you’re a robot. I think all successful people put a stamp on their work that’s uniquely theirs, whether that’s in accounting or painting or working on social media.
What’s your vision?
My vision is to excel in digital marketing, make a name for myself and grow my company, Eyedeas Digital, which runs social media platforms for a range of companies and businesses, including malls, online shopping sites, event companies, and so on.
Is it a lucrative model?
Absolutely. The business is a year old now. We started it with capital of Sh100,000 and we now record turnover in excess of Sh1 million a month.
What’s behind this growth?
Understanding your client and their target market and doing extensive research to ensure your information is current and competitive. One of the biggest lessons I’ve learned from working in Safaricom is to always keep your customers happy. It applies to all clients, regardless of the industry.
What’s one thing you’d tell entrepreneurs looking to bank on social media?
Be responsible. The Internet doesn’t forget, and your words stop belonging to you the minute you hit ‘send’. Make sure they are words you will be proud of and stand behind 10 years from now.