With 22 years working experience in the Nigerian Financial Services Industry, having worked in three Banks, Ope Wemi-Jones brings deep expertise in operations management for services covering building competitive advantage for organizations through differentiation. Her specialty areas include the development and implementation of a sustainable customer service culture and financial inclusion through the empowerment of women and provision of financial literacy education for the vulnerable and excluded. She also has expertise in product design and sales. Prior to her resignation, she was responsible for the acclaimed Women Banking Program at Access Bank “The W initiative” and development of low-cost deposit products and campaigns geared towards customer loyalty and liability generation. Her transition to Entrepreneurship led her to found “The Customer Focused Company”, a consulting firm established to raise the awareness of customer service amongst customers and service providers. That is not all, in her new role as the Founder and the Chief Experience Officer (CEO), Ope’s goal is to work with C-Suite Executives to integrate a customer service culture with a gender lens into their overarching corporate Strategy with measurable returns on investment. A global leader, chartered accountant with an MBA from the I.E Business School in Madrid, Ope is an author, speaker and trainer per excellence. She bares her mind on customer service, financial literacy education and mentoring for women.
You have been talking about being customer centric, what does it mean?
When you talk about service, you can’t start it and take your hand off; each time you take your hands off, you have to go back to where you started. I have seen that most organizations, when they respond to service issue they think it is just training. Some respond and think it’s for you to get beautiful girls at your front desk. It’s much more than that; just the same way an organization would go on a retreat to build their corporate strategy, they need to spend time to build a customer service culture, if it is going to be sustainable and if it’s going to drive the kind of results that they want. Again, you find that organizations are focused on financial performance. There are a lot of soft issues that drive financial performance: if employees are not well treated, they would never give good services. There is a direct correlation between how your employees are treated and how your customers are treated. So, every time you have a bad customer service experience anywhere, if you are just curious enough, (and) if you engage the staff, you would find out that the staff is not happy about something and then he or she is venting out on the customer.
When I was doing the work of an employee, it made me a better customer service observer; each time I am with someone, I am just consciously or unconsciously evaluating their service from what I see, from what they say, from how they look and all of that, and I think even for small businesses, if everybody tries to build their businesses, big or small, focused on delighting the person that truly pays the salary, everybody would be happy. So, instead of you always working for “shareholders” – because there is a school of thought that believes it is the shareholders that actually own the company and what you do for shareholders is to make profit so you can continue to pay dividend, and there is another school of thought that talks about what we call stakeholders – stakeholders are wider than shareholders, but they are inclusive of shareholders; employees are there; customers are there; and suppliers are included.
When you are dealing with your stakeholders from an informed perspective then you serve people deliberately. The applause you then get for doing your job well is profitability. I spent my last five years in the industry working on women empowerment/gender, helping organizations put on ‘a gender lens’. The gender lens helps you see women and men truly differently, because they are different. So, people need to have that understanding in how they develop their service strategy; in how they train their staff; how they present their organizations and a lot more.
Training is part of what we do, but training is the treatment from the diagnosis that we do and when training, we don’t want organizations to delegate the training to the frontline alone. If companies want to organize events, we can help them put it together, customer service mall and an online feedback platform that would serve as a customer experience reporter. We see quite a lot of organizations in Nigeria that “have done well” but can’t say that they are truly a customer-focused company.
If frontline staffs give poor service, shouldn’t they be checked to serve as deterrent to others?
Sadly, the first reaction for any organisation, if a customer dares to report a frontline person is a sack. This is not the best approach for an organisation that has a customer service culture. The point I am making is that you do not delegate customer service to the frontline alone. Leaders have to be role models for service. Believe me, as bad as you think a frontline officer is, if their bosses are super service providers, it would rub off. But it is easier for a boss to sack a frontline officer, because a boss is always the last person to get sacked, but if the leadership for a customer service culture comes from up to down, it’s given. There won’t be a fuss about ‘she’s not doing it’; because she knows that if she doesn’t do it, even her boss would come down and get it done. The interest is to have a culture that says ‘ when a customer comes in, how do we handle them?’ It’s a culture. So, if in 10 years you leave that organization and another person comes in, the customer is still going to enjoy that same service, because hat is how we do our things around here. Instead of sacking, perhaps, with training, you can solve the problem, because some just put people on the frontline with no training.
When you say you are promoting financial inclusion through empowering women, what exactly do you mean?
They say women and children are the most vulnerable in the society today, and the world is talking gender. Gender, with a bias for women, basically because of their vulnerability. So, we are saying that for the customer service culture, we would do it with a gender lens. Now, looking at the male customers and the female customers and building how those guys would naturally be treated into how you plan your service culture, would also help you serve them better. When it comes to the financial literacy part of it, I have a personal vision and that vision is to use the gift that God has given me over the course of my career to continue to raise the next generation of financially savvy children. Presently, there is really no financial literacy curriculum in Nigeria. Parents grew up without being taught on money management and are raising children now. They can’t give what they don’t have. Financial crisis is always a function of people taking wrong decisions about money. Children of today, all they want to do is buy Iphones without thinking of how to put credit on the IPhone. Somebody needs to step up and help these children before it gets worse. This is why a child would steal to buy an IPhone, trending shoes and clothes and so on. We might not get everybody to embrace it, but if you start making that conscious effort and you get organizations to also adopt it as part of their CSR (Corporate Social Responsibility), we would see a difference.
So, how are you going about the financial literacy education?
We are looking for organizations to partner with and embrace it as part of their CSR, and you can use different approaches: either you leverage on your employee community or you leverage on your business community. So, whether you are in FMCG or Oil and Gas, everybody can adopt a financial literacy education CSR programme to help children in changing behaviours. We talk about children and youths being the future of Nigeria but how prepared are they? Give a child N10,000, you’d be amazed at what you would hear they would do with it. In school, they teach simple interest and all that, but in practical terms you don’t know how those things actually translate. How many of Nigeria’s wealthy men have children that are relevant today? How many of them have been able to build on the legacy their parents have given and added to it over time? What you see they often do is to be leasing the land their father left behind.
What institutional training did you undergo to enable you acquire this experience to deliver your service?
I didn’t subscribe to the traditional thinking that education is the prerequisite for a lot of things. Education is good, but it is not everything. I am a chartered accountant and currently running an MBA that finishes in about three weeks at the IA Business School. My boss gave me a job and that’s what led me into what I am doing here today. But for us here, we just talk about it for the moment and the next minute we are already talking about how to make money. So, for the initial part of it, it was more about self-study. After a while, I went and did some customer service education courses. I left Access Bank, in 2008 for Skye Bank to help them with their customer service before going back to Access Bank in 2013 when they wanted to revamp their women programme. Is there training for how to be gender focused? There are some courses you can go for in schools now, because everybody is talking gender, but it was more or less learning from best practices. There are more than enough examples of organizations that have done well using customer service as a strategy. Most of them offer you opportunity to come and learn from their organization.
People say that customers are always right. Do you agree with this?
I have a book that would be out in January next year and it is a compilation of quotes and I titled it, Quote me on Customer Service. One of the quotes inside is ‘the customer is always right’ but I will say the customer is right to the extent of the level of information you made available to them. In building a customer service culture, each time you tell your customers a company policy, you also have to tell them the reason behind it. When people understand why they are doing what they do, they do it better.
Tell us about the W Initiative you started at Access Bank?
W was about women, about speaking to their lifestyle and their financial needs. There is no way you talk about the women that you are not talking about the family and their children. You can’t relegate 50 per cent of your population and think that your economy would be buoyant and women do a lot of great things. I have spoken to a woman before and she called me and said she wanted my advice on something, and I asked, ‘this thing you say you are doing, how are you doing it?’ And she said she is still doing it for friends and family. And I said, ‘are you charging them for it?’ and she said, ‘I am just helping them.’ I said, ‘but nobody is going to take this business serious, until you begin to charge for It.’ When you are building a business, people would not take it more seriously than you take it yourself. However, W is now for Access Bank and they’re handling it.
In many top companies female C-Suite executives are poor or nonexistent. What do you tell the woman that wants a seat at that table?
For women, you need to do 10 times more than a guy does; because the men have been in the game forever and you need to learn the rules. It is interesting to note that what organizations need to succeed today are the things that come naturally to women. Everybody complains about harsh and unfriendly bosses, but women are naturally caring and nurturing. In organizations where people invest in other people, the result is inevitable. The impact of the organization is also very inevitable. For a woman who is aspiring to become an executive, you play the rules, you need to be knowledgeable. Even as we talk about gender, it is not a quota system that we are talking about; it’s about women who are qualified and ready because you can be qualified and not ready for the opportunities that are presented to you. But I think when preparedness meets opportunity then there is a good match and you can go for it. I don’t think there is this ceiling, as we used to describe it then anymore.
What are some milestones you’ve recorded since you began operations?
I left my job very recently and I realise that what I am doing now is something I should have done about 11 years ago. On the 29th October of 2007, 4:00 a.m. precisely, I took down notes of what I wanted to do and the opening part of the note is ‘nothing is more powerful than an idea whose time has come’. I listed then, the things I wanted to do and asked myself “why would I quit my job now?” and I listed 10 reasons why I needed to quit my job. But I didn’t quit. I think I registered it then, when I had this thought but I didn’t really do anything till now.
So, what are we expecting from the Customer-Focused Company?
We are engaging organizations, helping them understand the essence of service because everybody talks about it, but not everybody understands it. But customers who use services of service providers would tell you that they are not happy about it. There is a research that says that 75 percent of companies believe they’ve delivered good service, but less than 54 percent of customers agree they received good services. So, there is a gap between your expectations and the customer service experience and that’s what the Customer Focus Company wants to help organizations close. I can train you, but if it’s not your way of life you would go back to that which you are used to. Service must be deliberate; you are not being reactive to service; you are building an organization that from the scratch is focused on serving people well. You want to make your money by referrals, not by building marketing costs. I want to be the go-to person when it comes to designing strategies that would help organizations integrate a customer service culture to their corporate strategy, starting with Nigeria and the rest of Africa.
So, with your experience, what would you say are the challenges women executives face?
Well, I think guys take some things for granted and that is why they set meetings at 9:00 pm to finish at 12:00 midnight. We’re answerable to somebody when we get home, no matter how high you climb up the ladder. When it becomes a norm than an exception, it can affect you. Women need to genuinely commit to supporting each other, even in the workplace, to ensure that another woman truly establishes her career makes you a superstar. We should be deliberate about helping and truly supporting each other.
How did you manage your time while you were still employed? And how is it like now?
I have grown up kids now, so it is easier. Now, I have a bit of free time to go to church. I can spend my time praying without thinking that if I pray for the next five minutes, I am going to be late for work and my two kids that are around are loving it. My daughter calls it quality time. I am just recovering roles that were delegated which shouldn’t have been delegated in the first place. I am very particular about making impact in people’s lives. I think I have some skills that, if I remained within that nine-to-five environment, I was never going to be able to share it with other people. It might not mean I am necessarily going to have a lot of free time, but it might mean that I am in control of my time and how I use it.
So, how does your day start now?
Now, I go to the gym. I can pray because if God’s hand is in what you do there would be less stress and struggle. I can look at some of the businesses that I left to people to run that if I had put my hands to it would have done much better. I’m spending my time doing a bit of restructuring and also trying to ensure that I do not alose the discipline of waking up and going to the office, because I think that is very important.
What would be your last words to women out there?
For any woman out there, whatever you’ve set out to do just set out there and do it. You might not get it right the first time, but try again. Not trying at all is failure.