Complaints about service can be positive

Eight years into promoting good customer service here, service staff still fall below expectations in going beyond the call of duty, a recent poll of 300 local residents for theGo the Extra Mile for Service (Gems) Up campaign found.

Dr Marcus Lee, 43, academic director of the Singapore Management University's Institute of Service Excellence (ISES), weighs in on why 56 per cent of locals took this view and yet, separately, 60 per cent of tourists who were also polled felt service staff performed above expectations.

Why do local customers feel service staff fall below their expectations, but not tourists?

When you're on holiday, you are relaxed and not in a rush. The protocol for service transactions is also different in the home country compared to Singapore.

Here, at McDonald's, it's so efficient. You say: "Fillet-O-Fish. Upsized. Green Tea." That's it.

In Canada, where I lived for 10 years, you go: "Hi", the other person goes: "Hi". "How are you?" "I'm fine. What can I do for you?" Then you start your order. You speak in complete sentences. Societal norms enforce or expect this kind of pleasantries.

Service is a two-way street: I'm pleasant to you; you're pleasant to me. It sets up a nice experience.

In Singapore, the need for efficiency is ingrained. When we interact with service workers, it's very efficient, to the point, to minimise the time taken. It does not set the situation up for the possibility of delight most of the time.

Having said this, it's the wrong thing for companies to want to have a strategy of delight. Going the extra mile implies that the standard offering does not meet customers' requirement. If the service worker has to do this every day, it means the company is selling the wrong thing. Being all things to all people doesn't work.

What more can be done to improve service levels?

All stakeholders are interdependent. What the Government does at the policy level affects the business environment. The changing expectations of global consumers, including locals who travel extensively, affect their views of the minimum level of service.

For a company to always think that they can do things in the same manner is unrealistic.

Gems Up is trying to move the entire landscape. It's a multi- pronged approach. The Singapore Tourism Board focuses on promoting the industry; the Workforce Development Agency, training requirements; Spring Singapore, helping companies reinvent themselves to be more customer-centric. We (ISES) look at research.

It's very difficult to move Singapore because everybody has to move, or needs to want to move.

Businesses say: "It's the Government's problem because they tightened the labour laws."

If consumers are not willing to give feedback, businesses will never learn. Like many Singaporeans, if I don't like the food, and the waiter asks while I'm eating: "How's the food?" I'll say: "Wonderful." I'm non-confrontational. I feel it's not worth my time. I don't want to make it uncomfortable. I just want to get out of there and not come back.

In the United States' national satisfaction study, 25 per cent of the respondents said they have complained to a company directly. In Singapore, it's about 5 per cent. The US satisfaction score is at least five or six points higher than ours. They are doing much better and their complaint rates are so high.

One of the inhibitors to improving engagement, feedback and customer satisfaction is that a lot of companies use the number of complaints as a negative key performance indicator (KPI). If I'm a service worker or a manager, and someone wants to complain, I will try to sweep it under the rug because it will affect my performance: Let me appease you. You go away. No official complaint. But the organisation never learns.

A positive KPI, such as complaint-handling ability, encourages a service worker to want to listen to your feedback, to tell the company what you brought up, and what he did for you. The company might call and ask how you rate the handling of the complaint. The worker gets remunerated. It's a reinforcing cycle.

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