How A Female Entrepreneur Seeks to Transform Customer Service In Rwanda Through Training

One of the most important sectors that is greatly contributing to Rwanda’s economic growth is the service sector (Uwitonze and Heshmati). Despite the challenges brought on by the Covid pandemic, the service sector was the biggest contributor to Rwanda’s gross domestic product, bringing in 48%  to the Gross Domestic Product (GDP) in 2022 from 10.8% in 2021 (Iliza). As a landlocked country, Rwanda seeks to transform itself into a service-based hub, which would be contributing to key sub-sectors such as maintenance and repair of motor vehicles, wholesale and retail trade and transport services and services including hotels and restaurants, under two broad categories of trade and transport services (Uwitonze and Heshmati).

The biggest test for Rwanda’s service sector came in June 2022, when Kigali was chosen to host one of the most prestigious global summits, the 26th Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting (CHOGM). All hands in the hospitality and tourism sector were on deck to ensure delivery of the highest standards of customer delivery. Sue-Elen Ochanda, an expert and trainer in customer service, watched keenly as the preparations were being made. When Rwanda was preparing to host delegates from all over the world for CHOGM, one thing that made a huge impression on Sue-Elen is that the government sent out a list of hospitality standards to maintain to the public that was mostly directed to hospitality providers. One of the requirements on the list was that hospitality staff should not wear torn shirts and that got Sue-Elen so frustrated, because hospitality staff should be aware about these minute but major details, when it comes to hospitality, professionalism and staff grooming. Sue-Elen decided then that she would work on the mindset of the hospitality staff, with the aim of guiding them to start valuing the importance of  treating customers with the utmost professionalism and customer service. Based on a study on the impact of poor customer service on the Rwandan economy, one of the cultural factors that impede development, especially in the service sector, includes, “poor appreciation for the concept of customer service, with service providers providing too little and customers tolerating too much” (Lwakabamba 6). Furthermore, the study pointed out, among other findings, that customers continue to patron businesses with poor service, due to lack of competition. Lwambaka also pointed out that the culture in Rwanda goes against complaining and customers are not aware of the type of service they should expect (8). Another study conducted to investigate the relationship between service quality and customer satisfaction found that the responsiveness of service was one of the biggest factors influencing customer satisfaction (Gihozo and Ernest). Moreover, the study found that “prompt problem solving, helpfulness and effective communication play a crucial role in enhancing guest experiences” (Gihozo and Ernest).

In 2022, Sue-Elen founded Cornerstone Consultancy Services, which provided training in customer care, sales and marketing, customer service and English for business language. Sue-Elen was first inspired in 2020 while she was in a hospitality class at Davis College in Kigali, when the instructor talked about how to build a business by identifying a pain point you see and want to solve for others. Sue-Elen observed that when she patronized different places in Kigali, the customer service was wanting. That was her eureka moment! She settled on focusing on the service sector in Rwanda and elevating the delivery of customer service through training.

“I try to train a team apart and the managers apart, because the managers are the drivers of the change,” Sue-Elen emphasized.

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Challenges and Learning Opportunities

As a female entrepreneur, Sue-Elen has faced a myriad of challenges that have also served as learning opportunities. Securing finances at the start was one of the major hurdles to cross. In addition to using the savings she had, she also sought the assistance of her family and friends within her network. The second challenge came when acquiring new clients, who mostly wanted to know if she had trained in big hotels and had the necessary qualifications. Another challenge Sue-Elen faced was resistance to change, especially from male training participants who are not receptive to being trained by a woman, moreso a young woman.

“The non-verbal and verbal communication was different, because they may look like they are participating in the training, but once they walked out the door, all that I had said remained,” she remarked.

Because of this minimal interaction during the training sessions, where not enough change was happening, Sue-Elen decided to use a different approach. She started immersing herself in the day-to-day process of a training participant at their workplace, to deeply understand their process and identify the skills gaps. She observed that changing a client’s mindset, which is the goal of the training, happened far more effectively when she engaged with the clients through a sustained period of time and was able to provide more tailored training, based on their needs. She does not see herself as a trainer, but part and parcel of the group she is training. Sue-Elen also gives out a lot of personality tests in between training, so that she can know who a client is and looks for different things, unearthing who an individual is.

One key element that has enabled Sue-Elen to overcome these challenges in her entrepreneurial journey is having a network of friends and colleagues. Sue-Elen speaks up often about the struggles she faces as an entrepreneur and that has earned her listening ears across the different conferences she attends. Consequently, people remember her challenges and she would sometimes meet individuals, who mention that they heard her speak about a particular problem and how far she has come in finding a solution.

Advice for Fellow Entrepreneurs

As the service sector in Rwanda grows, more opportunities are bound to come up for entrepreneurs to delve into the customer service industry. When it comes to deciding on a business idea, Sue-Elen advises one to identify the odd spaces, places where people are not seeing the gaps.

“Open your eyes to see the challenges that others don’t see. Also, identify what inspires you to start a business or else the dream may fall away,” Sue-Elen pointed out.

Sue-Elen emphasizes that if you have a job, but you have your eye on something else, especially getting into entrepreneurship, do not quit your job yet, because it leads to financial insecurity when one does not have a monthly income.

“Before you step out into entrepreneurship, save up and find out what resources you need to run the business, to avoid overspending.”

Sue-Elen also pointed out the power of networks and how her friends and family recommend her for different opportunities.

“Often let your close circle of good and supportive friends know what you are doing and what you are looking for. They are like a circle that you can lean on” she added.

How has Sue-Elen sustained herself in the entrepreneurial journey? Firstly, she is often willing to share with people about what she does and how she can help companies through her work in training on customer service. That is how she landed her first client, after she spoke about her consulting company at a chance meeting with the father of one of her son’s friends. When she eventually had a brief meeting with the potential client, she portrayed confidence, considering it was her first time pitching her training services. The client  called her back to do more customer service training sessions with the staff and even to conduct interviews. Why was she called back? Sue-Elen pointed out that her different style of training that involves engaging with the training participants at the workplace and providing tailored workshops has positively affected the staffs’ productivity. Secondly, Sue-Elen does monitoring and follow- up sessions of the staff and offers follow up training sessions for free to cover any more challenging areas. One success story is that she was able to turn a poorly performing staff member into one of the best sales people at the company. Sue-Elen is greatly motivated by her son, who is her reason to keep pushing and constantly believe in herself. When the challenges in the entrepreneurial journey and in life come along, she knows to keep fighting and keep moving forward, so that she can inspire her son and support him to make his dreams come alive.

In the next ten years, Sue-Elen aims to transform the customer service industry through the training sessions she has conducted, which she hopes to witness when she revisits the companies and individuals she has worked with.

“Transformation takes time, so by 2030, I hope to see the companies where I have trained starting to cause customer service in Rwanda to transform.”

Bibliography

Gihozo Turinabo, Brigitte and Ernest, Safari. “Service Quality And Customer Satisfaction In Selected Up-Market Four And Five Star Hotels In Kigali City, Rwanda.” Global Scientific Journal, Volume 11, IsSue-Elen 8, August 2023. Global Scientific Jounal,  http://www.globalscientificjournal.com/researchpaper/Service_Quality_And_Customer_Satisfaction_In_Selected_Up_Market_Four_And_Five_Star_Hotels_In_Kigali_City_Rwanda.pdf

Iliza, Ange. Poor Service and Customer Care Plague Hotel Industry. Rwanda Today, 11 Aug. 2022. Rwanda Today,

Lwakabamba, Gloria. Poor Customer Service and its Impact on the Rwandan Economy.

Institute of Policy Analysis and Research, 2009. http://ipar-rwanda.org/IMG/pdf/customer-care.pdf

Uwitonze, Eric and Heshmati, Almas. Service Sector Development and its Determinants in Rwanda. Institute for the Study of Labor, 2016.

https://docs.iza.org/dp10117.pdf

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hkonyango

Over the past seven years, I have helped organizations in education, recruitment, corporate training and international affairs to document projects and market products and services through content creation and management, communications outreach and engagement and website and social media management. Along the way, I have developed a strong passion for global development and I seek to use my communication skills in advocating for youth and women socio-economic empowerment, especially in the areas of education, entrepreneurship and employment.

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