Hardware without the software
One weekend afternoon, we visited a cafe nearby. The store was full and as a result, we had to wait behind the glass doors at the entrance. When a staff finally came up to us, all he did was beckon at the sign that was hung at the door, saying "FULL HOUSE". No greetings, no words of "sorry we are full, please wait." He just went "tap-tap-tap" on the sign at the glass door and walked away. We left.
At Starbucks, I almost always see tables with dirty cups, wet tables and used serviettes. The tables typically remain uncleared for a long time until a customer comes along looking for a seat. In one incident, I was even told that tissue paper costs $0.30 when I asked for the tables to be cleaned before I sat down. And when it is getting late, many times, the staff would often rearrange the chairs and tables loudly, sending a subtle unwelcoming message to all their customers: "Get out, we are closed".
On another weekday evening, I made a reservation at a fairly busy restaurant. The guy taking the reservations told me it was probably going to be at least a 15-minute wait and took down my number to call me when he got a table. Seeing that it was really crowded, we decided to take a walk around nearby and give him the benefit of time, coming back 30 minutes later. And when we showed up, he said rather triumphantly and self-conceitedly, "See, I told you, 15-minutes". I wasn't expecting to be seated but I guess a better respond would be, "Sorry, we are really packed today and I promise to try my best."
Last week, I was browsing online for a set of Marshall speakers. I stumbled upon the website of a distributor, found the product catalogue, as well as their email contact. I decided to write and ask for the stock availability before making the trip down to the outlet. However, all I got back from the business development manager was an email reply to enquire directly from their website. I ended up getting those speakers elsewhere.
Maybe it’s just me and I'm particular about the little things or we are just held hostage by poor service and there’s pretty much nothing that we can do about it.
Singapore has no resources, limited land and a limited indigenous workforce. But what we lack in physical commodities, we make up for in service. For many years, we have pride ourselves in being the epitome of a world-class service-oriented economy. We constantly promote our quality onboard our flagship airline. We rave about having the best airport in the world, and by all measurable terms, we claim to provide top-notch service in everything we do. Every foreigner who visits Singapore tells me it's a clean place, people are nice and good, etc.
This had been my impression way back until 2004 when I made my first trip alone overseas and stayed in China for a year.
I realized that good service exists in many cities in Asia. It is not unique only in developed cities but even in the emerging ones, not just in their airports but it percolates through every segment of the economy, big and small.
But why is our service deteriorating? I can only narrow this down to the fact that those in the services and non-PMET industries generally don't enjoy what they do.
A zero-sum culture.
From my conversations with friends, co-workers and clients, I get the impression that many companies in Singapore have a somewhat 'zero-sum' business culture, i.e. For an employer, once a deal has been made to hire someone, the company has a selfish interest to squeeze as much as they can out from the employee. This means lowballing salaries, scrimping on travel and employee benefits, and even pushing staff to work beyond stipulated hours.
What do employees do in turn? They find every possible means to skive, cut corners and slack off. Everyone lives paycheck to paycheck, look forward to Fridays and hate the Monday blues. They stop loving what they do and stop enjoying going to work. It just becomes a job, doing it just for the money. This percolates across the value chain in the business ecosystem. Clients often try to "suck dry" their vendors / suppliers, milking them as much time as possible.
There's no more professional decency, no mutual respect for personal time and resources, just emotionless transactional exchanges. After many years, this behaviour morphs into a toxic environment whereby two parties in any business transaction will always seek to take advantage of the other.
I'm not saying that all companies are like that. But the relentless and fast pursuit for profits today can be a dangerous thing at the expense of culture.
From laying the tarmac on the road, sweeping the sidewalks, making coffee behind the counters, to people pushing papers in the offices - every job is still a job. How do we instill a healthy respect and a sense of pride for the people who do what they do regardless of rank and file?