In the year 2000, Safaricom opened two retail outlets across the country to bring customer service directly to their new customers. Here, they could walk in and solve everything, from PUK queries, purchasing and replacing SIM cards, and buying handsets.
The shops were an instant success. They attracted a huge footfall of clients while helping the new mobile company that had just been hived off Telkom Kenya to learn more about its customers, what satisfaction meant to them and, most importantly, how each customer wanted to be served.
Jannet Atika, Customer Operations Director, joined Safaricom as a shop manager in 2000 and has been part of the telco’s tenacious journey to what it is today. She says the shops have helped Safaricom develop a philosophy of handling each case as personally as possible.
“The greatest challenge is generating satisfaction to individual customers. Customer satisfaction offers one of the greatest returns for any business,” Ms Atika said.
As the company grew and product offering expanded, the shops became the first point of contact to test and get feedback and have become central to operations at the telco.
Ms Atika was tasked with expanding the Safaricom touchpoints, her work over the years involved moving around the country to find ideal locations to set up new shops and their designs.
Twenty years ago, the company could afford to operate only nine shops across the country, with 20 employees serving walk-in customers. But as customers grew, Safaricom has been forced to evolve and maintain physical touchpoints while leaning towards technology to handle the customer base that has grown to 35.6 million.
Safaricom call centres handle over 150,000 calls every single day and over 60,000 queries via its dedicated SMS short codes.
Today, Safaricom spends hefty amounts each year to keep its customers happy, a feat that is achieved with thousands of workers at its call centres, physical locations and an artificial intelligent Chatbot named Zuri that handles over 100,000 customers alone.
Technology has enhanced our capacity to serve more customers.
Safaricom shops have grown from two to 52 throughout the country, and from the 20 employees who used to work at the shops to over 1,000.
The company has also hired over 2,223 employees across its call centres countrywide. With the advent of Covid-19, technology came in handy as the company deployed over 2,000 customer care agents who answered customer calls from their homes.
In hindsight, technology is directly responsible for the seismic shift in how businesses handle customer service. Businesses are increasing swapping call centres for CRMs and AI-powered automated support.
“The flexibility to do virtual service delivery and monitoring service levels is a direct result of our investments in technology. Zuri Chatbot has no emotions, which makes it a great tool to serve customers at any time. Technology has enhanced our capacity to serve more customers and has also helped us personalise the service,” Ms Atika said.
In the course of her work, Ms Atika has learned that the customer needs to be felt constantly — every hour, every second. Every department must be conscious of what the customer is saying.
“Today’s customer is more enlightened and can express him- or herself in many ways. The first thing any business must do is to be aware and to have visibility of what is going on in various channels, especially on social media. The business must also act with speed to respond to those customers, and be very honest, authentic and empathetic in its responses,” Ms Atika said.
But why does it cost so much to give a therapeutic ear, keep customers engaged and their money safe? The Kenyan consumer has evolved to a more knowledgeable client who demands the best of service that money can buy. As such, the cost of keeping customers satisfied has never been this crucial, especially in the service industry.
Banks, for instance, have over the years managed to keep fraud cases under wraps by handling complains internally and requesting customers to physically visit branches and make reports. But with social media, customers choose to instead air their grievances on social media platforms, and banks must promptly address their complaints while at the same time dealing with an online backlash.
Service downtimes also attract a lot of criticism and one irate customer’s frustrated voice can quickly turn into a crescendo of bad publicity for a company. Safaricom, which handles money through its M-Pesa business, also puts the company at the centre of the sensitivity that surrounds people’s funds. From fraudsters who try to lure unsuspecting customers to their traps to cases where one sends money to the wrong number, the service has pushed the company’s customer service to evolve while offering new technologies to handle emerging challenges.
For instance, Safaricom was the first company in the east and central Africa to install voice biometric systems ‘At Safaricom, My Voice is My Password’ to safeguard the customer.
“It is not a cheap system. Currently, we are installing the natural language IVR, which is going to be very transformational. It means that when you call the call centre we will no longer ask you to Press 1… Press 2… etc. , instead we will recognise you by your voice and you will continue speaking naturally where our AI system will take it up from there, picking out keywords. We will be the first company in Africa to have the Natural Language IVR,” Ms Atika said.
This story was first published in the Nation Africa and is part of the Safaricom@20 celebrations. For 20 years, Safaricom has developed new technologies and innovations to support and enable Kenyans to communicate, connect and to go beyond.