Are Econet and ZANU-PF two sides of the depressingly same Zimbabwean customer care coin?

Sep 20, 2011

It seems that in Zimbabwe the market leaders in virtually any business segment rarely also have the affection of their customers. Think of the uncontested political dominance ZANU-PF enjoyed for many years, which they rewarded by turning large parts of the overwhelming support for them into fear and loathing amongst many. Think of the rage with which many Zimbabweans think of the service of electricity monopoly ZESA. Think of how little real public sympathy and support struggling Air Zimbabwe enjoys. Is leading telecommunications service provider Econet moving in this same direction with regards to public feeling about them?

The website Three Men on a Boat has a brief, soulful, biting commentary about how the perceived arrogance of market power and dominance has changed the way many Zimbabweans see Econet.


''When Econet was trying to get a licence to operate in Zimbabwe, it was a story about bad vs good, weak vs strong. It fascinated most Zimbabweans because we all wanted the little guy to win, we wanted him to win because most of us at our core are little guys.''

''Most supported Econet because they identified with that man who was striving to succeed. When Econet was victorous despite a plethora of obstacles we all rejoiced in this victory, for it was a victory we all shared because the little guy had won. We all knew the benefits of having an alternative access to communication.''

''There were even stories of people paying subscriptions befor the network went live.Those people did so believed in the little guy and trusted him and wanted him to succeed because he was just like us and we all need a helping hand.''

''Fast forward to 2011. The little guy is now a big guy and he gives us a crappy service just like the other two guys we didnt care for. In fact the behaviour of this once little guy is no different from all big guys. There is a sense of being taken for granted because of our desperation and lack of good alternatives.

This writer is one of those who was caught up in the spirit of supporting an enterprise that the State used everything in its power to prevent from seeing the light of day. It became a saga far more significant than a driven businessman insisting on being allowed to operate in his country, to a David and Goliath story with a morality lesson.

Econet came into being with tremendous goodwill. But almost from the start, it never really managed to get to the level of providing a seamless, totally trouble free service. It must be said that a good part of that was because of the very difficult national operating environment in which the company came into being and established itself. But with the tremendous advantage of the goodwill they enjoyed, they also abused it and took it for granted. From early on, their customer service experience was depressingly similar to those Zimbabweans had become accustomed to from government departments or most other service providers: often indifferent to sometimes being outright dismissive and arrogant.

Still, Econet provided a better service than the original cell phone market leader, the state-owned Net One, which was even more aloof, with the attitude that they were doing you a favor by providing you service. The hungrier, more innovative Econet had no trouble taking over Net One's market dominance, which now seems like just a very distant memory.

But as Three Men on a Boat points out, although Econet continues to enjoy pole position in its sector, you will not find many of its customers who speak of it with the fondness and reverence of the early days. Econet is clearly an unparalleled commercial success story, but in reaching the top it has lost a lot of the early guiding principles that made it seem so much more significant than just another business.

The technical problems with providing continuously good service to clients could be well explained and forgiven by most customers. Where many market-leading companies like Econet (much worse for those that are monopolies in their sectors, like electricity's ZESA) have lost the most goodwill is in the people factor; in showing concern for the customers' plight and frustrations beyond Press announcements. The amorphous 'caring' factor is something that should imbue the entire organization, and should be evident in all the customers dealings with the organization. When it exists, most customers are willing to bend over backwards to forgive things that go wrong. Good customer service does not necessarily mean the complete absence of technical problems, but it does mean when they occur they are explained and dealt with a sensitivity that few companies in Zimbabwe have ever learned, and that Econet either also never had, or quickly lost.

For many of Econet's customers, that it too seemed to have lost this quality is particularly disappointing given the company's 'special' origins. Perhaps unreasonably for a commercial entity, many Zimbabweans emotionally invested more in Econet than they perhaps have done in any other company before or since. Now it seems to many like just another company, which is huge comedown given its history and iconic status beyond just the business realm.

ZANU-PF once seemed like an un-challengeable political colossus, yet Wikileaks has shown us how many of its senior-most officials fear it could not in its present form win a free and fair election against relatively new upstart, the MDC.

Even if Econet's current two competitors are not about to threaten Econet's market dominance, there would clearly be many telecommunications clients who would eagerly welcome a new challenger prepared to offer what so many Zimbabwean institutions seem unwilling or unable to consistently provide: basic good customer care which makes a client feel respected and appreciated.

ZANU-PF and TelOne are just two examples of how no matter how far ahead you are in your market segment, if you drop the ball a scrappy new player can pick it up and leave you choking in its dust.

Click here for the full Three Men on a Boat post about Econet.

The Zimbabwe Review


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