Things small business owners need to relearn in Zimbabwe

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The quality of many products has certainly changed. This has been true for many well-loved brands — including potato chips

Kudzai M. Mubaiwa
The past 20 years have had indescribable impact on Zimbabwean businesses. It is only now that with the benefit of hindsight we can see how far we have come and how badly business, and the small business owner, has been affected.

Some perspectives that come to mind are the quality of products, the quality of service, reasonable pricing, sound systems and overall integrity.

In between eking out a living, hustling and just surviving, a lot of the necessary skills a learning business owner would have likely picked up from the seasoned were untaught. It appears that there was a gap due to lack of time and opportunity to be mentored — some present day entrepreneurs never had occasion to interact with old school business people before they left the country or shut down business and retired locally.

We all agree that business, products and services are nowhere near what they used to be in the past one or two decades, and these imply poor management.

Here are some considerations emerging businesses must make in order to improve their offerings and secure money from the consumer’s pocket, especially as the prospects of external players coming in increase.

Small business owners need to introspect and get back to these simple but necessary basics.

The quality of many products has certainly changed. Producers have been struggling with inputs in the past years as a domino effect of the foreign currency shortages and many have begun to use short-cuts and thus giving the market a poor product.

This has been true for many well-loved brands — including a specific brand pork pie, potato chips, some even claim local chewing gum loses taste sooner than it did in the day.

Mediocrity has become acceptable for many things, with consumers resigned to this fate as it is regarded a natural part of economic decline.

Business owners have somewhat enabled this as they keep ordering from producers and passing on poor product but never giving feedback to them from end users.

New businesses therefore do not have much pressure to give decent products because the benchmark is extremely low by even bigger companies.

Most SME’s that produce tangible products do not bother to engage the standards association and none of the users ask. We have created a vicious cycle and it requires someone in the chain to put a stop to it.

The quality of service has undergone the same. In many small businesses, customers are first to greet those who are serving them at collection or payment points, when the opposite should be true.

They may be subjected to insolence by those who should consider them king and if they dare ask, they may end up in a proper fight with a small business employee who does not care and probably does not know any better.

I have witnessed customers getting a hard time from small business employees and other customers ganging up against them and rebuking them for wanting or demanding better.

The sentiments shared include scolding for thinking “you are better than all of us” when the one person is not asking for anything more than what is due to them.

Small business owners have to realise that in the medium to long term, failing to invest in soft skills will cost them actual money.

Frontline staff especially need training on customer service, customer care, dealing with customer feedback and even managing rude or irate customers.

Many small business owners are not reasonable in pricing. Granted, the environment is a dynamic one with many moving pieces and abrupt changes, but some that are unaffected will still use these excuses to misbehave and pull prices from the sky.

Hyperinflation ruined how people perceive numbers. It is common for many to price products by simply multiplying by a certain number, not so much basing on all-in or replacement costs, or putting a margin above the break-even point. In the madness there must be some kind of methodology. A few weeks back I had to change my vehicle tyres and went to my usual place.

The owner quoted me a price for paying via transfer, slightly discounted if cash but exactly the same price as two years back if I were to pay in United States dollars (which I didn’t have).

I am not for a multi pricing system but at least his made sense in that it tracked a specific dollar amount.

One is indeed in business to make profit, but one must also consider they will want to continue as a going concern into the far future. Balance is a must.

Sound systems are lacking in many small businesses, again an unfortunate effect of the declined economy — people took to shortcuts and haphazard behaviour.

Order is critical for productivity, efficiency, consistency and accountability. There must be a known way in production processes, packing processes, delivery processes, payment processes for a business to work well.

Each of the moving pieces must be managed correctly so that there are no unnecessary losses or delays. Simple handbooks and manuals will solve the issues that emanate from missing institutional memory.

No matter how small the company, documenting matters, as does induction for new entrants — your company must have a specific “company way” that guides all employees.

There are now several software options that can be bought off the shelf and utilised to manage key business resources, invest in them.

Integrity is an overall important component.

Small business owners need to learn to appreciate that which they have capacity for and be honest about deliverables and timing.

A yes must be a yes and delivery on time — we know how many self- employed professionals such as typists, tailors and hairdressers are known in the cities and towns of Zimbabwe as typical liars because they over-promise and under-deliver.

One would rather be known as under-promising and over-delivering, and the market has great respect for those who only take on work they have ability to do correctly and on time.

If you by some stroke of luck manage to scale without getting this right, then you are likely to crash in a huge way too in time because there will be cracks in your dealings.

Let this be a week of introspection and from there, corrections. It is never too late to do the right thing!

Feedback: Twitter @kumub, Email kudzi@investorsaint.co.zw

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