The future of service standards in the tourism, hospitality and leisure in Nigeria
If you’ve travelled to Nigeria, there’s always a recollection of some intense experience that one tends never to forget. Going over these memories sometimes brings with it a sigh of nostalgia perhaps? Maybe of the wonder with which you experienced how things run differently over there. But what is for certain is that one never remains indifferent about Nigeria.
Thinking about it, if you visit one ofthe more urban chic restaurants in Lagos and Abuja, the bill is usually brutal but worth the food experience, especially if it’s a fusion of the local and the more familiar. What creates the more lasting impression, however,is more normallythe lack of connectivity between you and the server. That almost tangible fear expressed by the server of not engaging with you in a lively conversation. The ‘deer in the headlights’ look you get when you ask anything outside of the script such as “may I have a side dish instead of an entrée?”is not uncommon. The thought that, in Nigeria, servers are trained to be sullen and unwelcoming.An exaggeration maybe, but the truth is, there’s a longway to go in the hospitality space when it comes to bringing people up to scratch in service delivery.
Hospitality is fun, engaging, confident. Sadly, this does not cut across the board, as many of thepeople employed in the industry are “in transit” to other “more respectable” jobs. What elsewhereis considered normal and respectable for a student who needs to fund his lifestyle and pay his way through university simply is not the norm in Nigeria. We talk of adults in their twenties (and some try their luck all through their thirties!) still depending on mum and dad for pocket money. Serve in a bar or a restaurant? Unthinkable! This is a pity because we deprive the industry of a vibrant and energetic resource - people who can think on their feet, who have the basic exposure to be able to carry out a meaningful conversation, who are confident, and who love what they do.
I’m dreaming, but I think it’s possible. While changing the culture and attitude to service jobs might be a tall order in the short term, one of the agents of change is found in people management. Fine, this is what we have, but what can we do to transform our human resources into real human capital?The transformation from liability to value creator.It takes a lot of work and creativity but it’s not a whim. The quality of people management strategies has to be the one most singular transformative solutions to the quality of human capital across the sector. How this is done will depend on many factors, internal as well as external to the organisation, but it can be done.
Three things come to mind when it comes down to it. The first is the need to beef up service training. It’s really important that people – both employers and employees - appreciate the distinction between servitude and service. This is probably where the general aversion to hospitality jobs stems from. Good news is that the culinary arts sector has broken away and is cruising towards becoming one of the trending careers for young people in Nigeria. Thanks to the growing number of celebrity chefs and cooking shows, a lot more people are forming a real appreciation for pots and pans…and yes, it’s in! The onus is now on the rest of the pack to catch up.
My second suggestion is to rework the content of service training to build a pool of skills, knowledge and confidence. Let’s face it, people are bound by the limits of what they have been exposed to, a classic case of one only being able to give what one already has. And I’m convinced that the service attitude we look out for is already there, but needs to be teased out – some hoteliers have succeeded in that. African hospitality isn’t a put-on, it’s a given. When you visit friends at home, it is considered an honour that you came. That’s why perfect timing is when you happen on the folks as they sit down to a meal; you get a space at the table by default. That’s the way things are. It is how to translate this natural gift of hospitality into the commercial space, that beckons on trainers and educators to get right. To reach the relaxed, professional level of service requires a confidence born of people comfortable with what they know and what they can do.
Finally, owners and managers need to understand the connection between people management practices and business performance. If our service staff are to deliver excellent service, then there needs to be an enabling environment to foster excellent performance. And it isn’t always about money. An open door policy to hear how they got to work that morning. For many, this daily adventure is material worthy of a reality show. Did you get onto the ferry on time or it just didn’t turn up? Sometimes the human resource manager should realise that talking about an issue helps to diminish the perception of a hopeless situation. This is not to suggest that our workplaces become counselling centres, but it does help to consider the welfare and work-life balance of the people who serve our guests.
Back to the server we talked about earlier. Imagine the future for a second - a confident, well-spoken young lady approaches your table and suggests you try the Jollof rice instead of the fries. A much better choice sir, it’s the best Jollof rice on the continent!
W Hospitality Group, Lagos