A popular saying has it that whenever a people don’t learn from the mistakes of others, they are bound to repeat the same mistakes and therefore draw to themselves, the attendant consequences.
Between the years 1929 and 1933, the United States of America (USA) experienced its worst economic depression in history popularly known as the Great Depression. During this period, over 5,840 banks failed; Production in factories, mines and utilities fell by half; Stock prices crashed to a tenth of their values and one in every four American workers, lost their jobs.
October, 24th 1929 is known as Black Thursday because that day seemed to be the biggest highlight of the depression as people thronged Wall Street to trade-off their stocks. Endless queues of customers who had lost hope in the system were also struggling to withdraw their savings before their banks collapsed. It took twelve years and three administrations before the USA recovered fully.
The great author, Napoleon Hill who was an advisor to President Franklin D. Roosevelt opined that the depression was a nemesis that caught up with corporate America from the injured public. He held that though the PUBLIC was the third partner in an agreement that involved EMPLOYERS and EMPLOYEES, but their rights were grossly neglected and trampled upon by greedy corporations who were hell bent on making as much profit as possible that it came first over service.
It used to be normal for bank customers to stand and wait in a corner while their account clerks take their lunch chatting endlessly with friends. Bosses barricaded themselves in offices behind large Mahogany doors. The gas meter reader would pound impatiently on doors and when opened would literally force himself into a house while scowling at the owner for keeping him waiting.
All this changed after the depression. Bank clerks were always at the beck and call of their customers – stopping short of polishing their shoes; Bank Bosses sat in open spaces where they are visible and approachable by staff and customers and the gas meter reader changed to a complete gentleman who became “delighted to be at your service sir”. Mr. Hill said: “In the final analysis, both the employer and his employee are EMPLOYED BY THE PUBLIC THEY SERVE. If they fail to serve well, they pay by the loss of their privilege to serve”.
The Nigerian Hajj sector seems to be passing through similar circumstances. Those of us saddled with the responsibility of Hajj arrangements mostly behave in the manner the bankers, bosses and meter readers mentioned above. The pilgrim for whom the Hajj is arranged has to accept whatever service is rendered to him for lack of options. In some cases, political and financial considerations overshadow the interest of the person paying the bill and for whom the entire arrangement is made.
Up to the year 2017, intending pilgrims had to virtually lobby for Hajj slots which in some cases they are forced to give bribes to obtain application forms for the Hajj! In 2018 and 2019 however, things changed. Pilgrims were now courted to pick up their application forms. Nigeria was unable to fill up its quota for those years due to the drop in value of the Naira which made Hajj fares to skyrocket. As if that wasn’t bad enough, the Covid-19 Pandemic stalled Hajj altogether for 2 consecutive years.
By now the writing on the wall is visible even to the blind that the continuous weakening of the Naira against the Dollar coupled with Covid-19 are bound to make Hajj more expensive and probably less patronage.
On their part, the Saudi Arabian Government are adding another piece to the puzzle. Vision 2030 aims to reduce the role of Government in Hajj from a provider to a regulator of services. What this portends to the International Hajj community is that for an effective handshake to occur between the Host and Guests, countries involved in Hajj will eventually need to adjust and conform to the system put in place by the Host Country. While Governments may agree and set the general framework within which the Hajj exercise will take place, it is the private sector that will run the show in line with internationally accepted industry standards. When this happens, and it is bound to happen, the pilgrim who is the end beneficiary and true CUSTOMER, will have more power and freedom of choice. He may hire or fire who serves him at will.
It is expedient for players in the Hajj industry to be proactive by utilizing this period for serious stock-taking, re-strategizing and repositioning. We need to re-examine the Nigerian Hajj industry and make the pilgrim the real boss in all stages. Every service touchpoint needs to be re-examined with the aim of making it easier, better, more efficient and conducive for the pilgrim.
A few standards can be introduced. For example, the Registration Centre/Officer that is the first contact for the pilgrim can be more customer friendly. An official phone which should be ALWAYS answered during working hours can be made mandatory with a central customer service supervision monitoring each call for quality assurance. We should get used to addressing customers with the accepted industry courtesy. “How can I help you Sir”? If that will be ok with you Ma” and so on.
The existing Pilgrims’ registration portal should be made lively and useful such that any pilgrim that meets any Hajj official at helpdesks in Nigeria or Saudi Arabia can easily be identified as his KYC’s (Know-Your-Customer) are accessible. Thankfully, the National Medical Team has started implementing this.
Pilgrims’ Departure Centres can be made more efficient with the right infrastructure and efficient operating system. The newly commissioned Bauchi Pilgrims’ Camp is an example of good infrastructure. It remains for the Pilgrims Board and NAHCON to make it world-class in terms of operations. NAHCON and SMPWB can aim to provide pilgrims the seamless travel processing experience available in international airports.
Having functional pilgrims support desks in hotels in Madinah and Makkah will also assist in increasing the constant interface and exchange of information between Hajj organizers and pilgrims. The easier but more advanced form of this support which will favour the technology-savy generation is the introduction of chatbots to answer usual enquiries all with the aim of being at the pilgrims’ service as much as possible.
These few examples are sufficient to drive the point that it is better for the change to emanate from within than have it imposed by circumstances. The Nigerian Hajj sector should not only learn the lessons of The Great Depression but strive to embody the teaching that “Allah loves it when one of you does an act, he does it excellently”.
Ishaq Ibrahim Jae ([email protected])