Global Customer Experience: Forces Shaping CX in East Africa

This blog is the first in a series that looks at global customer experience (CX) to gain an understanding of what consumers want – and how companies are responding.

For the past three years, I’ve been living in Nairobi, Kenya — East Africa’s largest economic hub. And I’ve become fascinated not just by the pace of digital innovation but also the playful, personalized approach to customer experience (CX) that I appreciate as a resident.

To learn more about how companies here address CX, I interviewed Loise Mboo, Board Member, Institute of Customer Experience (ICX), Kenya’s leading CX association; and Getinet Tadesse, Group CIO at Ethiopian Airlines, Africa’s top-ranked airline according to SKYTRAX customer reviews.

The call center model formally started taking shape in Kenya in about 2000, when the country’s telecommunications companies first established operations. In the years since, call center operations have evolved to offer inbound and outbound calls, as well as customer engagement on web and social media through integration with customer relationship management systems.

Nairobi has become a CX powerhouse, and now hosts large business process outsourcing (BPO) companies delivering contact center services within Kenya and across the region.

“The Kenyan market is very creative — extremely creative when it comes to matters of CX,” said Ms. Mboo. “One of the biggest shifts post-COVID is moving from a focus on touchpoints to now focusing on customer engagement and empathy.”

And this shift toward empathy is leading to greater inclusion of both customers and employees in journey design, she added.

Customers Are Innovators

Consumers in the region are highly empowered, said Ms. Mboo. They’ll speak up if they encounter poor service and actively use social media to be heard and get a resolution. They also make suggestions and want to be involved in the innovation process.

“Customers are demanding a lot of innovation and convenience. They are constantly pushing the boundaries and almost getting to a place where they have not only become the designers of products/services but are also influencing the process. They know their rights as customers and will not be shy to call out organizations when their needs are not met.”

When customers are interacting with a company, they don’t want to be forced from one channel to another. And they want everything to be achievable on their handheld device. While 50% of Kenyans own a smartphone, less than 10% of households have access to a laptop, desktop or tablet.

The region’s most mature businesses are responding to customers’ expectations. These companies are embracing journey mapping and bringing customers into the design process. They’re also rapidly embracing a range of digital channels like voicebots and chatbots. They’re using WhatsApp as a blended, conversational sales and service channel. And they’re bringing in artificial intelligence to understand customer needs and assist with self-service.

Businesses also are innovating for feature phone users — telcos, banks and insurers offer a wide range of services through USSD codes. Organizations in the region typically aim to complete 80% of transactions on mobile devices.

Convenience Is King

The main driver for service innovation, especially self-service, is convenience, said Ethiopian Airlines Mr. Tadesse. “People are looking for convenience, whether it is booking or changing tickets, making an upgrade, or access to services during flights. This convenience, at the end of the day, you get it from digitization.”

Currently, 30% to 40% of customer interactions are entirely with self-service channels, which the airline would like to increase to 50% for sales and to 80% for customer service. This involves continually enhancing customer-facing platforms and connecting them with operational systems to offer a greater array of services and address more types of issues.

Different customer segments have different needs, said Mr. Tadesse, noting that commercial travelers seek value-added services, such as excess baggage, whereas tourists appreciate a touchless experience that avoids bureaucracy.

In the future, customers will be able to fully customize the onboard experience through digital platforms.

Managing a Gen Z Workforce

Employee experience is also becoming a powerful concept in East Africa’s contact centers. Where departments have previously been bottom-heavy with entry level positions, businesses are now focusing on career paths and developing more strategic CX capabilities. The drivers include reducing attrition and building the value proposition of CX work for Generation Z.

“Gen Z employees want to be heard, and they want their opinions to be taken into account,” said Ms. Mboo. She notes that getting results and being less focused on the process taken to get there are driving Gen Z workers.

There are new friction points with call center managers over working hours, dress codes and other aspects that some companies might have taken for granted with Gen X and millennial workers. To create more empathetic workforce experiences, CX leaders are beginning to collaborate with HR on engagement strategies and ways of enhancing the employee value proposition.

The future working experience will have routine activities being managed by digital technology. At Ethiopian Airlines, agents will be increasingly focused on customer experience and process optimization, according to Mr. Tadesse. They’ll also take a more proactive role in customer education and understanding specific issues with customers or within the contact center.

Getting a Seat at the Table

Making big investments is always a challenge in East Africa, said Ms. Mboo, because of tight budgets.  Additionally, many organizational structures have CX executives leading a function that’s merged or paired with communications, operations or marketing under a single budget. “It’s sad that we literally only have a handful of organizations that have positioned the CX role at director level, at top senior management level,” she said.

Another challenge includes departmental silos that hamper innovation. “The fact that organizations are still working in silos creates a huge challenge towards the innovation process, and towards customer inclusion in design and development of products and services, processes which are key contributors to the customer experience.”

A Showcase in Marketing Creativity

Personalization and a focus on trustworthiness are leading trends for businesses in both B2C and B2B commerce. Recent billboard campaigns by GA Insurance and Safaricom, which featured a “conversation” between their CEOs, demonstrate Kenya’s extraordinary creativity in engaging customers with openness and humor.

The GA Insurance billboards read: “Dear Mr. Ndegwa, We are the largest fire industrial insurer in Kenya. Your business is safe with us and that’s the simple, honest and transparent truth.”

The 20-foot reply from Safaricom? “Dear Mr. Bhadury, A simple phone call will do next time. Just call me on Kenya’s widest and fastest network. Or visit our app to get the best deal and we can talk as long as you want.”

Consumers loved it.

It’s certainly an exciting time for customer engagement in East Africa. And there’s plenty to suggest that both customers and employees will continue to see the benefits from the growing maturity of CX as a discipline and the emerging focus on empathy.