Any business coach will tell you that in order for your business to thrive, you need to know your customer. For us, this means that the artisans providing customer service in the Bangui boutique need to understand who they are selling to. This understanding can be challenging to come by, given the extreme difference in the artisan and the customers' lived experiences.
Who is our average maker – our artisan?
She is an adult central African woman who has never left the Central African Republic. She lives in a mudbrick house, without electricity and water, in a busy neighborhood in Bangui. She waits hours in line each day to get water at a public neighborhood pump. She brings home, on average, 20 liters of water per day per family. (PSSST…An average American family uses over 1,100 liters per day.) To charge her phone, she pays a small fee at neighborhood streetlight, where an illegal black market connection has tapped into the state power line. She owns one or two outfits, but always looks fashionable because she and her friends have established a rotational trading scheme in which everyone swaps clothes with each other. She has given birth to several children, most of whom are still alive. One or two have passed away for reasons she is not quite sure of. She speaks three Central African languages fluently but learned to read and write just a year ago. She has had one steady job in her adult life: as an Ndara artisan. With this job she supports 15 family members.
Who is our average customer?
She is an adult woman who was born in a western country and has traveled widely. She lives in a modern apartment with electricity and running water. She enjoys long showers, sometimes multiple times a day when it is hot. She charges her phone any time she needs to. She owns a full wardrobe and goes to exercise classes. She does not have any children or dependents. She speaks French and English, has a university education and an international profession that connects her to the world. She is passionate about poverty reduction, culture and politics. She would like to live in a fairer, better, world.
These two people - our maker and our customer - who come from so widely different realities, need to understand each other for our business to work. In fact, they need to not only speak the same language, but need to understand the meaning behind the words. Artisans need to understand what customers are looking for. What do customers want when they come to our boutique? When they ask us for something, what do they really mean? What cultural expectations are attached to the words they are using?
In our business management training, we rely heavily on the Central African tradition of passing knowledge through storytelling. We use pictures, visuals and role plays to explain western preferences, culture and habits. One of the stories that has become central to our training is a story about sweeping the yard. This story is from co-founder Charlotte’s childhood. Uniquely, Charlotte has one foot in the western world and one foot in the Central African Republic. She was born and raised in the Central African city of Berberati, but is also connected to the western world through part of her family, studies and professional life.
What is a “sweeping the yard moment”?
Picture Charlotte at 6-years old playing at her friend Princicia’s house. Princicia lived in a typical Berberati neighborhood, in a typical house for this place and time. The house had mud brick walls, a grass roof and a compacted dirt floor. Princicia’s house was next to a few other family members' houses that sat facing each other and formed a communal yard. The yard had no vegetation and no rocks, just red, compacted soil. Charlotte lived in a different neighborhood close by in a house with cement walls and a cement floor.
This morning, Princicias’ mom, Marie-Hélène, was giving out chores to the kids in the yard. Charlotte got the chore of sweeping the yard with a short grass broom. She walked bent in half at the waist for the broom to reach the ground. She swept the yard as best as she could and then promptly went to play with the other kids who had finished their chores. She kept playing until, suddenly, Marie-Hélène came and scolded her for not having swept the yard correctly. Charlotte was confused and couldn’t understand what she had done wrong; she couldn’t see any dirt laying around. She had gone over the whole yard with the little grass broom. Marie-Hélène showed Charlotte that her brush strokes went in many directions, and small piles of earth had formed between the brush strokes. “This is not a swept yard!” she said. Charlotte learned instead that she should have started in one corner of the yard and methodically swept stroke by stroke, row by row in the same direction. This creates an even pattern across the whole yard which makes it look neat and clean.
Charlotte knew how to sweep the floor at her own house; her mom had taught her. But at her house, no one paid attention to criss-crossing patterns on the cement floor. She had tried to do a good job, but she hadn’t understood what a clean floor was in Marie-Hélène’s eyes.
The moral of the story is: seek to understand what is expected and don't make assumptions. To understand someone you need to understand where they are coming from. When Ndara artisans are taking custom orders in the boutique, this story prompts them to ask themselves: “is the yard swept?” The question reminds them to ask all possible questions to understand exactly what the client’s expectations are. When a client is asking a question that the Ndara artisans don’t understand, they will tell the workshop manager “I don’t understand their yard!”. If there is a miscommunication and the client is unsatisfied, the story again prompts them to ask “did we sweep the yard clean”?
Do you work in a cross-cultural sales environment? How do you bridge the cultural gap between artisans, or customer service staff and clients? What tools do you use to educate both the artisan and the client on their respective realities?
We haven’t hit the sweet spot on how to bridge the gap between our makers and our clients yet. Maybe one day we will but until then – we will keep telling stories. And would love to hear yours.