South African Service Please !

By Stephen Hickmore – South Africans are a self-critical bunch. We have a lot to say about how poor our customer service is and imagine that there is this unattainable service level somewhere in Australia, Europe or the States.

Whilst we grumble and moan, just about every visitor to our beautiful country wishes they could bottle up a bit of what we have and take it home. For the most part we are vibrant, attentive, professional and above all warm and hospitable.

I think it boils down to our innate African style of hospitality. It’s not a formula you see, and is grown out of a rich heritage of welcoming visitors and strangers. It is endemic in our culture and family values.

If you hail from certain parts of the new world, you are used to a “service formula” where the waitrons are programmed to act and speak in a certain way. Filled with “Have a nice day” and “You’re Welcome” with forced upsell of the days special. Then there is the Old World where convention restricts waiters to formality, which these days is servile and  so utterly dated.

My recent trip to ‘Mud Island’ Mother England, served me up a generally inept and mean spirited type of service that we would never tolerate in South Africa. Where in South Africa do you get a waiter telling you to order food at the bar? Then a masticating barmaid telling you to take a number, carry your own drinks to your table, go to the bar to collect your own food, sit down and then have some spotty, miserable youth with severe dental malocclusion clear your plate and add a 10% gratuity to your bill.

America has many great restaurants and hotels, but I tend to get the feeling that the service staff are going through the motions and wishing they were somewhere else. The waitress is studying Law and the Barman wants to be an actor. They are just passing through our industry until something better comes up.

The History of Bad dentistry in England may be the reason why the waiters don’t smile. But I think it has to do with upbringing. South Africans, in general, embrace visitors and welcome people into our homes and offer genuine friendship.

For our hospitality industry to get the best out of our South African personalities, we have to be brave and trust that the natural warmth and welcoming will come through. Train the technical side of service but not script or stiffly formalise every action.

Our National inferiority complex along with the notion that everything from “overseas” is better, can only keep us improving.

Our word Hospitality talks about freedom for the guest not just friendship.

To adapt a concept from the Dutch writer Henri Nouwen, African Hospitality wants to offer the guest friendship without tying him down, and provide him with freedom without letting him go.

I think we have a lot to boast about.

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