Alain de Botton blended literary biography and self-help guides to write “How Proust Can Change Your Life” in the late 1990s. It is a remarkable insight into how best to live life, expounding on Proust’s understanding of the essence and values. Proust's life and work are tweaked into a guide to, among other things, achieving original and 'unclichéd' articulation, as well as being a good host.

But being a good host does not come easy, as customer service professionals ironically make evident in many places in Addis Abeba. Last week, I went to a supermarket in our neighbourhood to buy bread and a newspaper. I was wondering if the saleswoman caught my drift of the deplorably unenterprising essence in her sales items wing.

After noticing some items being wrongly shelved and names and prices disassembled, I remarked. It was from the frying pan to the fire when I asked her about locally produced items, with as much cheerfulness as I could muster, that she responded with her snappy condescending retort. She was unable to provide any support outside of reading what was written boldly on the labels. Above all, she was not happy about my comments.

If I were not used to it, I would be surprised. Key sales attributes call on supporting prospective customers when they solicit products through their knowledge. Sales professionals are supposed to listen to and resolve service complaints.

The next day, I went to a rival supermarket not far away. I immediately headed to its bakery wing and joined a bit of a long queue. There, I noticed an ex-pat accompanied by a saleswoman. He asked about two homemade local food items and some pastry from the food display cases. They were in confusion over the word “veggie.”

Then the guy asked about ingredients, but the sales officer struggled with her English. I got involved. She blushed and immediately left from the scene, despite my repeated reassurance to her as it was only an opportunity to learn, and that getting advice from customers is also a key component of serving them. As I struggled to identify the ingredients in detail, I was assisted by the older woman, tracing the items starting from the best farm areas, detailing proper recipes, appropriate processing techniques, packaging, and adequate food-safety measures. It was the ideal opportunity to become familiar with the supermarket’s products.

As I was on my way home, I thought about the Idaho baked potato. Very few potatoes are named and known for their place of origin. After years of breeding, one became known as "the Idaho." Outlandishly, it was made famous by a New York department store “taster,” and was the store’s final authority on all groceries, wines, and liquors. Among others, the taster discovered the Idaho potato in 1920s and promoted it until it became synonymous with baked potato, for which Idaho’s governor wrote a letter of thanks to the store. It was all due to great customer service work.

Customer service is not nuclear science, but it is critical work. It is important to combine this attribute with merchandising, ensuring that packaged products are properly labeled with accurate weight and content information, such as name of the product; list of ingredients in decreasing order of predominance by weight; net weight or volume; contact information of the manufacturer, packer or distributor; and nutrition information. Each stock item needs to be familiarised to all in its value chain with the level of the Idaho potato or the older woman I met in the supermarket.

Customer service is not a section, rather a self-developing service from producers and the supply chain to customers, a school located in every little stock item, needing attention due and able to inspire many.

PUBLISHED ON Feb 19,2022 [ VOL 22 , NO 1138]

Tadesse Tsegaye (, a polyglot with experience in multicultural-cum-institutional settings in resources management.

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