The customer no longer king

Seah Chiang Nee
The Star

Courteous service workers are a dying breed, and the cause lies in Singaporean characteristics, be it the worker, the boss or overdemanding customer.

As its new generation becomes more cosmopolitan, self-centred and seemingly always in a hurry, Singapore is finding it harder to develop a good service culture on its own.

Many educated youths are shunning jobs that involve serving customers day after day, just as their fathers stayed away from menial labour.

Both generations have had to adopt the same solution – a mass intake of foreign workers to fill the gap and raise standards.

Thousands of Filipino, Malaysian and Chinese service workers have been recruited.

With the economy turning red hot, another 100,000 more foreigners are needed, according to the government.

Most will go to the service sector.

During the last two years, there has been an upsurge in complaints about customer service in areas such as retail, food and beverage, and education.

Recently, a customer reportedly found that he and his friends had been served from a badly diluted bottle of liquor, and the waitress refused to take the drinks back – until he threatened to call the police.

In central Singapore, an irate customer found lackadaisical service workers in a cafe, carrying out a conversation among themselves, while customers waited.

And a shopper in a large 24-hour department store had to wake up a worker sleeping on duty, and who promptly directed him to find another employee to serve him.

Other complaints, reported in Stomp, a social site, included:

  • A Chinese woman restaurant manager video-filmed shouting at a group of customers, and even trying to hit them when they complained about poor service.
  • A customer being shocked to find a plastic bit in her water chestnut drink; when approached, a company staff member reacted rudely.
  • Confronted about poor food quality, a service staff member of a Japanese restaurant on the east coast told the diners: “You won’t die from eating rotten mussels and fish head.”
  • An electronic shop attendant using an expletive on a French customer when a disparity was found between the price and the invoice issued.


The bad hats also include lowly-paid foreigners.

It is not always possible for a visitor to distinguish one from the other since ‘aliens’ now make up almost 40% of the population.

As of December last year, some 508,000 foreigners made up a quarter of the state’s 2,000,000-strong service force.

A popular verdict is that service workers from the Philippines, Malaysia, Myanmar, Sri Lanka and sometimes China, are better at service than Singaporeans.

“They are generally friendlier and react coolly to trouble,” commented a country club member, referring to its restaurant’s half a dozen Manila-recruited staffs.

Why is customer service declining?

According to the manager of a top hotel, this could be due to Singaporeans becoming high achievers in the academic field.

As a result, many now considered service jobs as below them.

There are many other reasons, depending on who you talk to.

The consensus of the fault lies in Singaporean characteristics, be it the worker, the boss or over-demanding customer.

Others blame it on poor pay, over-crowdedness and rude customers as well as having too many cheap, poor quality outsiders who can’t communicate well with customers.

To begin with, few Singaporeans are born with a service culture that includes having a patient and humble disposition.

While Singaporeans are disciplined and hard-working, many of them lack a spontaneously friendly attitude that one finds in Bangkok and Tokyo.

This is absent here not only in workers but many employers, too.

And, of course, the rude and over-demanding customers.

A retail executive told me: “Many Singaporeans have let success get to their heads; they become arrogant, insensitive and too self-important to do well in the service business.”

Several years ago, a Readers Digest survey rated Singapore in the bottom 10 of the world’s most courteous cities – behind Manila, Bangkok, Hong Kong and Jakarta – despite help received from high-tech conveniences.

There have been recent improvements in several areas under the weight of government efforts and money put into service training.

The World Economic Forum ranked Singapore 10th in customer service on its 2008 Global Competitiveness Report, up from 15th in 2006 and 2007.

In perspective, the problem is only affecting some segments of the service sector, which is vast, making up 70% of the economy.

The two million service workers especially in the civil service and the large corporations are generally motivated and efficient.

In fact, the poor examples seem to run counter to the well-managed bureaucracy and state infrastructures like the harbour, airport and hospitals.

The main problem lies in the thousands of small shops and restaurants, where workers are comparatively low-paid and ill-trained.

What about poor services caused by rude customers, asked a Yahoo forum which solicited public views on the subject.

“By and large, customers are arrogant and demanding. They think because they are here to spend their money, they should be treated like kings,” a surfer said.

Another added: “The typical Singaporean is discourteous, very impatient, so it is hard to serve them well.”

Writer Adam said that customer service in Singapore is generally bad and may not improve without the boss taking the lead because “workers have very little sense of ownership in their work”.

It is tourism and hotels – crucial for Singapore’s future – that could suffer most if there are no improvements, affecting Singaporeans and visitors alike.

A society that is short on common courtesy, it is feared, may eventually lose out in the competition for global tourists.

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