Lousy customer service: Who’s to blame?

Singapore Business Review
Published: 16 Apr 14
By Ronald Lee, Managing Director, PrimeStaff Management Services

I’m willing to bet my last dollar that you, dear reader, have probably experienced the embarrassingly poor levels of service in Singapore’s food & beverage industry at some point.

Yet, according to recent figures released in the Customer Satisfaction Index for 2013, Singapore achieved its highest mark in seven years at 70.7 out of 100, lagging behind countries like South Korea and the United States.

The index tracks a cross-section of other service sectors such as finance, info-communications, education, tourism and hotels and for the most part, Singapore scores relatively high due to our majority skilled workforce.

But therein lies the problem.

We Singaporeans are generally a well-educated bunch and we tend to shun frontline jobs such as those in the food & beverage, retail and even healthcare sectors. We aspire to better-paying office jobs and management positions that carry prestige and grant us strong purchasing power to acquire material wealth, which then enable us to climb up the social ladder.

This phenomenon is responsible for the acute shortage of workers for frontline jobs and employers have little choice but to fill these positions with part-timers (often students) and foreigners. These groups usually take on the jobs with a short-term view and thus we can understand how the transient nature of such roles often translates to poor service rendered.

This can be remedied with training. But companies are reluctant to invest resources to train employees who are probably going to leave them when the new school term begins or in a year or two for foreign workers on Work Permits and S-Passes.

It is a chicken-and-egg situation and while I do empathise, employee training and development must absolutely be your top priority.

Needless to say, your customer is your bread and butter. And your frontline staff represent one of the most important touchpoints between your company and your customer. Deliver exceptional service and you are likely to enjoy repeat business from this paying individual. Disappoint a customer with lousy service and you’ve lost him for life.

While there may be genuine cost considerations, it is imperative that companies make employee training and development a priority. Knowledge builds confidence and helps to improve efficiency of service delivery, which ultimately raises the levels of service excellence and customer satisfaction.

Central to such training programmes should be a focus on instilling the ethos of service excellence as a key pillar of the corporate culture, and developing initiatives to motivate frontline staff to take greater pride in their jobs.
“Soft Skills” are the Key to Customer Retention

In dealing with customers, your employees’ soft skills come into focus. They make all the difference between poor service that turns a customer off and delivering a great experience that keeps him coming back for more.

“Hard skills” refer to specific, trainable abilities necessary to carry out the professional or technical requirements of a job or occupation.

In a restaurant, for instance, your customer would expect your staff to note down the food orders accurately and bring the right dishes to their table. This is a basic competency and the type of hard skills training that most businesses provide their employees.

“Soft skills”, however, relate to a collection of personal, positive attributes and competencies that enhance an individual’s relationships, job performance, and value to the market.

Also known as “people skills”, they include an ability to listen well, communicate effectively, be positive, handle conflict, accept responsibility, show respect, build trust, work well with others, manage time effectively, give feedback, accept criticism, work under pressure, solve problems, be likable, and demonstrate good manners.

These attributes are harder to observe, quantify, and measure than hard skills and are certainly much more difficult to instill in people, if such qualities are not a natural part of their DNA.

By equipping your service staff with soft skills, they will be better able to relate to your customers and anticipate their needs and wants. When faced with an irate customer, the soft skills most needed in your employee are perhaps empathy and emotional intelligence to help him or her more effectively defuse the situation.

Most important of all, they need to have excellent communication skills. Are they able to really listen well and understand the emotional undercurrents behind a customer’s complaint? Is their communication style effective and are they able to adapt their style to the different personalities of customers they deal with on a day-to-day basis?

It is an unfortunate fact of life that most of these soft skills do not come naturally to many people and must be honed through training and development. Failing which, their deficiency in this area, when compounded over time, could just put you out of business one day.

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