Coffee and the customer service culture in Mbinga, Tanzania

Recently I got this really great opportunity to travel to Mbinga a town in the south of Tanzania. My job description was simple, “to train staff in the basic coffee making skills” in a local coffee house. I had never been in contact with this Matengo (the local tribe) town.

The first time I walked into the coffee house I was greeted by staff sitting down on the shop’s front house tables. “What poor customer service,” I thought to myself. The staff had never met me before, in their perspective I could have been a customer and yet they were all sending me greetings while sitting on the chairs. From that first impression I knew that I had some work to do in the customer service front. Wouldn’t you agree?

As I observed the day to day operations I noticed that the waiters made it a habit to sit down even when the customers walked in and sometimes they would spend hours sitting with customers at their tables chatting away. A very strange behaviour. Stranger still is that the customers did not mind it at all in fact they indulged in it. Whenever the customers left the waiters would pull a chair and sit to chat with me in my observation corner. “I would have to address this sitting business during the training,” I thought to myself.

The next day I called a meeting after having trained the staff in basic coffee making skills. “Congratulations you all know how to make great coffees but great coffees with poor customer service will not work!” I began my lecture on customer service. I explained to them about the fact that professional baristas and waiters need to be attentive to customers, how sitting down all the time looked lazy and uninviting and how chatting too long to some customers would drive attention from other equally important customers. They listened to me attentively and when I asked if they had any comments on the lesson they all seemed to be okay with it. A few hours later and it seemed like they all reverted to their old habits, old habits die hard!

This afternoon I was chatting with the owner of the cafe and we started having an exchange about different experiences. Then she remarked, “it’s interesting how the north might be different from the south. For example in our culture it is considered rude to talk to someone while standing up, we always have to sit down. You will notice that the staff always sit down with the customers when taking their order. It is also considered friendly to chat with loyal customers so you’ll find sometimes when I am in the shop I will stop to chat with some customers.” Say what? Here I was under the impression that the staff had bad customer service while in fact they had the best customer service in this context! So why didn’t anyone tell me this earlier? It would have saved me the embarrassing speech I gave about “poor and good customer service!”

Well I later learnt that for the Matengo people correcting your superior or elder is considered rude. No wonder no one mentioned anything about my “poor customer service!”

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