With over 17 million customers, you would expect that the person heading the Safaricom Call Centre would be a tough-talking, no-non-sense manager.
But no. Less than one minute with Pauline Warui, Director, Customer Care at East Africa’s communication giant, in her office in Mlolongo, and you realise how warm she is. Pauline greets you like you are old buddies.
Her office is welcomingly bright, with wallpaper showing happy people.
“I am easy,” she says.
The interview starts with a tour of the Call Centre, which houses more than 700 customer care staff.
As we move, Pauline stops to chat with the unengaged staff.
Like Pauline’s office, the building interior is colourfully painted, creating an exciting workspace. There is a crèche complete with nannies and a play area for the children.
We spot some staff working out at the gym.
“They work in shifts,” explains Pauline.
They invite her in. She laughs out loud, tells them later. Apart from the gym, the staff has an access to a well-equipped library, and a sports room.
Some men are shooting pool, and Pauline takes a cue stick.
She misses the white ball and laughs uproariously. The men kid her saying she needs to be joining them more.
It seems like fun working here, and Pauline says it is, because otherwise, the challenges of the job, if met by a demotivated staff, would be disastrous.
They get about 100,000 contacts daily. “Contrary to the popular belief, a call centre is not all about picking calls,” she says, “it calls for listening skills, good attitude, personality and a quick mind; it is a science where you juggle to meet objectives.”
The director says mobile telephony is dynamic, where things change by the second. They have to be on their toes. The millions of customers call by the second, with a host of demands.
And the bulk of this fascinates Pauline and her staff, as they never saw it coming.
“About 30 per cent of the calls we receive are on M-Pesa, where people send money to the wrong number,” she shares.
And to counter, this, they are looking to leverage on technology, where one can get same help through Twitter and Facebook, or by cell phone via *100#.
There are about 600 attendants at any one time in the Call Centre, with some of them exclusively dealing with the social media.
“We are working to see how to leverage on technology, where people can solve their own problems at the touch of a button.”
But for now, the people prefer calling, and they come with different needs and personalities, some patient, others not so patient.
Pauline’s team need to handle each case professionally, which calls for the right staff.
The problem, says Pauline, is that many people do not take customer care as a career, but a thing you do while waiting for a better opening.
“My biggest task is to get the right staff,” and to go about it, she has devised ‘light interviews’.
“I like to meet interviewees casually, greet them and see them role-play. With formal interviews you can spot hidden talent.”
So what does she look for?
“People who are able to articulate issues, are humble and good negotiators and most importantly have a good attitude. Skill you can teach, but attitude, you cannot, you have to get the right people.”
Luckily, Pauline has the gift of people skills perhaps borne out of her social work training.
So who is this gregarious lady whose employees love to work under?
Pauline was born 43 moons ago in Marua Village, Nyeri. She remembers a sheltered life, being raised by caring parents. After her A-Levels at Kerugoya Girls, she studied for a Bachelor of Arts degree, Social Work, at the University of Nairobi. But her career working with people in difficult circumstances was cut short rather dramatically. Pauline had got an internship with the St John’s Community where she found herself working in the slums.
“I had grown up in the village, sheltered from most of life’s pains. At St John’s I found myself in the slums and saw suffering like I had never imagined. I got traumatized,” she recalls.
The shock was so intense that after her studies, she found herself drifting into the corporate world.
Her first job was at the Bangladesh High Commission as a receptionist. After one and half years, she left and joined Green Gold, a horticultural company as the Administrator.
The company folded three years later putting her in a path closer to what would define her life.
“In 1998, I joined a company that dealt with the one-way communication gadgets, Pagers.”
The going was difficult then.
She had just given birth to her son, and she had to learn survival skills or ship out. Around that time, Kenya was getting weaned into mobile telephony. Pauline got a position in 2000 at Kencell, now Airtel.
Pauline sailed through the ranks starting as team leader to customer care manager.
After five years, Pauline made a career turnaround.
She got an opportunity to work with an oil company.
“I had to do a lot of soul searching, but I like to challenge myself and I took the job at the Chevron Caltex,” she recalls. And she had a big role, as East Afric and Egypt Co-ordinator based in Nairobi.
“It was very exciting. In two years, I had learnt all there was in the complex world of oil and big corporations. But most importantly I learnt people skills out of managing teams from different countries,” says the go-getter.
In 2007, she moved to Safaricom Ltd. And just as she was getting in the feel of the company, post-election violence erupted. During that tense period, there was a lot of hate speech that was being spewed through cell phones and this was a headache for call centres.
She handled the issue so well, she was later promoted to Chief Customer Care director.
Hers has been a stellar climb up the corporate ladder.
“Coming from the village, I had to work twice as hard. The one who gets rewarded in the dynamic corporate world is the articulate one.”
Pauline is passionate about her job, and though she has line managers, she says she is “quite involved” and knows what is happening at any given time. But as much as she gives her staff autonomy, she knows that the buck stops with her.
Looking into the future, she wants to take customer care in Kenya to another level, where it will be viewed as a rewarding career.
Her future plans?
“I have worked with so many people and I understand them so well. That is why I am penning a book on how to manage the youth.”