What lies beneath great customer service?
Posted on: 1 April 2020
Agrimark often receives wonderful reviews and compliments from customers about the exemplary customer service they enjoyed. We visited David Gempies, Kaap Agri’s Human Resources Director, to ask how the Kaap Agri group of companies continues to build an inclusive, high-performing culture – with a mens-mense approach.
Prior to joining Kaap Agri, David experienced first-hand the massive amounts of money companies spent on developing corporate strategies to promote greater trust and communication between employees and management. But at his very first interview at Kaap Agri he realised that this company was different.
“The mens-mense culture impressed me from the start. Kaap Agri does not have the hierarchical feel that you notice in other corporations. Here the leadership group is more accessible and there are open lines of communication. We’re all on a first-name basis which sets the tone and makes the Executive Committee more accessible than in other organisations and, most importantly, there is mutual respect for each other throughout the organisation,” he says.
Although the company’s core value of mens-mense was already entrenched when David joined the team, he went to great lengths to clarify its meaning in the organisation. “It’s easy to say you’re a mens-mens. But what does it really mean? The leadership articulated it very simply as CARE. Caring for, and valuing, each other, our customers and our suppliers. In an organisation that is growing at the rate Kaap Agri is, it is important to express the exact meaning of the company’s core value in terms of behaviours and values.”
The company’s mens-mense core value is about engagement and relationships, something that extends beyond employee interactions. The concept was developed by considering various perspectives, including those of employees, customers, suppliers and the community. “If we can express this culture in everything we do, the relevant stakeholders should feel they are better off for trading with us and they will sense a warm relationship. Customers should feel valued as people when they interact with us,” he says.
EMPLOYER OF CHOICE
Kaap Agri is an employer of choice across several sectors for a variety of reasons. Those passionate about both retail and agriculture would be hard-pressed to find a workplace with a higher degree of synergy between these sectors. “We are a retailer unlike others because we also offer fuel, convenience and manufacturing, which means there are vast opportunities for career advancement, and that’s very important.”
“The company’s mens-mense core value is about engagement and relationships, some-thing that extends beyond employee interactions.“
David and his team have developed a value proposition directed at improving employees’ quality of life – which includes secular and personal pursuits. Kaap Agri prides itself in providing competitive remuneration, better employment conditions than the law requires, as well as a recognition and rewards system that makes it possible for everyone to benefit from the organisation’s success. “As a caring employer, we strive to create a life culture that is balanced and value-based.”
David describes recruitment as a war to capture talent and he also expresses the need to breed talent. “In the past we focused on bringing in learnerships for retail. This is still a focus area, but now we are also looking at procurement and logistics learnership and graduate management programs. It is a growth area for talented young people.” Kaap Agri has a substantial footprint in rural areas where education and training opportunities have historically been limited. The company offers employees learnerships to obtain formal qualifications. It also facilitates apprenticeships and has a wide range of training programs to leverage skill and knowledge sharing in support of business priorities. These interventions are implemented using different methodologies ranging from e-learning to hands-on training programs and include customer-focused training, retail training, product training and health and safety training.
The focus on employee improvement is prevalent at every level. “We have introduced a system of Leadership Development DNA which is linked to our Accelerating Performance program that is completed by all managers. We want everyone in the business to develop at the same pace, becoming better at building relationships,” he explains.
Kaap Agri has a staff complement of approximately 3,350 people and David’s secret to keeping staff happy is surprisingly simple. “Employees must feel that they are making a contribution to their workplace, that they are engaged in terms of their knowledge and experience and most importantly employees must feel that they have grown on a personal level that contributes to their family.”
In his eyes, positive feedback by customers on excellent service is the ultimate form of recognition. It is also very rewarding to see individual growth through training and exposure which in turn helps the organisation to grow as a whole. “It is extremely gratifying to see people make use of opportunities to better themselves. I recall my first interaction with a senior retail clerk in the Stellenbosch branch almost five years ago. She had a very negative outlook. Her words were: ‘In this place you can’t go anywhere.’ Her dream was to make progress and to reach management level. I asked her whether she would participate in our leadership development program if she was given the opportunity. She did, and today she’s one of our junior branch managers in Paarl. She has moved through the ranks and is seen as a person with great potential. The company can create opportunities for employees, but it’s up to each individual to take hold of the opportunities available to them.”
Kaap Agri has a centralised Human Resources, Remuneration and SHEQ Department. This team provides HR & SHEQ systems, processes and training for the entire Group. “It is our job to empower managers to become great people managers. We are constantly digitising our HR processes to make it easier for business managers to manage people,” he says. Although David is clearly a people’s person, he considers HR to be a science that should always adhere to three principles: it must be fact-based; it must make business sense; and it must provide solutions. He defines good HR as providing sound business solutions in an environment where employees feel valued. “I am a strong believer in good work ethic and high operating standards. We should be uncompromising on standards, but the manner in which we approach it should resonate with our mens-mense culture.
The challenge lies in developing business-driven HR solutions for a body of employees that spans geographical, cultural and generational divides. “The new generation of employees is completely different to previous ones – and so are their requirements,” says David. The same applies to the new generation of customers. “We need to understand the next generation of customers to ensure we have the right skills and competencies to address their needs,” he says.
Positive feedback by customers on excellent service is the ultimate form of recognition.
David advises young people who join Kaap Agri to do so with an open mind as the company offers a multitude of opportunities of which they may not even be aware. “In this tough economic environment, it is a huge benefit to work for a company that is still focused on a strong growth strategy, whilst other companies are contracting or even scaling down,” he says. Once employed, it is each employee’s responsibility to ensure they reach out for any opportunity when it arises. “It’s not management’s sole responsibility to develop employees. It’s a dual responsibility which the employee must also take on.”
PLAY IT BY EAR
On a personal level David has learnt valuable lessons about managing people, the most important of which is the necessity to listen. “Kaap Agri has taught me that a mens-mense culture starts with leadership – by treating people with respect,” he says. He has a high regard for the work that branch managers do in their communities, as well as support services that truly go the extra mile for customers. At times, he has questioned his choice of career as he wanted to make a difference to people’s lives. “Now, for the first time, I feel that I’m contributing to society. Because at Kaap Agri the bottom line is about people.”