width=480Which comes first? Good service or good customers? Debates about service standards in Singapore have often revolved around the good old chicken-or-the-egg metaphor. Can we expect good service in an environment where customers show no respect for those providing service? On the other hand, have local consumers become testy and frustrated because of poor service standards all around?

From a macro perspective, service has always been a key differentiating factor, especially as business environments homogenise to offer exceedingly similar experiences in areas such as retail, education, healthcare, banking and hospitality. This realisation prompted the Singapore government to invest S$100 million (US$69 million) to strengthen the industry over the next three years.

In a speech to academics and industry professionals at the recent global conference on service excellence, S Iswaran, Singapore's Senior Minister of State in Trade and Industry and Education noted that the global emphasis on service standards has been rising inexorably. It is evident that organisations that deliver superior customer experiences are best positioned to weather, if not capitalise on, economic cycles, he said.

But even as those in the government, academia and relevant industries have signalled their commitment to developing service, the man about town has remained largely sceptical. Having experienced superior service elsewhere, he knows that true service excellence requires far more than economic imperatives.

What can Darwin tell us about service?

Japan is often brought up to be the hallmark of a great service culture. Some say it's because the Japanese are a meticulous and polite people. Others credit the Japanese ethic: the relentless pursuit of excellence in every arena.

For sure, the Japanese brand of service has many admirers around the world. Yet, it is an area of specialisation that the Japanese have found difficult to teach or transfer. Imitators around the world have also never quite managed to replicate the same level of service found in Japan.

Ho Kwon Ping, executive chairman of Banyan Tree Holdings, was at a forum in Tokyo when someone had introduced the notion of exporting service - how can Japan, a country with such highly desired service qualities, export its unique forte overseas, tangibly? Ho, who is also chairman of the Singapore Management University (SMU), pondered this until he came across a newspaper article about another un-exportable Japanese specialisation - the smart phone.

Japanese smart phones suffer from what the article calls Galápagos syndrome - like the various species of birds, discovered by Charles Darwin on the Galápagos Islands - nearly 1,000 kilometres off Ecuador in the Pacific Ocean -- which were distinct from those in the mainland because they had evolved on their own, endemically, much like how Japanese phones had evolved: exclusively, within their own culture and area.

Speaking at the same conference on service excellence, organised by the Institute of Service Excellence at SMU (ISES), Ho reasoned that the Galápagos syndrome could be due to the inward-looking and insular nature of Japanese society. We must always be cognizant that whatever service excellence we talk about, it is located within a specific culture, a specific society and working environment. And if we ever seek to export that in any sensible manner, we must be clearly aware of the limitations if one only tries to provide service excellence within a particular cultural context, he said.

So if service should not be limited to cultures, are there universal values that Singapore could strive towards, in our (pragmatic) quest for service excellence?

Love, pride and quality

When service providers are passionate and feel a sense of pride in and about their work, they are likelier to provide great service. Based on surveys at Banyan Tree Hotels & Resorts, Ho found, consistently, that guests enjoy service from the heart; more so than efficient service or luxury amenities.

People actually appreciate service from other people who really like doing what they are doing, he noted, adding that it is this sense of pride that underscores service excellence in Japan.

According to Ho, the respect that the Japanese people have for each other and the provision of service is very high. He raised an example where a Banyan Tree chef, on a business visit to a Japanese hotel, was treated like a star - a welcome he might not have received in Singapore as vocational specialisations do not command as high a degree of respect.

We don't have a lot of good service in Singapore because nobody who is self-respecting and can get a 'better' job wants to get into the service industry. Why do people not want to go into the service industry? Because there's very little value attached to it, and so on and so forth.

There is also this is a perception that permeates across many Asian societies, that vocational jobs are less respectable, compared to educational, academic accomplishments and qualifications. Yet, in Japan and in Europe, there is a seemingly greater sense of appreciation and respect for artisanal work. As such, master craftsmen, chefs, candle-makers, painters and boiler-makers are highly regarded; like celebrities of their domains.

Ho believes that when people feel valued and respected for good work, they, and others, would be inspired to do better. Until we break that cycle and give respect to vocations of any kind, from boiler-makers to executive chefs, we're not going to achieve a society of service excellence.

Furthermore, if the customer surveys at Banyan Tree have taught him anything, it is that great service, at the end of day, comes from people who perform consistently, every day, with love, pride and quality.

Cultural baggage check

While Asian service standards are considered to be high, especially in the hospitality sector, according to Ho, it is for the wrong reasons. This is because Asian businesses tend to throw people at problems such that there would be several people tasked to manage one job or situation, whereas in a western society, only one person would be expected to do the same.

Customers certainly feel happier with this 'Asian approach' because they are lavished with far more attention - even if it comes at a productivity cost to the business. Putting more people on one job also means spreading payouts across more rice bowls, which perpetuates the notion of a 'low glass ceiling' in service wages. And low wages will, in turn, affect an employee's sense of pride and respect.

Ho also pointed out that within the Chinese culture, 'service' is often interpreted as 'servile' or 'servant' - yet another mindset barrier that affects the level of respect that many Asians have for the vocation. Singaporeans, comprised of an ethnic Chinese majority, may hence require some re-wiring.

To be a shop assistant in Singapore is something that you don't want to tell people that you do. Compare that to places like Australia, where, as Ho observed, there seems to be a greater sense of pride. Shop assistants would spend time talking to people and customers - proudly. There is no shame, he said. Similarly, he found that the Japanese accorded an incredible respect for even small ramen noodle sellers who could whip up an excellent bowl of this Japanese staple.

Mutual respect is extremely important in a service culture. It's not just respect between the service provider and the customer, but respect within the organisation itself for even the 'lowliest' of service providers. Because only when the service provider senses that there is respect for his or her job, then you'll have self-respect, and only with self-respect can you then do your job well.

He added, There is very little sense in the Chinese society that providing service can be done with respect, and that the relationship between the service provider and the service acquirer can be an equal relationship. This could be due to Asia's traditionally high regard for hierarchy and caste structures. But be that as it may, short of a more egalitarian attitude, things will remain, more or less, the same.

Breaking the vicious cycle

To attain real, sustainable service excellence, Ho proposed a closer look at the average Singaporean's mindset, especially where education is concerned. Today, degrees seem to confer the perception of greater prospect, compared to diplomas. This could be due to differences in entry-level pay. The civil service, which is the largest employer, pays diploma holders a lower starting salary compared to degree holders.

Our polytechnics are truly among the best in the world, but we also know that a polytechnic graduate from Singapore is not accorded the same sort of respect as a university graduate, and therefore, everyone still wants to get a degree, he noted. This perceptual imbalance between the abilities of a vocational worker versus a degree-certified worker perpetuates a notion that certain jobs are more respectable than others.

So how can Singaporeans be encouraged to adopt a more egalitarian attitude towards various educational backgrounds and jobs? One way, Ho suggested, would be for the government to drop signals - because Singaporeans have been known to listen to such signals: We're such a compliant society that we are driven by signals. We all know the right time to clap; we know when is the right time to do this, the right time to do that; so with a more adroit use of signals, I think things can be changed.

One area that has experienced such a change is the teaching service. Ho commented that in the past, teaching, as a profession, was not perceived to be admirable within Singapore society. Today, however, the sector attracts high calibre, idealistic, and highly enthused individuals. We're getting very good, young, bright people entering into a service which, for many years, was considered to be not very well-paying, and not very respectable. And I think a lot of that has been achieved by the government, sending signals, parents receiving it better, advertising... that say that it's great to be a school teacher.

As with any other kinds of social change, this mindset shift did not happen overnight. Nevertheless, the task of selling optimism to Singaporeans - so used to hard-and-fast, tried-and-tested solutions - can be arduous. It won't happen tomorrow, but unless we all engage ourselves in doing this, (service excellence) is not going to happen at all, he cautioned.

Already, there are green shoots. Ho, for one, has noticed improvements in recent years. This is perhaps due to a greater top-down emphasis on service quality and increased public awareness on such issues. He cited instances at the Singapore immigration checkpoint: When I go through immigration nowadays, the immigration officers smile more. They even, occasionally, offer me candy... That didn't used to exist!

So perhaps societal attitudes have not evolved as quickly as the actual shifts in service quality, which, true to the Singapore brand, has been punctual, prompt and efficient. Ho believes we can do better. But as service providers continue in their efforts to evolve, so must society and customers. After all, there can be no chicken without the egg.