In our series of letters from African journalists, Adaobi Tricia Nwaubani considers how to do business in Nigeria.
While travelling from Lagos to Abuja in 2011, a Nigerian “big man” who sat beside me on the plane discovered by glaring at my smart phone screen that I worked on Nigeria’s Next newspaper and began to complain bitterly.
He told me that a series of stories in the publication had led him to instruct “his people” to stop giving adverts to Next.
But he had first tried to negotiate with the relevant editor.
“I didn’t ask him to kill the story,” he said. “I simply asked him to ‘manage’ it.”
Perhaps less provocative headlines, he explained, or a less stinging choice of words.
I have listened to foreigners and returnees express horror over some practices regarded as completely natural here”
Adaobi Tricia Nwaubani
However, the editor had informed him that things worked differently at Next than other Nigerian newspapers.
For example, a completely different desk from that where a story originated has the final say on headlines and kickers.
“That’s rubbish,” the big man said to me.
Patiently, I explained the advantages of that process, how it ensured best practice in journalism.
Next’s publisher, Dele Olojede, was a Pulitzer-winning journalist who, after over 20 years’ experience abroad, returned to Nigeria with the dream of revolutionising the country’s news media, where some journalists make their pens available to the highest bidder.
Some papers are known to collect payment from individuals or organisations in exchange for publishing stories.
Next promised that every editorial decision would be based solely on the judgment of the editors.
The big man shook his head in consternation.
“You’re not a Nigerian,” he declared. “You’d better follow your boss and go back to America. Next will never survive if you people continue like this.”
Next died a few months later, after three years of battling to keep its head above water.
A similar fate awaits many of the individuals and organisations currently buying into the “Nigeria Rising” narrative and rushing to invest in what is now Africa’s largest economy.
That is, if they insist on conducting business here while adhering to alien standards.
Again and again, I have listened to foreigners and returnees express horror over some practices regarded as completely natural here.
Indeed, many of the practices that alarm them are so natural that few home-grown Nigerians regard them as corrupt or unethical.
They have become the norm, rather than the exception performed by an unscrupulous minority.
Sooner or later comes the landmark decision: Continue doing things like you did in the UK or US or wherever and see if you can swim against the forceful tide, or start adapting your methods to a peculiar environment.
Mobile phone companies gave many Nigerians their first experience of quality customer service
A number of multinationals in Nigeria have suffered costly reprimands from the judiciaries in their countries of origin, for engaging in practices that can be crucial to survival in the Nigerian business climate.
Could it be time for Nigeria – and other countries of Africa – to define exactly what the term “corruption” means to our people, in our own environment?
In 2001, mobile phone technology was launched in Nigeria.
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Even an announcement to board your flight at the airport sometimes sounded like a summons to the parade ground”
Foreign telecommunications companies landed and set up shop.
For the first time in the country’s history of barely-existing land phone services, the average Nigerian would be able to own a telephone.
He would no longer travel hours to visit a friend, only to hear that the person had left for a month-long trip just five minutes earlier.
He would not have to join an unending queue at a “business centre”, where strangers would, when it eventually got to his turn, overhear his plea to a relative in America for a contribution towards papa’s prostate gland surgery.
The mobile phone companies introduced something else that was uncommon in Nigeria: Quality customer service.
Decades of military rule had acculturated Nigerians to harsh and brash communication: Decrees and edicts.
At the time, even an announcement to board your flight at the airport sometimes sounded like a summons to the parade ground.
Through the trained personnel at their call centres, however, the telecoms companies addressed customers with more dignity and respect than most Nigerians had ever experienced from service providers.
‘Never say no’
My friend, Obioma, was part of the pioneer customer services team at one of the first mobile phone firms.
Customer service departments are becoming more common as Nigeria gets more online retailers
She told me that the company eventually had to go against international standards of relating with customers, and stop their staff from concluding conversations with the usual: “Is there anything else I can do for you?”
It turns out that the majority of Nigerians were not used to rejecting a blank cheque.
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The customers would invite their nearby family and friends to the phone, in case anyone had a problem that might need sorting out”
Whenever you asked them that question, they automatically assumed that they must request something else – almost like when diners at a buffet feel compelled to keep stuffing their bellies because the tureens are not yet empty.
And so, the conversations between customer service staff and Nigerian customers never seemed to end.
Each time staff attempted to conclude by once again asking the question, another round of requests began.
Sometimes, the customers would invite their nearby family and friends to the phone, in case anyone had a problem that might need sorting out.
This particular telecoms company, for its own good and the good of Nigerians who might be desperate for available staff to pay them some attention, then initiated a change to their procedure.
Except when dealing with “premium” customers, they began concluding queries with a simple: “Thank you for calling.”
Imagine if international customer service watchdogs disparaged this company for not maintaining the standards upheld in other environments.
Sometimes, but not always, understanding local context is vital.