In my line of profession, market/ing research, I am privileged to work almost like a medical Doctor but in this case an organisational Doctor, if you like. What happens is that organisations ‘not feeling well’ especially in terms of customer related elements (customers in this case includes consumers, shopper, employees and members of the public) will come to me and other researchers to present their problems (‘illnesses’) e.g. sales decline, customer loss, staff turnover etc. and ask the researcher (‘Doctor’) to propose (‘prescribe’) suitable research solutions that will help them understand the problem and possibly solve it (‘recover’ from the illness. If you think about it every organisation must do this to stay healthy. For more than two decades, I have listened to various business illnesses and prescribed various forms of medication. Some recovered and some did not. In other cases I just conduct focus group discussions or in-depth interviews with relevant customers for different products and services in various sectors. So I tend to have informed opinions about various business sectors as I have heard a lot of challenges and solutions.
One of the fundamental lessons I have learnt about, especially, small businesses (SMEs) in Africa is that there is more talk (statistics) about businesses that die than those that survive. This is quite evident in the prevailing situation in Zimbabwe where we read more of company closures than successful stories. This trend has forced me to explore why Zimbabweans start businesses in the first place. I thus conducted a couple of qualitative group discussions and in-depth interviews with Zimbabwean SME business owners in Zimbabwe and in South Africa. Listening carefully to all, I distilled four distinct theories, among others, for what triggers business start-ups in Zimbabwe i.e.
- Knowledge (kuziva/ulwazi);
- Unemployable personality and
- Unemployable credentials.
Majority of the people start businesses because they feel, they have reached a stage in their working life where they now know enough (technically) to stand on their own. So they leave current employer and set-up own shop. This, it appears, is the commonest reason why Zimbabweans start own businesses. A second category of business owners, started businesses because they had capital they wished to invest in a business of one form or another. A common sentiment is that a significant number of Zimbabweans in the limelight have, over the past few controversial years, amassed significant money through both orthodox and unorthodox means. The third motivation for starting businesses is unemployable personality. These are people who cannot work under anyone because of their character (they always fight or clash with all sorts of superiors/bosses). So their profession becomes job hopping until they ultimately resort to setting up own shop. These are entrepreneurs who can succeed with exposure and skilling on the dynamic of business. They tend to fail as they have the will and technical know-how but lack other business traits. The last reason for starting business is also unemployability but this time, it is because the people involved are unemployable because they tend to not have adequate formal academic qualifications or formals skills needed for formal employment but are innovative. If you bother to check, one can see that there are many such organisations in Zimbabwe and many African countries. Most of such organisations have low entry barriers and attract huge following (‘customers’) very easily.
What is however mind boggling to me is that when you analyse chief reasons why many African businesses die (most prematurely), you come to the conclusion that it is also academic knowledge without experience of running a business along proper and basic business principles. In other words, the business owners tend to listen to themselves (self-serving) and themselves alone.
“ As I see it, the main trigger for starting businesses i.e. knowledge (kuziva/ulwazi) seems to be also the Chief reason why many local organisations die. Organisational leaders need effective feedback mechanisms to listen to customers, employees, general public etc. on issues that make a difference”
Some experts say for success, business need ‘critical mass’ at the top. In street lingo this means you cannot do it alone, you need diverse skills at the top to be able to mitigate risk sufficiently as well as pull necessary resources. Most successful businessmen tend to have one thing in common i.e. they have a perfect blend of three crucial skills i.e. technical, interpersonal and conceptual (ability to apply long-term mind-set and see opportunities today that will be enjoyed in future) skills. However to me all this must translate into a customer-centric approach to business. The customer is king philosophy seems glaringly lacking in many business in Zimbabwe today. Just do an audit of a few available businesses (and organisations) and see how easy it is to associate the word arrogance with them. Arrogance comes from a self-centric strategy (“I know what I am doing, you don’t know what I went through” mentality). The world is no longer about Mr Know it All. It is now about Mr Find it All. A strategy that has no genuine mechanisms for listening to crucial customers is certainly on a downward spiral no matter how it looks today. The online platform is not making it any easier for self-serving organisations. Looking at the much documented and much talked about Zimbabwe’s socio-economic challenges, my free researcher advice to many local organisations is that please introduce mechanisms to formally listen to your key customers to remain relevant.
“If you know what your customers want, you can pay attention to them. If you are able to pay attention to your customers, you can anticipate their future intention. If you can predict your customer’s intentions, you remain relevant now and in future. Now it is more about being relevant as an organisation rather than being the most intelligent leader”
Patson Gasura, is founding Managing Director, of a regional research consultancy called Topline Research Solutions (TRS). He can be contacted on firstname.lastname@example.org or + 263 4 764620/21 or www.topliners.co.za.