Many years ago, I used to work at the artist formerly known as Barclays Bank. One of my colleagues, who I’ll refer to as MK for now, was much loved for his razor-sharp wit, which kept us simultaneously entertained and well-grounded as he was fond of keeping our banker egos in check.
One Friday afternoon, MK prodded our collective thinking. “Do you guys think that your customers pick your calls because they see your name on the screen?”
With MK, these were typically not trick questions, so one colleague told him to just come out and say what he really meant.
It was a Friday afternoon after all and there was serious nyama choma to be attended to on the table in front of us.
“It’s your business card that gets them to pick your calls. They are not talking to you, they are talking to Barclays Bank.”
MK had really stirred up the hornet’s ego nest and most of us jumped down his throat with righteous and, quite frankly, misplaced indignation. “Hebu leave the bank and see if they will pick your calls. They won’t,” MK concluded.
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Of course, no one had the wherewithal to factually prove him wrong at that particular point. But his point stayed niggling in the back of my mind for a long time.
As relationship managers at the time, we had built strong relationships with our corporate customers ensuring that the bank was top of mind when new financing business was envisaged in the client’s boardroom.
The relationships continued even after I progressed upwards from being a relationship manager to leading the corporate team.
I would regularly accompany the relationship managers to meet with customers and keep that client engaged.
Many large corporate clients required us to be their internal advocate when their borrowing needs required vigorous lobbying for approval with the local and international Barclays credit approval chain.
Eventually, I left the bank and about two years later I met with the CEO of one of the big corporate clients we had had.
This was someone who I had personally engaged with on several occasions and who even sent personalised gifts to me at Christmas.
We met at the lobby of one of the leading hotels in the city, as there was a big function. I said hello quite animatedly as I hadn’t seen the gentleman in quite a while.
He looked me over, muttered something and breezed past in a major hurry to anywhere but close to me. It was hilarious. Actually, it was not.
But MK’s words rang so loudly in my ears that it was deafening. It wasn’t me that the CEO had been engaging with all those years, it was the bank.
Unfortunately, MK had passed on by this time (may his blessed soul continue to rest in peace) and I couldn’t ring him to let him crow with delight while gasping “I told you so” in between gales of laughter.
I was forced to remember this story when my team member came to me in frustration as emails, texts and calls she was trying to send to a certain organisation remained completely unanswered.
This was not the first time this was happening and she wanted to know what she was doing wrong. Our experience with another organisation in the same industry was similar.
The organisation would engage and make a request. The request would be fulfilled and then there would be utter and complete silence. Only when someone in executive management was called would the flurry of responses finally come in.
At great risk of prodding a bull here, I reckoned to my colleague that there was some level of individual arrogance clothed by the illusion of institutional permanence. “Huh?” she asked.
These individuals, in my view, suffered from an illusion that they would always be at the organisation and could therefore treat external stakeholders in a certain way, that is, simply ignoring them.
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Ignoring calls. Ignoring emails. Ignoring texts. After all, while yes the individual had made the request for an item and had received it, our utility had been extinguished. Just like my utility for the Johnny Walking CEO had extinguished.
The difference in this case, I told my colleague, was that these individuals forget that there is life outside the organisation.
Many corporate individuals conflate their work titles with their individual personas. From someone who has been, using the Kenyan euphemism “chapwa’d character development,” let me be the first to tell my corporate colleagues: It is rough out in these non-corporate streets.
Responding to communication means “I see you.” When you ignore multiple messages, it is a not-so-subtle way of saying “get lost”. And your social capital gets destroyed. Completely. Rebuilding it, well, good luck.