Interview: Sandra from The Service Mag

Sandra Idossou has been working for seven years on The Service Mag, a magazine that aims to educate about customer service, among other things. Watch out for their annual customer service awards and you can follow them on Facebook.

Can you tell us a little bit about yourself?

My name is Sandra Idossou, and I’m a consultant, Trainer, mystery shopper, author, communicator and a publisher. I’m also a wife and a mother. I have had companies in Ghana, Bénin, Rwanda, and Burundi.

I am very passionate about everything that promote service excellence, hospitality, branding, sales & marketing, communication, consumers rights, personal development.

Currently, I operated The Service Mag, a free educative business magazine in Rwanda aimed at providing hands-on articles to business owners and teams of service providers both in public and private institutions.

Our magazine strives to support the service industry in becoming more competitive. We also consult on corporate communication, branding, marketing and social media.

Prior to opening my own companies, I had travelled to train people across 31 countries in Africa. I am a multi cultured person and speak seven languages. My travels throughout Africa have made me realize the great opportunities the continent has. I have become an advocate for capacity building and anything than can brand positively our dear continent.

My second great passion is painting. It helps me express some of the emotions I cannot put in writing. I have done a number of exhibitions and I wish I had more than 24 hours in a day to do all that I wish to do.

I am a strong believer of Africa’s potential and a great advocate of all things African.

What brought you to Kigali for the first time?

I first came to Rwanda in 2000 when I was working as a trainer for the Accor hospitality chain in Africa. I came to train the staff of the Umubano Hotel that was under the Novotel management at that period. That was a very short stay. Then in March 2007, my husband had a job offer and that is how I came to live and work in Rwanda.

What were your first impressions of the service level in Kigali?

I must admit that I found the level of service in Kigali very bad, at first. My first experience in a restaurant was the day we arrived in Kigali. We went to a restaurant and met the staff watching television. They did not seem to be bothered by our presence and after waiting for sometime; we decided to leave the restaurant… no one seemed to care. That first experience simply showed the need in training in most service providing companies.

What gave you the idea to start a magazine dedicated to the service industry?

Because of my background as a trainer, I have always loved sharing knowledge. I also love writing. I wrote weekly columns in the Business Times in Rwanda for 2 over years on issues related to Customer Service. The feedback was incredible. Then, I wrote a customer care handbook for the Private Sector Federation and Rwanda Development Board. After that experience, I decided to go into publishing my own magazine to educate and sensitize people on issues related to customer service and business growth.

Can you tell us more about the ‘The Service Mag’?

The whole idea of doing an educative magazine, The Service Mag, started with the continuous feedback and comments I was receiving when I was writing the weekly Monday articles in The New Times. For two years, I had extraordinary responses from readers who appreciated that I could criticise but also offer solutions.

Also, as a trainer, I have always marveled at the excitement on people’s faces after attending training. They get rejuvenated; they seem new; they understand better what is expected of them now. So these were the two reasons that pushed me to start the magazine. Initially, I started it as a hobby because writing was a passion. I knew nothing about publishing and thought I could do it simply with my passion for writing.

The reception we got with the first two issues was simply overwhelming. It was actually after those first six months, that we decided to really take it serious and registered the magazine as business.

What made us stand out was the content of the magazine, the quality of the design and the fact that we had articles in all three languages of the country. The editorial content covers a wide range of topics, from human resources to grooming, to personal development, in regular columns giving practical advice to in-depth features on matters that affect customers’ experiences and satisfaction.

The team of The Service Mag (writers, photographers, cartoonists, designers, art directors, and editors) is drawn from 11 different nationalities. This makes the magazine a very open and international magazine with a focus on the Rwandan and African culture.

Education has always meant a lot to me. Offering free knowledge to our readers is what keeps me moving. Sharing knowledge and information is key to contributing to our continent’s development.

How has the magazine been received by people in the service industry?

Excellent… my first two issues were done in my sitting room and I never imagined we will be doing it even after seven years. Over these past years, the journey has been rewarding but very tough because our only source of revenue is through advertising.

What are some challenges you’ve faced starting a magazine like this?

Because the magazine is free, it is very challenging to get funds to finance its production. Getting advertisers is a challenge because we need over twenty advertising companies to publish an issue and distribute them for free.

Also, in general, Rwandans are not used to reading and I knew that the only way to get them to read the articles was to make the magazine look nice, especially with the photography. Because of this, I wanted a magazine of great quality and we pay a lot of attention to the content, design, and photography in order to attract more readership.

Apart from the magazine, we have managed to use social media to raise a lot of awareness. Our Twitter and Facebook page for Complaints and Compliments have become what many service providers check every single day.

Would you say that customers and business owners in Rwanda, in general, don’t have customer service as a priority?

Its true Africa has many challenges on different areas. Ignorance is a real disease affecting us because many service providers do not always understand the value or gain in offering good service. Good service pays, and it is time companies invest in it through training of their teams. Availing conducive working environments and systems are prerequisites in reaching out to customer’s satisfaction

As Africans, we all have a responsibility in changing the level of service we receive. Accepting poor service is not a way of improving things. We all need to be demanding and refuse poor service, whether it is in a public or private institution.

Why is customer service so important?

Customer service is the lifeblood of any thriving business, though it still remains a big issue of concern in many organizations whether small or big. It is proven that it costs five times as much to find a new customer than it does to keep the satisfaction and loyalty of an existing customer. If service providers improve on their systems and their ways of treating their customers, they will see a real positive impact on their bottom line.

As customers and even as business owners; should we just sit and complain? Should we continue to murmur about the lack of skills of service people? Should we comfort ourselves into thinking that good service is not possible in our country? Are we just waiting for a miracle to happen? Should we continue thinking that service improvement is a sole responsibility of government?

Service is all about dealing with customers. It boils down to the attitude of the staff. We all know that the state of professionalism of people in the service industry in most countries is just undergoing development. The skills gap is so high that business owners just employ anyone they find who fits even just half the bill.

What’s your message to anyone looking to start their own business?

Passion is the most important ingredient everyone needs to go into business. Without it, we lose it when things become difficult. Surrounding yourself with good people is also important.

What does the future hold for The Service Mag?

Maintaining this magazine over these years has been a real battle. We do not know how long we will resist. Seven years is a great journey and we think it is maybe time we move into new ventures.

About Kirsty

A Canadian who left in 2001 to wander around the world in search of sun, beautiful views and goat brochettes. Found Kigali in July 2010 and it seems like the perfect fit. I expect to be here until I get kicked out for defiantly walking on the grass while wearing flip flops.