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Toilet Training

Publishing Date : 07 October, 2019


Each year market research company Ask Afrika announces the winners of its Orange Index Awards for customer service.   The selection is decided through a rigorous process where they look at service delivery, awarding a scaled rating of service excellence in order to come up with the best in South Africa. The service, of course, must be consistent and for the record last year’s winner was Woolworths followed by Burger King.  Also, just for the record, OR Tambo international Airport did not make the list.  

When travelling through that airport recently I was struck by the stark contrast in service which I received from different departments. Immigration is hit and miss -   sometimes it’s reasonable and sometimes it’s a real shocker. Not so, however, for the men’s toilets at the international departure’s area. Consistently I get great, albeit over-the-top,  service which includes being greeted at the door by the toilet attendant’s friendly tongue-in-cheek “welcome to my office”.

On some occasions he  acts like an air traffic controller, telling me which stall is free to use, and on occasion going as far as opening the cubicle door for me. After my business is complete, I am graciously offered a paper towel or shown where the hand-dryer is. The experience is completed by cupped hands and wishing me a pleasant onward journey as I exit.

If you aren’t a regular traveller through ORT, you may pause to wonder how the HR  department gets the customer service right in one area yet fails in another. You may wonder if it’s possible to attribute the different standards of service to better training  in one area (bathrooms) compared to another (immigration). It certainly can’t be anything to do with the nature of the work as you would surely assume that a customer- interfacing and administration role such as an immigration official must certainly beat a cleaner’s role, hands down, when it comes to job satisfaction?

The difference in fact can be found in what drives the different behaviours which quite simply is the reward for the service. Now I don’t know what reward system is in place for the immigration official who gives good service, but it is obviously not an attractive one judging by the service being provided. The informal reward system that has been crafted by bathroom cleaners to supplement their income, on the other hand, is working well.

They have figured out a lucrative additional income stream from the international travellers who are happy to pay a gratuity to the loo keeper for the personal touch (metaphorically speaking!) whilst using the facility. Unfortunately for the bathroom cleaners I am not one of them.  Personally, I find the ‘service’ irritating as I don’t want to make small talk with the janitor or have to divulge if my toilet business is of a primary or secondary nature.  I don’t feel I need help with the paper towels or be escorted to the hand dryer but luckily for the attendants, I am in a minority.

If we look back at history, this idea of a bathroom service experience comes from a position called  ‘washroom attendant’. It started at fee-charging restrooms (toilets that cost money to use) because anyone paying for usage would reasonably  expect it to be clean and well-managed. Thus, there was always someone around to clean the toilets and sinks as well as make sure there was a clean roller towel, or a supply of paper towels. This concept can still be found in the US and certain European countries, mostly in nightclubs, restaurants etc. and in these places, tipping is the custom. The practice is rare elsewhere these days but not at ORT where, like a form of busking, it’s in full swing!

The bathroom cleaners at ORT have tapped into a potential income stream in addition to their salary,  one that is funded by American and European travellers who, when using the bathrooms in transit, are happy offload their insignificant change in Rands to attendants for, well in most cases just being there. They are getting tips, of that there is no doubt, although in my experience they never seem to be doing much cleaning to earn it, though there is significant standing at the door, greeting the clientele as they enter, initiating conversation and offering guided tours.  I see the cupping their hands as they make their way out less as a gesture of supplication and more as a fat hint but it’s an enthusiastic service, that’s for sure.

But who am I to be judging this entrepreneurial spirit and anyway it’s not the point of the article which is to show that human motivation is driven by wants and needs, in this case money.   It also demonstrates how great and even outstanding customer service can be achieved if there is something in it for the person providing that service. The bathroom attendants at the airport feel incentivised to provide this very over the top service as a lucrative salary top-up. I don’t know how much they are making but it must be good because there is a consistent level of high service and people don’t do what they aren’t rewarded for, so obviously it’s working.

If we can tap into that monetary motivation and find the way to gear up and incentivise service levels, you really can provide it. Here are people doing it  off their own bat– using initiative, running their own little business, providing a service unsupervised and with enthusiasm because the reward that they are getting is worthwhile AND immediate, tax free and with no operating overheads!

 So when the Orange Index awards come about next year maybe they can consider this cottage industry taking place in the toilets of OR Tambo’s International Departure Hall where you can witness top class service, delivered with a smile while the rest of the airport staff mope around doing only the very least that might be expected to contribute to a positive customer experience. One word of caution – please don’t take this as a suggestion to start dropping cheery immigration officials a generous gratuity.   In their line of work that would be called a bribe!



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