Complaining about poor service standards has become a national sport. But in a city where good service is hard to come by, there are companies bucking the trend. What is their secret formula? By Lisa Cheong
It is a common scenario that plays out in Singapore. You walk into a retail store, wallet on fire, only to find that nobody greets you at the door. You then have to fight to get the attention of the sales staff, who, only after much persuasion go into the backroom to retrieve the item you need.
Service standards in Singapore – or the lack thereof – have been a common gripe of many residents and tourists alike. Common complaints include sales staff who hover over customers incessantly, those who would rather walk on hot coals than smile at a customer or waiters who require multiple requests before they finally remember to bring the water out.
Even though Singapore is now listed on the World Economic Forum’s service top ten customer-oriented countries in the world, the ranking rarely reflects the experiences of the consumers.
But things are set to change. As the country gears up for the opening of the Integrated Resorts, coupled with the government’s the push towards becoming a tourist destination, the service industry will soon take on an a more prominent profile.
Early in February this year, the government announced that it would step up funding for sales training to the tune of $100 million as part of the “Go the extra mile for service” (otherwise known as GEMS) movement. Three-quarters of the budget will go into boosting capabilities of the service sector such as funding for technology and training. The Workforce Development Agency will also expand its training capacity, and another $10 million will go into research to develop solutions in enhancing service quality.
Singapore is also estimated to create 20,000 hospitality-related jobs within the next two years, says Manpower Singapore country manager Philippe Capsie. “Even though there is much supply of people that have been retrenched, their skills do not necessarily match what the hospitality needs at the moment,” Capsie says. And with these new jobs, it means that a whole new cohort of employees would require training in order to meet the desired service standard.
But don’t despair. Beyond the anecdotes about long waits and unhelpful staff there are stories of excellent service as well.
Chee Nian Tze, general manager of group HR at Robinson & Co. Singapore tells of an incident where a customer bought a stuffed bear that wore a blue vest. While the customer wanted to buy an additional bear that wore a pink vest, much to the customer’s dismay, the departmental stores had no such item available. Taking her own initiative, the plucky Robinsons’s employee knitted a pink vest just so that the customer would be able to have the item she desired.
So what makes certain service employees walk the extra mile, and is there a formula companies can use to bring out the best in their staff?
When speculation that Dubai’s Al Futtiam Group was looking to acquire Robinsons, there were concerns as to whether the Singapore brand and its trademark level of warm service would be eroded.
The service culture in Robinsons, as described by Chee, is “overzealous”. Driven by the top management, Chee says the company’s new owners, senior management and even CEO try to walk around the retail floors on a regular basis to see how the service staff are faring. “We see service as part and parcel of our business cycle. Because we see service as a big criterion for us, all the things that we do link back to it.”
Transportation provider SMRT Corporation’s service standards is put into the responsibility of a committee which is comprised of various business units (including a HR representative) who all come together to conceive and implement ways to encourage staff to enhance customer service.
The next step is then to find people who have the desire to provide good service, says Chee.
Tommy Ng, senior vice president, corporate services at SMRT Corporation agrees. Ng says as part of the transportation provider’s HR strategy, the company reviews its recruitment and interview process in order to ensure a right fit in their employees.
Aileen Kwok, manager of the service quality department at Sentosa Leisure Group says, “While relevant experience and credentials do sometimes matter, ultimately, it is whether a person in a front-line position has the natural affinity to connect with people. They would have no problems adopting the ‘right’ service mindset and becoming service leaders.”
After the recruitment stage, training is involved in order to get employees up to standard. For Robinsons, this means a one-day intensive induction programme where employees are schooled in the company’s service culture and given “extensive product knowledge training” as well. This is followed-up with three months of on-the-job training which employees must pass before they are confirmation as staff.
Training plays a big part of Robinson’s business. For the headcount staff of 950, 40% of whom are service employees, the company even has their own in-house trainers as well. “We try to do customer service training in-house as we feel that we understand our people better.” Chee, who spends approximately 30% of her work on training-related work even sits in during interviews with external trainers to gauge how passionate and committed they are to good service levels.
Last year, Robinsons rolled out a new service initiative which aims to raise the level of service engagement. This is done by by providing individualised attention which is suited according to the customer needs – whether it is by giving them personal space or the attention that they want. The reason for the new campaign is to renew interest and prevent service initiatives from becoming jaded, Chee says. As such, the new service initiative is takes it up a notch higher above its previous ‘GST’ campaign which stands for ‘Greet, Smile and Thanks’.
But before it could launch a new initiative, Robinsons sought to obtain managerial buy-in, as they would eventually be the ones training and coaching the front-liners. After an initial briefing on the salient points of the new service initiative, managers were then encouraged to think about how they can come up with the best ways to implement the training programme.
Instead of hiring professional actors, Chee says greater buy-in was sought when front-line staff were asked to re-enact in the company’s training videos. “I think it is well-received, because firstly when staff see it, they will say, ‘Oh this is my colleague or boss.’ So it helps generates interest. And the staff who are in the video also feel proud as well.”
For Sentosa Leisure Group, the service values are driven by the organisation’s corporate values in an acronym of STAR, which stands for Service from the heart, Teamwork, Acting with integrity and Results orientation.
As a business partner, SMRT’s HR division works closely with other units to perform its function of a business support partner, Ng says. The organisation has feedback and engagement platforms such as “Tea for Thoughts”, opinion surveys and 360-degree feedback sessions whereby staff and senior management interact. This helps facilitate senior management in understanding their staff better as well.
SMRT also conducts training for its managers to help them motivate and manage their staff.
Measuring it up
How do companies measure the service standards? For Sentosa Leisure Group, Kwok says the company measures the level of service standard based on two methodologies. The first is through a guest satisfaction survey, which is a face-to-face interview conducted with random guests on the island. Sentosa Leisure Group also has a mystery shopping programme which measures not only organisational-wide standards, but standards that are specific to frontline staff (such as the time it takes for a guest to be attended to and seated). “Results are regularly reviewed with the frontline managers and action plans are then put in place to address any service gaps,” says Kwok.
The organisation also tracks comments via other communication channels such as phone calls, emails, faxes and feedback forms.
At SMRT, customer service elements are also included in its employee performance appraisals to help assess each employee’s level of service.
Now that there is training is up to scratch, how do companies ensure that employees who have performed excellent service are recognised and rewarded in due time?
“Recognition goes beyond monetary rewards,” says Kwok. While the mechanics of the staff recognition programmes and internal celebrations are administered by the company’s service quality team, Kwok says the company culture is built upon appreciating, recognising and reinforcing good service behaviours and performance.”
Chee concurs, saying that instead of punishing negative behaviours, employees are encouraged and rewarded for good behaviour instead. One way the company does this is through store briefings held twice each week in every department outlet. During these briefings, managers at the Robinsons Group use this opportunity to tell employees about stories of good service their colleagues have performed recently.
Robinsons’s managers are given notecards with “Thank you” and “Great job” printed on them, with space at the back for the person’s name and the reason for why they were complimented. Whenever managers or senior staff see employees going the extra mile, managers would give these cards to front-line staff. The company also holds competitions to see which employee can amass the largest number of compliments.
Chee goes on to list other ways of recognising good service, one of which includes internal newsletters highlighting stories of employees who have gone beyond the call of duty. The company also organises various events such as health talks, bowling and karaoke competitions and movie preview screenings.
Kwok says the management of Sentosa recognise employees for going the extra mile by giving token gifts of appreciation. “Outstanding workers who receive the most number of compliments are also further incentivised with bigger prizes in an annual celebration,” Kwok says.
Sentosa Leisure Group also participates in national and international service awards programmes. This helps raise the recognition of these employees as service role models to the leisure and tourism industry. Some of the organisation’s past participation includes Spring Singapore’s Excellent Service Awards and Singapore Tourism Board’s Tourism Awards.
“These Sentosa ambassadors visibly raise the profile and image of the organisation and they are a testament to our commitment in providing service excellence and creating memorable guest experiences,” says Kwok.
We’re getting there, baby
The road to excellent service is a long and difficult path. New competition such as the IRs and upcoming shopping malls would mean that the competition for talent would make the war for talent even hotter.
Chee also adds that as Singaporeans become more educated, it would be harder to recruit new blood as Singaporean parents would rather have their children peruse professional occupations such as engineering, law or medicine.
While SMRT boasts of several service accolades including the ‘Best Passenger Experience’ awarded by Metro Rail and ‘Most Customer-Friendly Transport’ awarded by Land Transport Authority (LTA) during the Land Transport Excellence Awards 2008 and EXSA Superstar Award (Transport) awarded by SPRING Singapore, Ng says the transportation provider is not looking to rest on its laurels. Instead, Ng says the company hopes to improve on its service by listening to and engaging our staff and customers and incorporating the feedback into our operations and daily interaction.
Kwok says Sentosa Leisure Group’s challenge is to maintain “consistent good service standards”. While training plays a part, “there is also a need to look into the follow through, reinforcement, guiding and coaching.”
In the end, service is not just one aspect of the business, but a way of life throughout the organisation. “It’s not about a programme or a campaign,” says Kwok. “There’s no one thing that influences service – it’s attention to all the little details that will raise the standards – from grooming to training, process improvements, management involvement and taking time to recognise employees.”
- Sentosa Leisure Group
- SMRT Corporation Ltd
- Robinsons and Co
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