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Gerald Cunningham believes a lack of ambition and poor customer service plague Otago business.
Malaise hangs over business in Dunedin and parts of Otago which locals either do not know exists, or simply fail to recognise.
The recent rash of redundancies in Dunedin have been blamed on everything from the Government losing interest in the provinces, to favouring Auckland businesses, to a downturn in the world economy, to distance from markets. At no time has there been any suggestion that the Otago malaise could be the reason for Dunedin's troubles.
This malaise is not a new problem, but is one that has gone hand in hand with doing business in Otago for several decades. Because of the Otago malaise, North Island business people have become more and more reluctant to do business in Otago. Dunedin is now experiencing the cumulative effects of this reluctance.
This Otago malaise is the lack of ambition and customer service shown or practised by many Otago business people.
The problem is not just confined to the higher echelons of business, but affects all levels from CEOs of large companies, to trades people, retailers, information centres, tourist operators, government agencies and junior shop assistants.
Otago businesses offer appalling service to their existing or potential customers, often without realising it. Service is not complicated, but is just something that goes hand in hand with good business.
The problem is so ingrained in the province that New Zealand businesses have now reached the point where they have become so frustrated by slack service and a don't-care attitude, that they have lost confidence in Otago companies to deliver.
Who is going to place a large manufacturing order with an Otago or Dunedin company when that company cannot do something as basic as returning telephone calls or answering emailsIn addition to telephone calls not being returned, or emails not being replied to, appointments are made but not kept. Messages left with receptionists disappear into oblivion.
Promises are blatantly broken. When contracts are signed, the specifications agreed to are not followed, as those who do the work often feel they can just do their own thing and then stamp their feet in anger when asked to follow the specifications.
Prices quoted for goods or services mean nothing.
If a product or job costs more than the agreed price, the customer is expected to pay a higher price.
Contracts are quoted on and when missed because of a blunt pencil, those who quoted and lost whinge through public forums, instead of making sure they get it right first time around. Workmanship is poor, with jobs often left half done.
Retailers are reluctant to order in goods on a customer's behalf.
The pantomime of names being written down, while at the same time trying to discourage a customer by quoting high freight rates takes place, and that is the last a customer will hear of it. Small-business owners and sales representatives think Dunedin to Waikouaiti is a long drive and will not travel far to secure business.
Businesses will not make the extra effort often required, by going back to their principal or supplier for a better offer.
Instead they will present the facts as if they were written in stone, as take it or leave it. There is always somebody somewhere in New Zealand who will do better, so customers just leave it.
Once they have wandered off there is no way Otago is going to get them back. When an off-site job is completed, a customer will not be telephoned or emailed to advise it is finished.
That is the customer's responsibility.
Over-the-counter service is often both rude and offhand. Warranty claims, when made, simply trigger an opportunity to argue without asking, knowing or checking the facts. It is easy to criticise without offering solutions to Otago's problems.
The Stand Up Otago campaign and the proposed pilgrimage to Parliament led by Dunedin's mayor are well-meaning, but are only short-term fixes. Otago's problems have nothing to do with central government policies and need to be fixed at grassroots level in Otago.
The problem is now so heavily entrenched that it might be too late to change the ways of those who have known no other method of doing business.
The solution is more likely to lie with the generation that will join the workforce over the next decade.
The easiest way to do this would be to put together a course, possibly in conjunction with the Otago University's business school and introduce it into the curriculum of every Otago secondary school. The answer to the malaise is not rocket science.
It is simply a matter of getting the message across to Otago school pupils that the business world is very, very competitive. Nobody owes them a living, so they need to go out and get their hands dirty if they want to make a successful life for themselves.
The world is a big place and nobody cares about New Zealand with its puny 4.5 million population, but we are well-educated by world standards, are free, and have the potential to do it better than anybody.
Whether it be the CEO of a large company, to running a small business, to serving behind a counter, people need to learn and practise the basics of customer service, that their word matters, promises need to be be kept, to be good at what they do and go that extra distance to chase business.
Schools could also become more involved in getting the message across to their pupils.
Gerald Cunningham is an author, photographer and retired Auckland businessman who has lived in Central Otago since 2001.