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Calvin Chu Yee Ming

Transforming Singapore’s service quality

BY CALVIN CHU YEE MING

The Customer Service Index of Singapore reports that Singapore has been steadily improving on its levels of customer service in recent years. Agencies like SPRING Singapore and WDA, for instance, have introduced numerous accreditations, awards, public campaigns, and training programmes that seek to improve on the level of service excellence.

Most organisations are moving from standardised phrases, routines, and policies that once typified customer service, to more holistic service management strategies.

These encompass strong senior leadership commitment, efficient processes that allow service staff to focus on high criticality cases, systems that deliver better visibility and efficiency, performance management approaches that empower and reward service ‘stars’, as well as skill development to persuade staff of the importance of excellent customer service.

However, while the World Economic Forum ranks Singapore as the second most competitive country out of 148 nations in its 2013-2014 Global Competitiveness Index, we only came in at number 14 in terms of our ‘Degree of customer orientation’.

This might come as no surprise to many Singaporeans, who regularly express frustration at service staff that come across as unemotional, uninformed about their wares, or unable to make decisions for their customers. Service jobs in Singapore are often perceived as low-paying, menial, and servile vocations.

In a competitive culture based on meritocracy, this can be taken to mean that service staff are somehow of lesser worth in the social structure. A few customers may even end up feeling entitled to mistreat service staff.

Many potential employees also try to veer away from service vocations, and surprisingly few companies have succeeded in encouraging staff to truly embrace service jobs in the Singaporean context.

One cannot help but wonder why, despite our efforts, Singapore still lags behind countries such as Australia, Canada, Japan, Thailand, or even the US in service excellence?

In studying these service excellence leaders, we came to learn that service quality in each country is a result of the unique mix of social, cultural, and historical factors.

For example, Australians speak of an underdog mentality with its roots in a history as a penal colony, which creates a united identity of ‘mateship’ that values egalitarianism, humility, and informality. This manifests in a brand of customer service that feels authentic, friendly, and down-to-earth.

The sense of pride and excellence that the Japanese embrace in customer service can be traced back hundreds of years to a tradition of honour enshrined in military service, Confucian text, and religious influence.

In contrast, the American values of freedom and capitalism, as well as the strong tipping culture in the US, have also successfully given rise to service staff who are motivated to go the extra mile to differentiate themselves and expect to be resultantly rewarded.

It seems that rather than seek to indiscriminately emulate other countries, exploring Singapore’s own unique socio-cultural drivers that can explain our attitudes towards customer service could therefore give rise to a more authentic brand of service management for Singapore.

To deeply understand the Singaporean condition, we must recognise how Singapore historically evolved as a rule-based society. Singaporeans have always sought security in adhering to accepted social norms.

This has seen organisations investing and encouraging their service staff to comply with the ‘right’ hardware. However, this often leads to staff merely go through the actions. Following the rules gives a sense of structure, yet ‘followers’ rarely expect themselves to go above and beyond the call of duty to serve customers.

We then studied companies that have consistently outperformed the Customer Satisfaction Index of Singapore (CSISG) for the past three years, as well as winners of the Singapore Service Excellence Medallion, to learn how local organisations might overcome this mentality.

Our tourism industry has consistently emerged as a hallmark of good service. Changi Airport, for instance, focuses on every staff member’s role in delighting each of its 40 million passengers, emphasising that every staff member has a responsibility to fulfil.

Singapore Airlines is careful about selecting staff that have service-oriented dispositions and encouraging them to take responsibility for situations that come in their way.

The Ritz-Carlton is famous for giving its staff a $2,000 discretionary budget to delight any single guest.

The Singapore Zoo lets its staff decide on priority boarding for trams, apparel replacement, and ticket revalidation, and encourages staff to say “Let me see what I can do”, rather than check with their supervisors for different decisions.

Even outside the hospitality sector, Mt Elizebeth Hospital allows its staff to go the extra mile in non-mission critical areas without managerial approval, to delight patients.

In retail, DFS Galleria trains its staff on emotional and cultural intelligence, so they feel confident of independently handling luxury customers from different backgrounds.

Similarly, Wing Tai Retail develops its staff beyond handling customer transactions, to become effective advisors of each client.

It becomes apparent in these examples that the common principle these leading organisations have adopted has been to delegate responsibility to their staff within certain boundaries, so they are comfortable taking ownership of any customer situation that emerges.

Only by providing a decision-making structure with scope for individual flexibility will Singaporean staff feel confident exercising the autonomy required for service excellence.

What is your organisation doing to empower your staff to take ownership of every service situation?

The views expressed in this column are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect this publication's view, and this article is not edited by Singapore Business Review. The author was not remunerated for this article.

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Calvin Chu Yee Ming

Calvin Chu Yee Ming

Calvin Chu Yee Ming is Managing Partner at social innovation firm Eden Strategy Institute. Calvin also serves as an Executive Advisor to NUS Enterprise's Social Venturing Programme, an iAdvisor with IE Singapore, and as an Associate Lecturer in Strategy and Organisation with the Royal Melbourne Institute of Technology.

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