WALK INTO A shop in Taiwan and there’s a good chance you’ll be greeted with a hearty huan ying (welcome). They welcome you with gusto and don’t make you feel bad even if you don’t buy anything. They can also be resourceful. One time, I found a nice pair of shoes in my size but not in the colour I wanted. The salesperson promptly offered to order a pair in the colour I liked and have it delivered to my home the next day — at no extra cost.
In restaurants, the service is attentive and accommodating. If you leave food on your plate, the waitress will probably ask you if there was something wrong with it or if you want it put in a doggy bag to take home. At a Japanese restaurant that my husband and I frequent, the maître d’ remembers the types of fish we like best and recommends dishes based on that.
As a result, I’ve become a bit spoilt and it is often a bit of a shock when I return to Singapore, where customer service can be indifferent. At Changi Airport recently, I approached the information counter to find directions to a different terminal. The girl at the counter blurted out some information and immediately went back to reading her magazine. No eye contact, no smile, no interest in serving the customer in front of her. You probably have several anecdotes of vainly trying to get good service — sometimes any service — in restaurants and stores.
Getting customer service right is important as Singapore seeks to turn itself into a regional entertainment and leisure hot spot. The hardware may be there, in the form of the glitzy Shoppes at Marina Bay Sands and gourmet restaurants stretching from Shenton Way to Sentosa, but the software is just as crucial and not quite where it could be.
CSI SINGAPORE SLIPS
Don’t just take my word for it. Consider the information coming out from Singapore Management University and the Workforce Development Agency, which jointly developed the Customer Satisfaction Index of Singapore. Yes, we now have CSI in Singapore. In 2010, the index declined 0.8 points to 67.2 from the year before. Drops were seen in the education, finance and insurance, healthcare and info-communications sectors.
Of all the sectors surveyed last year, the lowest ranked in terms of customer satisfaction was the infocomms segment, which includes the mobile phone operators. Next in line was the F&B and within that, food courts garnered the worst ranking. Crystal Jade and Starbucks were among those that ranked well within their cohort. On the flip side, the best performer in 2010 when it came to customer satisfaction was the tourism sector. Within this, the Ritz-Carlton Hotel was well ahead of its peers in terms of its score.
Good service invariably translates to good business. According to American Express, at least half of consumers say they are willing to spend more with companies they believe provide excellent service. In its 2010 Global Customer Service Barometer, it found that consumers in Japan, for instance, are willing to spend 10% more with companies that offer great service while those in the US and Italy will spend 9% more, on average.
Aside from this, good service brings with it the promise of customer loyalty. We see this at Starbucks, which thrives in Singapore even though its coffee is much more pricey than the kopi tiam’s. Of course, branding and image also play a big role in the loyalty equation for the coffee chain, but the queues wouldn’t be there if it had poor service.
LESSONS FROM TAIWAN
Coming back to Taiwan, I’ve concluded that there are at least two reasons why its service culture is so impressive. Firstly, there is a strong Japanese influence. From 1895 until the end of World War II in 1945, Taiwan was a colony of Japan. As a result, it has inherited several things Japanese, such as superb sushi restaurants, the art of gift wrapping, high-speed trains, bowing — and its service culture.
Second, the entrepreneurial element. Small businesses are a big part of the country’s business scene and the Taiwanese are said to prefer being their own bosses than working for someone else. This is reflected in the huge number of small shops and stalls at night markets. People who have a stake in the outcome of a business will be galvanised to work harder to close each and every sale and to build customer loyalty.
Plus, here’s a lesson for Singapore. Taiwan doesn’t outsource its service sector. Strict foreign worker laws mean that most of its service staff are locals. In Singapore, businesses often complain that locals don’t want to work as waiters or shop assistants. Yes, the hours are long, the pay isn’t great and the work is hard. But perhaps, those are exactly the things that need to be worked on before we can motivate good people to enter the service industry.
Taiwanese service isn’t without handicaps. Foreigners will find very little English spoken in shops and restaurants. There is sometimes a lack of knowledge about products. And, on occasion, service can be inflexible, with a reluctance to deviate from a tried and tested norm (interestingly, a Japanese feature). But on the whole, good service is one of the hallmarks of this nation, also known for its high-tech exports, Mando-pop stars and raucous politicians.
So Malaysia How?