Sunday, August 07, 2005

Serving Others

An article in the Today Weekend yesterday broached on the subject of the poor service culture among Singaporeans. It was pointed out that at many business establishments, the quality of service leaves much to be desired, that good service is lacking, is perfunctory in some cases, is missing in others. This is a great concern, given that Singapore is trying to chart its future in the more service oriented industries such as tourism and other customer facing businesses.

The analysis boiled down to rewards - that people will be more willing to serve if they KNOW and are ASSURED of a certain quantum of payment (commissions and other incentives) for the service provided. The key word is KNOW and ASSURED. In the Singapore shopping culture, especially in dining, customers pay the mandatory 10% service charge as a reward or tip for services rendered. Whether in fact the service is rendered, how good the service rendered was, are not important because the customer has to pay anyway. I have spent some time with retailers to know that this service charge does not always go towards rewarding the staff directly and when it does, there is no discrimination in rewarding those who provided really good service and those whose service were bad. Have you ever wondered why some establishments asked for a tip on top of the 10% service charge? Under these circumstances, there is simply no incentive to performing well in providing good customer service. I believe this is generally true of other service-oriented businesses.

In the same article, someone suggested that we switch to the tipping practice - i.e. remove the mandatory 10% service charge and replace it with voluntary tipping. This will ensure that good service is duly rewarded and bad service is punished by the withholding or lowering of a tip by the customer. This is as it should be. Service levels can conceivably improve when staff know that they must earn their tip by giving good service, that a tip is not assured, that good service is rewarded with better tips and vice versa.

I think this is the right way to move eventually. Some worry that their income will fall because Singaporeans generally do not tip voluntarily. But I think Singaporeans should be given greater credit. Yes, there may be some boorish people who would want to get everything and pay for nothing, but I believe that Singaporeans, and people in general, recognise good service and will to pay for it.

I was personally impressed with the warmth of a middle-aged motherly-looking waitress when I was having lunch with some coursemates in an ordinary diner in Sacramento, California some years ago (1997/98?). She showed genuine concern when she asked if we'd had a good meal, and whether she could get us anything else. I have never had anybody in Singapore ask me the first question except my mother and wife. And I think she would ask any other diner those questions. It is her way of rendering service. It makes you feel at home dining there and you would probably come back again. And no, there is no service charge in California - you tip whatever amount you wish. The Hawaiian among us gave a US$10 tip for a meal that costs not much more than that! So the service provider in Singapore may find his/her income increasing dramatically for good service if voluntary tipping is practiced, and not the other way around!

I agree that we should abolish the mandatory service charge and bring back voluntary tipping. It'll make the service industry more attuned to the needs of the customer and certainly bring out the best in people - never mind that it is all still driven by monetary gain.

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