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Opinions of Monday, 15 May 2006

Columnist: Bannerman, Nii Lantey Okunka

Ghanaian Embassies Must Revisit What Customer Service Means.

It was Tuesday the 9th of June and I was recuperating from some flu symptoms. Previously, the president of Ghana Visions Foundation, Dr Borquaye, had called me about a visa concern for one of the members of our medical mission to Ghana. This medical mission is going to Ghana to do volunteer work for free. They are scheduled to leave on the 15th of May but one of the members, a nurse practitioner, still has not received her visa even though she has mailed it in and followed procedure. She is nervous as the date approaches and all we want to do is find out about the status of her visa. My assignment was to get in touch with the embassy and find out about the status of her visa. Boy, did I get myself into a pickle.

I called the embassy around 11 a.m. and got somebody on the other end. We were off to a good start I thought. I gave the individual details of my concerns and after being asked to hold on a couple of times, I was promised a call back very soon during the day. Due to the urgency of the matter and for fear of being brushed aside, I started calling back around 2pm to check on my request. The consular section closes at 3p.m. so you can see why I started dialing in from 2 p.m. As we speak, I have not received a call back!! What really does it take to look into a system and tell me the status of a visa application? Do we have such a system? What kind of information systems do we have in the Foreign Service? Only Antoa Nyamaa can tell!! All around the world, our embassies fail to provide instant information when called upon. People who filed for dual citizenship have had their fill of ?oh ?prease? call back?. Why should this be the status? Why must we accept this level of service? Yet, Ghana embassy in Washington D.C. is quick, I mean lightening quick, to dispel alleged rumors about this NPP government. Why can?t we have this same quickness when it comes to paying customers? Nothing short of a complete review of our embassies will do the trick. We have to look at the entire business process of our embassies! We can do better! Depoliticize the embassies!!

During the course of my dealing with the embassy, what I noticed did not sit well with me. When you call the embassy, the folks there hardly pick up their phone. I am talking about calling there 15 times within an hour without one hit. Is the Ghana embassy that busy or we are just enjoying an aroma of what goes on in Ghana? The automated system, with pixel precision, directs you into a mail box like it should. But wait a minute! The mailbox is full so you can?t leave a message. Ok! So the automated system channels you to the receptionist who is next in line. Well forget it! The receptionist is probably the hardest person to find in Washington DC. If you are transferred to the central operator no one ever picks up. The operator is notorious for not picking up. May be the operator is not supposed to pick up or our embassy is on auto pilot. Now, if we can?t get this basic level of service, what kind of account are we giving of ourselves? There is a great lot at stake here and I hope the people at the embassy, some of whom I know personally, will not take this personally. There is a not too good perception about services at the embassy and we need to get to the bottom of the root causes. I am sure we have very good people there but we need leadership to set standards, expectations and demand performance. I want an embassy that works for it customers and I hope our brothers and sisters who work there want the same. I am sure they do!

I don?t think it amounts to overstating the case by saying that our embassy has poor customer service. This has traditionally been the case. I have heard of countless war stories in dealing with our embassies and I think it is time that we ask for better service. Our embassies must not be run like dysfunctional villages with no one in charge. I respect the people who sacrifice everyday to give us service at the embassy but I must also be very blunt with my sisters and brothers that we want better. You see, our embassy is the frontline of who we are. People begin to get a whiff of who we really are by their experience at the embassy. May be it is good for people to harshly know who we really are by getting a taste of reality at the embassy. However, is this hurting us though? Why should an American nurse practitioner who is going to help our folks for free not get the instant service that she deserves? I am not talking about instant approval of her visa but just a status report of what is holding her visa application up. What is so difficult about this?

I know for a fact that there have been funding difficulties at the embassy in Washington DC. I find it hard to understand why this should be so, given the increases in visa fees and others services. This government is taking in all kinds of monies, including monstrous fees at the harbor and it cannot adequately fund the embassy? Is this the same government that houses it president and ministers at the Willard Hotel, the most expensive hotel in Washington? Is this the same government that is building a 30 million presidential mansion while the so called donors and sponsors watch on sheepishly? Is this the same government that wheels a slew of SUVs even as petrol prices skyrocket? What the embassy or government must understand is that, the embassy does not only serve Ghanaians. Normally Ghanaians are supposed to put up with lax customer service. It serves a whole host of people. Some of these people live in countries where customer service is a priority. Some of these people just want to help us. They don?t deserve the run around. Customer service is the first line of business. It is not a favor or something that we do when we are in a good mood. We have to demand of our staff the highest customer service standards in the world. That is the least we can do given our need to attract investors and get all the help we need.

While I am at it, I want to encourage this government to commit to some sort of revamping of library at the Washington embassy. Maybe reorganizing the whole embassy is not a bad idea. Just as you would want somebody to visit you in a nice house that speaks well of you, our embassy should speak volumes about us. Hopefully, the image it projects will be matched at home. The library I am talking about is so poorly equipped and it is actually a disgrace. Let us assume that you are waiting for service at the embassy. You stray to the library and what do you see? A mess! Outdated newspapers and all kind of torn books. My gawd! Should the library not be a place where people can find and research info about Ghana? Should it not have fresh copies of the leading news papers? Ok what about the internet? Is it not true that it takes a fish to reel in a fish? So that a little investment in our embassy will go along way in helping people find out more about us and help them engage with our wonderful people? Why is it that our priorities are always backwards? The irony is that most Ghanaians will easily donate toward such a noble cause. Let?s get it on!

My brothers and sisters, something is fundamentally wrong, when calling your own embassy becomes a nightmare. Something is wrong when calls to the embassy on the second day of the week, only greet full phone mail boxes. Not just one phone mail but several. If you dare me, try it for yourself as soon as you read this article. We cannot take customer service for granted. The embassy must tell us what level of customer service we should expect when we go to or call the place. Maybe a customer service bill, stipulating the rights of customers should be boldly posted at the entrance to help people know what to expect. We need a well funded embassy with very good management. I am sure some form of reorientation will be helpful here. We must let our folks over there know how it feels when you can?t get answers to your calls or no one picks up the phone in most instances. We need to know what capacity they have over there and if that is enough to get the job done. What is the funding level and where is the money going to? Is the ambassadors using the bulk of the budget to fly back and forth to Ghana? What is the budget used for? We are not just asking for customer service but also asking that the staff be given the tools and funding to do their jobs effectively and efficiently.

Perhaps, the starting point should be some sort of customer service survey to give the embassy an inkling of what it customers think of its service. This should go for all the Ghanaian embassies. Since our embassies are an extension of our civil service, maybe this customer survey could or should become an annul event for all government outfits. The results of such customer service survey must be made public for all Ghanaians. The taxpayer deserves to know! This survey should not be seen as an attempt to criticize but instead rather a glorious opportunity to improve services to the paying public. All we want is better service. I humbly suggest that all the ambassadors should hold public meetings as the embassies to solicit vital feedback aimed at improving customer service immediately.

This is a new era for Ghanaians. Our generation must not accept the status quo. We must raise the issues, demand answers and changes. The greatest enablers to stagnation and dysfunctional institutions are not just those who merely wonder in the maze and its attendant bureaucracy, but those who watch on and say nothing. As I have always posited, we deserve whatever comes to us. We will get bad service if we acquiesce and improved service, if we speak up and demand better. I would rather pay a quarter for every phone call that I make to the embassy and get a response, than the current situation. The least we can do is have a receptionist who is physically present during business hours to answer calls. Where is the receptionist? Do we have one at all? I mean throughout the working hours? What am I missing here?

I am asking all to speak up if they?ve had similar experiences. Write or call your ambassadors wherever you live and demand better customer service for all. We can make a difference if we speak up vociferously . To end, all embassies must have suggestion boxes with an easy to fill form attached. We must make it easy to get a stream of constructive feedback from the people that pay us. Let us all work to cast Ghana in a much better light.

Views expressed by the author(s) do not necessarily reflect those of GhanaHomePage.