Black businesses and customer service

Black businesses and customer service

The Black community encompasses small businesses and social enterprises, and these can help to build wealth for tackling social issues relating to youth, health and employability, to name a few. But there is a culture of poor customer service in certain areas of the Black micro-business community, most notably handymen, hairdressers and ‘cook shops’ selling Caribbean and African cuisine.

A book cover of Cracking a Nut: Customer Service in the African Caribbean Business, by Yvonne Witter
Cracking a Nut: Customer Service in the African Caribbean Business, by Yvonne Witter Download 'Yvonne Witter_Blog.jpg'
"Beneficiaries are multiple: the staff, the business owner and the customer." - Yvonne Witter, Fellow

Those established businesses are vulnerable to losing their livelihood, thereby creating a negative impact on families and on wealth creation in communities, if they do not change the way in which many deal with customers. Weaknesses in such businesses can have an impact on the wider community.

Despite the poor service, the end product is often good and customers return - because of scarcity of supply and a tacit acceptance that the experience is ‘par for the course’ and must be endured in order to get what they need. And there is a slow but steady change, with new Black-led businesses emerging in various sectors, which is already shattering the myth that the Black community falls short on delivering good customer service. The pandemic has enabled time for entrepreneurial creativity and many people have hatched new businesses during lock down.

Support and knowledge exchange should be given to owners and staff to address any generational trauma which may exist, especially in relation to building and sustaining good customer relationships. Although my explanations and suggestions for improvement are not exhaustive, from my experience when attention is given to those aspects mentioned below some magic happens:

Existing business owners need to be creative in how they lead their small teams. They need to learn how to be flexible in their approach to managing staff and supporting staff welfare where they can. For example, offering good breaks and hot meals, and allowing flexible working opportunities where possible. On tough, challenging days, they should thank staff for their efforts, and notice and reward outstanding achievement. All of those efforts can contribute to making workers feel love and acceptance in the workplace. Happy staff treat customers well when they are front-facing in a business. Low-paid staff can be treated well and made to feel accepted and an integral part of the business. Money is not the only incentive that drives productivity in the workplace.

There is a potential for service to be conflated with servitude in the Black psyche and this can cause confusion in Black businesses. Training should be given to all staff in the fundamentals in servitude in some sectors of Black businesses, regarding the importance of treating customers with respect and dignity, and tending to customer needs with grace. Often business owners are the ones providing the direct service and may need training too.

Business owners’ leadership skills training should include, amongst many skills, training to overcome unconscious bias towards staff who serve customers. All people working in a business are significant and important: like cogs in a wheel, everyone makes the wheels turn smoother and thus ensure a smooth journey to success.

Business owners need training in self-awareness and emotional intelligence. I would want to introduce mindfulness and compassion for self and others to create a more considerate, kind and supportive work environment, because human suffering is universal.

Woman presenting at the Women Economic Forum in Egypt 2020
Yvonne presenting at the Women Economic Forum in Egypt in March 2020 Download 'Yvonne Witter_Blog2.jpg'

My book published on 26 May 2021, Cracking a Nut: Customer Service in the African Caribbean Business, is my attempt at addressing the problem. Using a storytelling format to communicate complex and sensitive issues has opened the conversation in many public forums on radio, podcasts, Zoom events and in conversations and posts on social media. I am now looking forward to doing workshops and mastermind groups with the target market, taking what was the butt of jokes and treating it as a serious detriment to economic structures in the Black community with a serious conversation about business sustainability and community wealth building.

Beneficiaries are multiple: the staff, the business owner and the customer.

The business owner will benefit from this intervention because they operate at low business margins and their businesses are vulnerable to cessation due to rising competition and tougher immigration laws. They often do not realise how vulnerable they are to losing their livelihoods, and the resultant impact on families and the wider community. Knowledge of strategies for change could impact a business favourably, and my work involves changing beliefs and values in relation to the responsibilities of being in a leadership position with influence over others within an already marginalised minority community.

The staff could end up working in a business where they are valued and treated with respect, compassion and kindness. Happy staff provide a positive customer experience.

Customers have a right to a favourable experience when trying to purchase goods and services from people who look like them. The customer also needs to understand that speaking to and otherwise communicating with shop staff as though they are lesser human beings does not make for a comfortable business transaction. Most people want to provide a service in a polite and respectful way. Customer relationships are a two-way experience.

Cracking a Nut: Customer Service in the African Caribbean Business, by Yvonne Witter, is published by BolaWit, price £9.65


The views and opinions expressed by any Fellow are those of the Fellow and not of the Churchill Fellowship or its partners, which have no responsibility or liability for any part of them.


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