The True Price of Excellent Service in Singapore

December 4th, 2014   •   no comments   

Read in The Straits Times and Channel News Asia today that almost four-fifths of Singapore consumers are willing to pay more for excellent service. Internationally, we rank second only to India – and are on par with the United States – for consumers willing to pay more for good service.

Here are the key findings reported in mainstream media based on the study by American Express and Ebiquity:

Business to Consumer (B2C) Service

  • 77 percent of local consumers will spend up to 14 percent more for good service
  • Out of these, 75 percent have spent more with a company after receiving good service in the past
  • 20 out of 1000 (or 2 percent) of Singapore consumers felt that service here exceeded their expectations
  • 68 percent do not believe that they receive experiences that exceed their expectations
  • 54 percent of respondents would share their bad experiences with others

Business to Business (B2B) Service

  • 20 percent ranked excellent customer service as the most important factor in doing business
  • 35 percent would do business with a new company based on positive word-of-mouth recommendations
  • 38 percent would not return to do business with a company if they experience poor service the first time

Who Are These Survey Respondents?

First of all, I wonder who the 1,000 Singapore customers surveyed by AMEX and Ebiquity are. Would they be premium credit card customers who are high income earners? Or are they average Singaporeans spanning the different demographic and psychographic segments? Unfortunately, I can’t seem to find information on the report while doing a Google search online.

I am also keen to know the profile of the businesses surveyed. Are they primarily MNCs and GLCs, or do they also cover the spectrum of medium, small and micro businesses?

Would You Pay a $24 Service Charge For a $100 Meal?

While I like the idea of customers paying more for excellent service in Singapore, the challenge arises when rising sky high expectations are not met. After all, we Singaporeans – myself included – are well known for wanting things to be “pi” (cheap) and “chi” (fresh).

Realistically speaking, how many of us would pay up to 24 percent more for our restaurant meals? In other words, the current common levied 10 percent service charge plus another 14 percent. While I may willingly do so for fine dining establishments that are going to offer me an unforgettably delightful dining experience, coughing up another 14 percent for a casual diner may be harder to justify.

Can Service Businesses Justify Price Hikes?

More importantly, what would the expectations of such consumers be like? If you ask me, the average person would probably expect to be served like a king or queen after coughing up almost one quarter of his or her bill for service.

Theoretically, it sounds good. I agree that there is room to improve the pay and likelihoods of our friends working in hospitality, F&B, retail and other service industries. However, given Singapore’s tight labour situation, how much more can such businesses do with their existing manpower even if they were to pay them more? After all, I do see that many service staff are already running themselves ragged (poor things!), serving multiple guests at the same time, even with the help of technology like tablet ordering devices!

Rethinking Service Norms

While I am not objecting to raising service charges – up to a point of course – I believe that we also need to redefine our perspective of what the ideal customer service experience is. As I’ve recently shared in my article “Can We Make Singapore Tourists More Happy?“, transforming the customer experience here requires us to consider what is practical and feasible given our manpower constraints.

Rather than expect to be waited on hand and foot, we should change our service norms such that we reward customers who self-serve or forewarn them of the need to wait during peak periods. Honestly, I don’t see a big deal in having self-pay counters at restaurant, or to allow customers to pick up their own food when they are ready. Retail businesses could also encourage more self check-out counters, and perhaps offer a slight incentive for customers who do so (eg a small rebate).

Treating Service Professionals with Respect

The other very important point is that we need to change how we view those who work in the service industry. Instead of viewing waiters, cleaners, retail associates, and security guards as “servants” at our beck and call, we should treat them as professionals equivalent to doctors, lawyers, accountants and engineers.

Rather than speak to service staff brusquely and rudely – or pretend that they do not exist – let us put in that extra effort to be warm, friendly and polite to those serving us. As my wife would attest to, doing so makes all the difference in how you are treated (not that we should only do that with an ulterior motive, of course).

Starting Them Young

Finally, and perhaps most importantly, we should inculcate service habits from young. This entails reforming our entire cultural and social DNA – from one that reeks of entitlement (“What Can You Do For Me?”) to one that values and appreciates service (“What Can I Do To Help You?”).

Paraphrasing from the words of the immortal former US President John F Kennedy: “Ask not what Singapore can do for you. Ask what you can do for Singapore.”

This process of cultural and social reform requires parents (like me) to teach our kids the importance of going the extra mile to serve others, consider other’s needs before one’s own, and not belittle anybody in the service line. We should also change how we talk about people in service professions, and teach our kids to look upon these professions with equal levels of respect and dignity.

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