A Few Business Lessons While Traveling in Africa

A Few Business Lessons While Traveling in Africa

The following is a travel story recounted by one of our friends who was attempting to travel from Zim to the UK last week. If you don’t have the time to read the entire story, some of the key points are highlighted for you.

I must try to relate to you why flying an African Airline is so precious...

I boarded the Kenyan Airways flight in Harare against my better judgement. After having to have my staff fight to change the date to a Thursday instead of a Friday—we were willing to pay a change fee, but because I hadn't flown yet and my assistant had booked for Friday, it meant we had to pay $800 US dollars more.

So this was leaving a bitter taste in my mouth as the Harare office for Kenya Airways had begged me to give them my business that usually passes through Europe either to the US or to Europe itself (my preferred route being through Johannesburg directly on a European Carrier). Needless to say, once the journey started, every omen was there to remind me why I stopped using African airlines 20 years ago.

The flight crew are by the book efficient, but are unable to adapt themselves to people. We are just the commodity that they are transporting.

The more I offered explanation that my seat did not need to be in its full and upright position until somewhere near final approach for landing, my stewardess became more agitated, insisting that the pilot had started our decent and I must put my seat in its full and upright position with my seat belt fastened and my window shade up.

Of course we are still at least 20 minutes from a piece of runway.

Rather than try to explain, I simply complied with my insistent stewardess and now her assistant in the business class compartment of our Bombardier aircraft, which by the way was brand new and beautiful!

Upon arriving in Lusaka we were told to remain seated until all of those passengers that were disembarking had left the plane.

Needing to use the toilet, I once again complied, in preference to my fellow passengers and in deference to my stewardess. Once the plane was emptied, the first mate announced that we were refueling the aircraft and under no circumstance were we to use our cell phones or use the toilets until this process had been accomplished. Even though I was bursting, I complied with my seat belt off as instructed.

No less that 12 people then boarded the flight to clean the plane. Very efficient! Ala Africa!

All the while we are being told to remain seated.

Finally, the captain leaves the cockpit and uses the toilet, so I wait until he finishes and then just follow him in using the toilet. Although the airline hostess is mildly agitated, she allows my relief! Of course we go through the same ritual on our decent into Nairobi.

We then taxi to the farthest parking bay from the international terminal and then wait for the bus to arrive and eventually get filled.

Because I am now an expert at bus riding, I position myself by the exit door and after a 10 minute wait and bus ride, I disembark and run into the transit hall.  Clearing security I am excited to get into the business lounge, make contact with everyone and prepare for my Friday meetings.

We are to board at 22:35, so I go to the gate and they say “Don't come back until 23:15." So I ask if there is a problem. The answer is, “No, we will leave on time!"

By 23:45 when we should be departing, I ask the hostess in the business lounge if there is a delay. She says we will depart at 12:00 midnight. At 12:30 am she announces the flight will depart at 1:00 am. At 1:00 am the flight is cancelled and we are instructed to make our way to the departure lounge to be ferried to a hotel!

Now the other passengers are agitated. One family who had their flight delayed for a day on their arrival to Kenya is trying to transfer to Kilimanjaro for their family climb of that great mountain. They’re complaining bitterly about the condition of the hotel they were put in on that fateful delay.

Another gentleman is screaming at the gate agent, "I am not leaving the airport again! This is twice now! And by the time we get to the hotel and return we will have just a couple of hours rest and a whole lot of hassle!"

He of course was right…foreshadowing of what was to come...

Another disgruntled passenger asked which hotel are we being housed in? When he was informed that it was the Panari Hotel, he assured all of us that it was an adequate accommodation.

Relief filled the room and the gate agent announced confidently that we were being taken to a 5-star hotel.

Herein lies the problem with flying in Africa. The gate agent and the lounge hostess are really nice people, they have personalities that suit a position like the one they are in—provided they don't need to do any more than move happy passengers like cattle onto their planes into waiting areas and answer mundane questions.

The situation changes drastically when the agents are now answering questions and giving directions about topics they have absolutely no experience or knowledge of. In other words, totally out of their scope of understanding.

For example, the hostess in the lounge had never been on more than a local flight to Mombasa and had never been inconvenienced by a delayed flight, let alone a cancelled flight. She could neither empathize nor relate to the passengers that were asking questions—all needing to inform colleagues or families of connecting flights and about the changes in program.

Unable to give the answers, she reverted to her training, "Kenya Airways regrets... If we have caused you any inconvenience we are terribly sorry!"

Some help that is! Then the questions fly:
When will the flight be rescheduled?
Do we have a time?
Will we have to wait until tomorrow evenings flight?

The glorious reply, "I am waiting for my supervisor!"

The gate agent is of no better assistance, protesting that Kenya Airways is taking you to a 5-star hotel. Yet when questioned, he himself admitted he has never had the occasion to stay in a hotel! He has no idea what he is talking about! But it is manual perfect!


Culture Key: Your people must know the Why behind What they're doing. Otherwise, when crisis hits, they'll come across as robotic and impersonal. Yes, they can be well-trained and follow the manual, but when it comes to true customer service, your staff must be able to adapt to each customer's unique needs. This has to be shown and trained over and over, not just told and written in an employee handbook.

Now the journey begins.

We are escorted to a bus and driven to immigration and customs in the departure area. We are told to go to the counter and proceed to a bus that will be waiting for us. Once at the counter the immigration agents, ever so unfriendly, look at us like we crawled out of a piece of cheese. It is now 1:45 am and they mumble, “You need to purchase a visa."

We try to explain that we are not entering Kenya at our will, but due to a aircraft technical problem.

We are informed that they are not Air Kenya. They are Immigration. Buy a visa.

Finally, one of the agents volunteers the information that we must fill in a visa application form and that Kenya Airways will pay for our visas. So we all run back toward the doors of the departure hall to collect our form and fill it in.

Once we get to the back, an agent informs us we must fill in a visa application form and an entry form.

So we all dutifully do so!

Back in line, we get to the immigration agents only to be told you must have the form signed by an Air Kenya representative.

Oh, now people are agitated!

One problem, there is no agent from Kenya Airways in sight.

Finally three green-vested agents appear and are mobbed as people push and shove to get the all important scribble.

Now back to the belligerent immigration agents who are not interested in the plight of human beings, but only in doing the least possible to accomplish their all important task.

Amazingly, the agent who serves me takes my forms without even looking at them.  She throws them onto a pile and then scans my passport, types a few things into a frame or two, peels off a visa, writes on the visa, dates it, stamps it and hands me the passport without ever making eye contact.

Anyway, now we’re off to the bus!

We get to the bus and are literally being packed like sardines with all our carry-on luggage into a bus that had to be designed for the circus act where 20 people get out of one small car!

3 seats on one side of the aisle, 2 seats on the other—seats not more than 14 inches wide and aisle not much wider. It now becomes painful to watch as obese Americans and Brits are being told to squish together so every seat can be filled.

Eventually those on the aisles are sitting with one cheek on the seat and the person at the window is pushed as far as they can possibly go. While the poor soul in the middle seat is just squished.

Finally at 2:00am we are off to the 5-star hotel.

The check-in procedure—almost like this had never happened before. I forced my way through the system and fudged a bit to get my passport photo copied and my room key cut. Off to bed by 2:30am.

The security (aka bellman aka concierge guy) in the lobby begs to pull my briefcase to the room for which he is rewarded handsomely.

The room is 3-star at best, but has clean sheets. I fall into bed after setting my alarm. At 5:30am, I awake after 2.5 hours of sleep.

I call the concierge and ask for a toothbrush and shaving kit—something all 5-star hotels offer stranded passengers (in fact most 2-star hotels that service delayed or cancelled flights have such amenities). I am informed that I would have to buy these items. I protest profusely.

The concierge guy says he will see what he can do. He asks my room number and 10 minutes later appears with both items! Yes he is rewarded handsomely! I understand this is how he makes his living.

So now I shave and clean my teeth then look at the shower. Old narrow tub. Shower hose that sprays everywhere unless held or put in holder.  Eventually I have a great hot shower. Then I begin to towel off and there is so much soap in the towel that I decide to get back in shower and rinse off opting to air dry.

Then, down to lobby at 6:30am for our 7:00am departure and the process begins.

We all must stand in line to get a card saying we checked out. It was very efficient but no one knows why they do what they do. Then back onto the bus made for the circus clowns and off to the airport.

Now in lounge hoping we will board at 9:30am and be under way by 10:00am.

Anyway this is a story to be remembered!

  1. Develop a culture of service. This starts at the top and must be demonstrated within your company first in order to translate externally to your customers.
  2. Putting something in a manual and having an employee memorize it is not award-winning customer service.
  3. Empathy goes a long way when dealing with disgruntled customers.
  4. Efficiency for the sake of being efficient gets you nowhere. Aim for effective first so the efficiency has a purpose.

(photo via walter callens)