Guest Blog By: Huston Malande
Matatu touts may not be the most cherished group of people in the country, but there’s no denying that there’s much to learn from how they handle a highly unpredictable and competitive market.
About two years ago, I was plucking my beard trying to figure out how we were going to “stabilise” Skyline. Despite having earned a coveted reputation which was starting to attract the interest of bigwig clients, those fat cheques were few and far between. Running a web design business, as I’d come to experience, was like operating a rectifier’s capacitor: it charges up when the current is positive, then gradually discharges the stored up charge when the current is negative. Crazy way to keep your head above the break-even line.
We therefore began to experiment with different ways of ensuring that we were earning enough to keep us in the business of producing legendary authentic creative work. It was during this time that I began to randomly notice a lot of interesting things about matatu touts as I watched them during my commutes.
1. Marketing is non-negotiable
It doesn’t matter whether you do it yourself or hire someone else to do it. In today’s crazy busy world, your customers are overwhelmingly distracted and yet eager to get to their intended destination in the shortest time possible—just like commuters at a bus station or bus stop.
Is it not your experience that as a commuter, you’ll always turn your head and consider boarding a matatu that mentions your specific destination? It’s the same with business. If you’re not talking about the problem your product solves, your potential customers will all get scooped up by those who have inferior solutions but are yelling about them at the top of their voices.
2. Use psychology to your advantage
Surely you must’ve noticed that people will choose to board a partially filled matatu over a completely empty one! I often find myself inclined to do the same thing. So how do touts exploit this weird phenomenon? They pay a couple of bums to sit inside the matatu for a while. Works like magic!
This was one of the tactics that helped us reduce the problem of financial instability. We felt that we needed to have more long-term contracts instead of one-off projects. Since we already had a couple of them, we declared on our website that we’d limited this service to a set number of clients. We also (truly) stated that only two more spaces were left for dedicated maintenance.
Enquiries tripled over the next few months.
3. Communicate clearly, or cleverly
When marketing your product or service, you don’t have the luxury of verbosity and ambiguity. Cut to the heart of the matter. The reason I signed up for NIC’s NOW mobile banking is because the advertising clearly impressed upon me that I’d spend less time doing paperwork and legwork.
It’s interesting to note here how touts choose to declare the fare. For example, the tout who shouts “Adams mbao (i.e. 20 bob); Kawangware, Ithaka, Donyo!” will fill up his matatu faster than the one who says “”Thirty Kawangware, Ithaka, Donyo! Mbao Adams!”.
In the first case, the pricing is placed in such a way that even though the tout never mentions that it will cost you thirty shillings to get to Kawangware, your mind associates all the destinations with the minimum price that’s shouted along with them. You’ll board the matatu and worry about the pricing later! This, I believe, is why people use language such as “up to 50% discount”. You may get 25%. You may get 49%. Both are “up to 50%”. But the point is that whoever put up the ad convinced you to visit their store, and they’re one step closer to getting you to buy.
4. Be tactful in handling people
I don’t mean to validate bribing; I’m just asking you to consider how touts deal with cops. First, the driver always passes the cop and stops just a little further down the road. Then the tout alights and runs back to the cop. Clever.
First of all, the tout already knows what the cop is going to ask for. He and the driver know that if they don’t deal with this one cop, he’ll call the other cops at the next round about. That never ends well. Central Police Station isn’t anyone’s favourite parking lot.
So the tout alights, and the driver “gives them space” to “do their thing”. The cop avoids witnesses, the passengers “see no evil”, and there’s less likelihood that the cop will check on other potentially problematic stuff like insurance stickers on the windscreen.
I hate the culture of bribing, but I can’t help but borrow a leaf from the way touts handle tricky situations. Consider who you’re dealing with, what’s at stake, and that which would be the most peaceful (and ethical) way to go about it.
5. Pivot quickly
A route 125 matatu will get to the stage and find a whole crowd of people. No one wants to board though! So what does the tout do? He gets one of those shouting fellas at the stage to find out where most of the people want to go. Next thing you know, there’s a stampede in that matatu’s direction coz he announced he just announced he’s plying a completely different route.
Need I say more?
Yeah, maybe I do. See, I don’t mean that you should pursue that which will earn you the most amount of money. Passion is a great thing to have. It’s what drives your excellence and makes you stand out. However, passion is not ultimate when it comes to work. The first priority, simply, is to work! Make use of what you have, where you are. Even if that requires a decisive change in “where you are”.
I think those who are responsible for families are able to appreciate this fact a bit more; I would do anything to provide for mine. But if my passion and my work end up being one and the same, then I must consider myself doubly blessed.
6. Stay networked
It’s amazing how well matatu touts and drivers stay in touch and look out for each other. It’s almost indispensable. If there are cops down the road, one driver will signal to the driver going in that direction to get back in lane. If there’s traffic on Ngong Road, the tout will find out from another who’s on location and advise the driver to use Argwings Kodhek instead.
Such acquaintances are invaluable in any business. Whether it’s for referrals, outsourcing capabilities, or even just sharing of ideas and experience, no one gets anywhere mention-worthy in business by thinking and acting like an island that knows it all and has it all.
So have you noticed anything yourself?
There’s much more that can be said about the tactics of touts (I had a much longer list than 6 points), but I’d love to hear your thoughts. Have you observed anything concerning the ubiquitous matatu tout that’s interesting enough to be a business lesson?
About the Author:Huston Malande is a designer, speaker, and CEO of Skyline Design. He and "the Martians" design brands, code bespoke websites, and develop database systems for international clients.