Archive for the ‘The Business World’ Category

Let’s raise the bar, please

Friday, February 12th, 2010

This is a topic that I have very strong views on. I honestly believe that we have built an impressive region with the tallest and biggest icons, but what about the soft skills? The glamorous outlook is not enough to sustain residents and tourists to stay on and keep coming back. It didn’t take me long to write this article after much research, and your views would be greatly appreciated.

This article was first featured in Gulf News on the 12th February, 2010

Having heard the saying ‘the customer is king’ many times in my life, I have often wondered if it applies to the Gulf. The service industry is complex and not something to be taken lightly, but are we fully equipped to handle this very significant part of a customer’s experience?

As I listened to the CEO of Bloomingdale’s talk about their Dh270 million investment in the Dubai store, I was rather impressed. Dubai’s retail industry has risen to great heights, competing with cities like New York and London, and with the Burj Khalifa, the Metro and other landmark additions to the city, I doubt that I am the only person who is dazed by it all.

However, you only have to open a few newspapers to realise that, too often, the journey a customer takes is not an entirely satisfying one, and that the term ‘after-sales service’ is altogether ignored or discredited on the organisation’s side. For example, does a customer enjoy standing in line for half an hour to post a letter, only to find a disgruntled employee procrastinating, sipping coffee and enjoying a leisurely chat with a colleague? Should we be grateful to the telecoms company for sending our bill on thick expensive paper, when the person on the other side of the phone cannot comprehend our concerns about our phone bill? Do I ignore the speeding taxi driver who is desperately honking behind me, trying to get me out of the way, only to discover that there are a group of bewildered tourists sitting in the back of the taxi holding on for dear life? This is the kind of customer journey that I am speaking of.

London Business School research shows that the ability to deliver a customer experience consistently aligned around customer needs and intentions has a significant impact on a company’s ability to create customer loyalty. In turn, loyal customers have a huge impact on the bottom line, by buying more and referring other customers to the company.

Economic downturns such as the one we are experiencing provide a unique opportunity to re-evaluate and optimise the customer experience. Moreover, with sharper focus an economic downturn gives businesses a unique opportunity to re-examine their customer experience. These companies recognise the risk and opportunity downturns create within their customer base. The risk of losing customers increases as consumers reassess their service providers; they begin the process of reducing spending, sparing only those products and services from companies that they value most. Switching from a large retailer to perhaps a smaller, more hands-on retailer could be one of the outcomes. The retail industry’s sales service is always under the microscope — exceeding customers expectations is key. Incorporating these insightful processes requires a great deal of effort on behalf of a retailer. Customer research, including primary and behavioural analysis, makes up a large part of the process.


The outcome of this study should inform the goals and guidelines of the organisation, which are instilled through training. This may involve a substantial amount of investment into these training programmes, but will certainly work to the great benefit of the employee’s sector knowledge, additionally instilling a feeling of self-worth into them. A tailored customer experience is the resultof this good plan, and if implemented on a continuous basis can lead to retention. Jack Welch, former chairman of General Electric, was spot on when he spoke about ‘sticky customers’ — those who become very loyal.

The orderly city-state of Singapore has always been a model for the region. I personally find the Customer Satisfaction Index of Singapore, which is used as a national barometer of customer satisfaction in their economy, to be a great example of a tangible benchmark for a typically intangible aspect of business. In 2008 the Institute of Service Excellence at Singapore Management University was appointed to implement and maintain an annual benchmark for the service sectors in Singapore. The questionnaire is completed by both residents and tourists and covers eight sectors of the Singapore economy. Once a small fishing village, Singapore is now a prosperous nation with a population of about five million and a GDP per capita that ranks it as the fifth wealthiest country in the world — a formidable case study for us all to take as an example. This is the direction that our service industry should be moving in.

In truth, the Gulf is not at stake. It continues to offer most people a rewarding place to live, and both tourists and residents enjoy a great social life. But there are some grounds for concern when it comes to the retention and loyalty of those people. Let us raise the bar, build a region based on meritocracy and diminish these concerns once and for all. Without doubt we have the means and manpower to do so.

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Breaking through the glass ceiling

Thursday, October 1st, 2009

This article was first featured in Gulf News on the 1st October, 2009

Arab women are making tremendous progress in the corporate world in a striking example of how inspired leadership can help to shape societies.

I was recently asked if, as a female professional, I had ever come up against a ‘glass ceiling’. The question intrigued me as fortunately I had not, in both my careers in the corporate and non-profit world. However, there are many women out there who have.

Women’s rights have been a debatable topic since the days of Virginia Woolfe and Huda Sha’rawi, the Egyptian feminist who broke new ground in the 1920s and 1930s. Back then, the emancipation of women was one of the most controversial topics. As Woolfe put it, “The history of men’s opposition to women’s emancipation is more interesting perhaps than the story of that emancipation itself”. Although at the time the issue was in its embryonic stage, it caused a great uproar and consequently Woolfe went down in history as one of the most influential people of her era.

Today, the debate continues. The United Nations Development Fund for Women provides us with an interesting quote: “Countries that do not fully take advantage of one half of the talent in their population are misallocating their human resources”. This is certainly an issue that we in the UAE do not face.

Fortunately, His Highness Shaikh Mohammad Bin Rashid Al Maktoum, Vice President and Prime Minister of the UAE and Ruler of Dubai, has been at the forefront of empowerment by encouraging the youth, and particularly women, to take advantage of the many options available to them in education. In terms of university education, the figure for female university enrolment is far greater than that of their male counterparts. Arab women today fully realise the importance of their roles in society and the economy. With education increasingly available for women in all Arab countries, they have gained independence and status and entered the professional and business spheres. I see this as a striking example of how inspired leadership can affect the shape and progress of a population’s workforce.

I have noted similar progress within our government. Statistics reveal that 22.2 per cent of the Federal National Council (FNC) in the UAE is made up of women, making this the third-highest-ranking country in terms of female parliamentarians in the world. These women are among the 20 nominated members of the 40-member house. The importance of the FNC lies in its role as an advisory body, formed under the Provisional Constitution of the UAE in 1971 as a permanent component of the country’s governance structure.

Dubai’s youth, and particularly women, have also been encouraged to participate in each and every economic field. In the 1970s, women in the UAE worked predominantly in the education sector. I have gathered strong anecdotal support for this fact from conversations with my family. It is obvious that this situation has changed quite dramatically, with women now working in health, banking, telecommunications and civil aviation (in the UAE, six per cent of the workforce in this sector is female). Although the above reflects the progress professional women have made in the UAE, I am well aware that many challenges remain. The ratio of female to male professionals in the workforce is still very low. The reasons for this are predominantly rooted in cultural gender-orientated attitudes.

The lack of encouragement women receive from family members to join the working world is usually due to there being no real financial need for them to do so. In addition, some businesses are known to discriminate against hiring women, on the assumption that they are more likely to quit their jobs to start a family. Many companies do not like to offer flexible working hours, discouraging even those who would like to stay on after child birth. I also believe that there are women who are uninterested in working for private and semi-government sectors, though this issue is prevalent across both genders within the UAE.

Personal experience and conversations with Arab nationals lead me to believe that imbalances exist throughout the Middle East. With less than one third of Arab women participating in the workforce there is no question that they remain a hugely untapped resource. I will, however, highlight the fact that many of these women stay at home to nurture their children, and this is a choice that I personally have the deepest respect for. Recently, I participated in a study conducted by Dubai Government’s Knowledge and Human Development Authority focused on women’s development in the region. I noted that one area of constraint was the lack of professionally staffed daycare centres for working mothers with children. I cannot stress enough that times have changed and, with them, so have working hours. It would be very difficult for a mother to leave her newborn child for a significant part of the day unless daycare centres are provided. Legislative support from the government is certainly needed to face these challenges.

On a positive note, I would like to cite extraordinary examples of Arab women. Topping the Forbes Top 50 Arab females list is Saudi businesswoman Lubna S. Olayan, a principal of The Olayan Group and CEO of Olayan Financing Company. This inspiring woman is a major investor in the Saudi economy and Olayan Financing is consistently ranked in the top echelon of Middle Eastern companies. Clearly, Olayan’s multi-faceted personality has seen her to be active in the World Economic Forum, serving on both its Arab Business Council and Women’s Leadership Initiative. Although such success stories may be rare, they are likely to become more common now that Saudi Arabia’s King Abdullah Bin Abdul Aziz recently appointed the first female minister to his council.

Breaking through the glass ceiling may sometimes prove difficult for women, but I believe Woolfe and Sha’rawi are smiling as a result of the recent progress Arab women have made.

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