As it appeared in the Daily Nation on April 17th, 2018

Last week, I had one easy afternoon.  After visiting college, I decided to spend time at the Thika Road mall observing the quality of retail experience. In total, I visited 12 retail outlets. The outlets visited stocked mainly clothes, toys, groceries, vegetables, textbooks and stationary, electronics, furniture, pharmaceutical products as well as a variety of merchandise.  As I stepped into every outlet, I keenly watched how the staff acted and reacted. Were they welcoming? Did they offer to help? Did they really care?

The experiences across the shops differed. However, one thing stood out – most of the staff both at the shop floor and at the checkout counters were busy. While some were busy assisting customers, many others were busy scrolling down their mobile phone. At several retail outlets, I had to enquire from the staff – do you work here? At a toys shop, a staff who seemed like the manager or even an owner was comfortably slouching on his seat as he scrolled down the phone. I doubt he was conversing with an important customer. At another corner, the only shop floor staff available was also busy scrolling down his phone. The two were too preoccupied on their mobile phones to notice that I had walked in and needed assistance. In addition, the items on the shelves would have benefited from some sprucing up. When I walked over to counter to pay for a gift bag, I could not hide my disapproval and stated it as it was “I can see everyone is too busy on their phone.”

Is retail customer experience and other front line services taking a nosedive because of the mobile phone? Is the mobile phone becoming a foe? Why do customers have to wait on staff who are busy on their phone? It is evident that the mobile phone despite its many advantages has become a distractor. Many staff working in the front line seem to be consistently on their mobile phones mostly using it for personal social interactions.

Having worked in the retail space, at no one time did we have mobile phones on the shop floor at the Walmart stores. Using the mobile phone as opposed to being at the service of customers did not seem a predicament. That was more than a decade ago. And a lot has since changed. A new generation has flooded the frontline, the mobile phone has evolved, and the need to be always online seems to have become a priority for many.  Most front line staff are distracted; they can no longer pay full attention to the customer or to their jobs. As a result, productivity and the quality of customer experience have slumped.

What should business do? Some business seem to have policy guidelines regarding the use of mobile phones for personal interactions while at the work place, others do not.   While policy guideless are important, staff and managers need to take up their individual responsibility and focus more on their customers. No customer deserves to wait for a staff who is on a personal call or one who is busy scrolling down their whatsapp messages or social media pages.

Lucy Kiruthu is a Management Consultant and Trainer connect via twitter @KiruthuLucy