Uniquely Singapore Service

“Stop, that’s not how it should be done. Let me show you.”

 He stood up and arranged the bowls close to each other around the huge bowl of sharks fin soup. Then, he proceeded to scoop the soup and distributed them equally into each of the individual bowls, like a professional; except he is not.

 Banquet guest serving at the table? Unheard of? But true!

 The waitress at this wedding banquet held at the 5-star Pan-Pacific Hotel was obviously untrained. She held up the bowl gingerly, trying desperately to fill it up without scalding herself. Amusing way of serving indeed!

 Gone are the days where the waiter could serve sharks fin soup without spilling a drop or dividing them without having to ‘back-track’ and scoop out from another bowl to make up the difference.

 Slicing up a whole fish with the precision of a surgeon and re-arranging the bone back into the fish as if it was untouched seems to be a lost art too. These days one would be lucky to be served an equal portion of the dish.

When friends meet up inevitably the topic of bad service crops up. This is really sad, considering that we pride ourselves as the world-class leader in many fields. And yet, we allow bad service to blemish our good name.

How did we end up in this state? Was it that bad before? In any case, it has reached crisis level. Service horror stories abound. Waiters who strategically avoid eye contact when you are trying to get their attention, ingredient change in a dish without first informing the customer, deficiency of product knowledge and a general lack of understanding of what constitutes unacceptable behaviour.

Why is Singapore languishing in the 9th position in a recent customer service survey, conducted by the Institute of Service Excellence at the Singapore Management University; trailing behind South Korea and Hong Kong? Is our DNA really wired in such a way that renders us “service-challenged”?

No pride at all

What is clear is the existence of an attitude problem which pervades all levels of bad service. Service staff is just not bothered to do the job at hand well. Perhaps it stems from an absence of pride in the work they do. Culturally, in Asian countries, serving denotes being a “servant” and hence being “servile”. So it comes as no surprise that no self-respecting parent would want their child to grow up to be a waiter. Unlike in the West where there is more respect for vocational jobs such as chef, plumber or waiter as they are seen as an art form of various multitudes. Over in Asia, waiting on tables is often seen as a “low-level” or even a “temporary” job where one moved on to when one could secure a “better” job. And if there is no respect for the service provider, it would certainly be hard put for the service provider to have pride in his/her job.

Common sense is uncommon 

Besides being plagued by poor attitude, it appears that common sense is a scarce commodity among service staff here too. Or is it a matter of not thinking through something thoroughly? Swensen’s for one would serve you salad with the giant fork meant for tossing salad sans the usual cutlery and expect you to eat using the giant fork and some patrons actually do!

Why is there no training?

While service staff is under scrutiny, the onus is also on the employers to provide proper and adequate training. The banquet staff member highlighted in the beginning was obviously not well trained and unfortunately this can be said of many banquet staff members as well. Apparently it seems that even 5-star hotels employ part-timers or those on vacation to fill such jobs. While it does not matter whom they employ as long as adequate training is provided and most importantly, the job can be well executed at the end of the day. Alas, this is not true. In short, when staff is well-trained, it shows.

Service recovery that leaves a sour aftertaste

Service recovery is just as important as the service itself. A good service recovery can turn angry customers into loyal ones. Needless to say, a service recovery that appears more of an afterthought would only leave a sour aftertaste in the already incensed customer.

A banquet staff at the 5-star Fullerton Hotel once spilled drinks onto the evening gown of a guest. While the hotel offered to send the soiled dress for dry cleaning, she was made to collect the laundry at a time convenient to the hotel staff instead of at her convenience. It made her felt that the hotel was not sincere in its service recovery at all. There goes a customer! 

Are we good customers?

Having said all that, to be fair one should also look at the other end of the equation. As in any relationship, it takes two hands to clap. Are Singaporeans good customers to begin with? Customers should also be trained to appreciate good service and have basic courtesy. Many do not even say, “Thank you” when served. Perhaps this could be attributed to their misplaced “superiority” complex, embedded deep in the Asian sub-conscious mind. To most, the relationship between the server and the person being served is not an equal but a submissive one. Hence saying “Thank you” to a waiter is akin to thanking a servant, which is deemed unnecessary. (This is definitely flwaed.) Understandably, mindset change would take years, but if Singaporeans wish for better service soon, as consumers we should also change our attitude fast to encourage good service. 

Customer expectation

Granted that customers should be respectful towards service staff, a look at Hong Kong however, seems to tell a uniquely different story. Hong Kong’s customers are not exactly polite to begin with nor are they the most patient ones on earth. Yet miraculously, Hong Kong managed to improve their service standard almost overnight; post financial crisis & SARS; from its legendary notoriously bad and sometimes even hostile service. Survival aside, customer’s expectation could be a key factor here.  Hong Kongers are shrewd enough to adjust to today’s customers’ higher expectations in service standard. Hence, in raising the bar, the level of standard could be improved. Maybe it is high time Singaporeans make known our service expectations so service staff would not be in the dark of what is unacceptable behaviour. 

Highlight good service

If we expect good service, then we should also be prepared to feature good service. While Singaporeans are quick to complain, we are slow to compliment good service. Giving the brickbats without the bouquets is a sure way to put a damper on good service. Some service staff members treat Caucasian customers better partly because most would take the effort to write in to their employer to compliment good service. (No doubt, the other half may possibly be due to an ingrained Pinkerton Syndrome in some members of the Asian society.) I believe turning highlighting good service into a practice can bring about an improvement in service standards, especially if it is coupled with incentives from the employer. 

Good Service

Having heard all the horror stories, we would be heartened to know that good service does exist in Singapore. The ‘ban mian’ (hand-made noodle) stall at the coffee shop opposite my home has good CRM (Customer Relationship Manager) without knowing what the term means or even heard of it. The stall owner remembers all her customers’ preferences well and does her job with pride. She takes pain to look into the little things like ensuring that a plastic bowl of noodle filled with soup is properly placed in the plastic bag for takeaway so that there would not be spillage. Yes, it is the little things that count! 

Making the effort works wonders too! On the first day of Chinese New Year, when I went into Swensen’s at Changi Airport ravenous, the service staff promptly suggested that she quickly send in my order for cooked food to reduce the waiting time while I ponder what ice-cream to order to satiate my hunger pangs temporarily. I must say she warms my heart instantly, to know that someone actually thinks through the matter at hand thoroughly to come up with a solution.

And when someone serves with passion, it shines! Walk into the intimate café, Food for Thought and the passion is infectious. Staff there doesn’t look like they are working at all but truly enjoying what they are doing. It goes without saying that their service was attentive, friendly and professional. (This is one place that I would like to write a full piece on its own but that’s another story for another day.) In fact, the afternoon tea experience at the 6–star St Regis Hotel on the same day pales in comparison. While service there wasn’t bad, it could only be deemed passable with some lapses in between. Well, so much for a 6-star establishment! 

Surprise ourselves, Singapore

If some folks can get it right, there is certainly hope for Singapore. Let’s surprise ourselves with a 180-degree turn for the better!

6 Comments

Filed under Serious Stuff

6 responses to “Uniquely Singapore Service

  1. Great articles & Nice a site….

  2. Hey, your blog is very great, I found while in search for brand info on google and it has very related information on it. Will be sure to come back again and bookmark. Keep up good work

  3. Good post, I can’t say that I agree with everything that was said, but very good information overall:)

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