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Bad service culture.

April 3, 2008

I’m been a silent reader of the stream of blogger rants about poor service from big names like Streamyx, Maxis, Astro, Digi, Pizza Hut, etc. The tirades bring up some interesting questions about mindsets. Are Malaysian companies really not interested to keep their customers happy? Or are Malaysians demanding too much?

Being a customer who’s routinely shafted, I would say its the companies that aren’t interested. When waiters at expensive restaurants blissfully ignore your frantic hand-waving for service, what else can it be?

Ok, no company wants to lose its customers, lets make that clear. After all, no customer means no money. However, let’s not confuse between wanting to keep customers and wanting to satisfy them. Let me explain. As a seller, to prevent you from running away I’ll just raise your switching costs. How? By making it painful for you switch to another product or service provider.

I can hear you say, “But the customer is king”. Well, some of you still frequent your favorite hawker even though you say he’s rude, right? You can easily go to the shop across the street for your curry mee but you don’t. Why not? Because they don’t make it like your hawker does. Its so difficult to let go you’re willing to endure some torture just to enjoy your fix.

How about service providers like mobile operators. You can hate Maxis or Celcom all you like but if you’re handcuffed to a 1-year service contract that came with your heavily discounted handphone, an accessory you’ll desperately want to get rid off in 6 months, you’re out of luck. You hate the phone, you’re sick of the operator but you can’t ditch them without being forced to pay some hefty penalty. You’re stuck in a loveless relationship.

Then there’s the monopoly. Being the only eatery within 10 kilometers of where you live is a virtual guarantee you’ll put up with my notorious service standards. In fact I can even put up a sign saying, “We reserve the right to refuse service to anyone.”

As I said, I wouldn’t confuse between wanting to keep customers and wanting to satisfy them. This might explain why your complaints seem to fall on deaf ears. Many businesses understand how switching cost works and will secretly acknowledge its cheaper to operate that way than mess around with customer satisfaction. Its why companies spend 90% of their marketing budgets on customer acquisition and none on customer retention. They’ve got you locked up so why bother.

There are exceptions of course, sporadic pockets of good service that I attribute to good individuals than corporate kindness but overall, I think there is a real and unmistakeable corporate indifference towards customer happiness. It permeates all levels of a company, very often all the way to the ceo. Why do I say this? Action speaks louder than words. Pick a company – any company that deals directly with the public like a fast food joint or a mobile phone operator. Then ask an employee, when was the last time your ceo dropped by and actually spoke to a customer? What do you think his answer would be?

When the only person with the power to make a difference – the ceo – is hidden behind a firewall of thick doors, people and management reports, how does he know if a customer isn’t being attended to or is upset about some silly policy? He doesn’t. Most likely he’ll tell you its not his job. Such attitudes send a strong message down the line and I’ll tell you, excitement is not the only thing that’s contagious.

Will things change? Sure, maybe in another 20 years. I’m not kidding. Here’s why.

  • 1st 5 years – No change. Same old dinosaurs running the show.
  • Next 10 years – Middle mgmt, mostly old school, will replace old dinos. Will fight tooth and nail to keep the good old culture of indifference.
  • Subsequent 5 years – Middle mgmt retires. Young execs, seeing the business whacked by new market mavericks, emerge to completely redefine service culture.

One last thing. Unlike popular belief, one does not elevate service standards by simply shouting “Irrasshaimase!” or “Welcome to Starbucks” in a sing-song voice and then reverting back to a third world habits. Its not about rituals. Its about entire mindsets and value systems, products of upbringing that no afternoon of training can give. That’s why it’ll take time.

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5 Comments leave one →
  1. April 3, 2008 1:12 pm

    All these will just make it easier for those with innovative approach to come in and offer us what we, the consumers, really want. There are vacuums to be filled (when not constrained by monopolistic policies), consumers will always reward those who offer better service and understand their needs better.

  2. April 4, 2008 12:07 am

    Actually, though you’re right about the top management usually not knowing about what’s happening ‘on the front line’, I think that the change is more likely to come from middle management than the top level. This is because they are the ones who do more of the actual running of things as opposed to the top who overview everything and depend on those one level below to initiate new practices and generate revenue.
    So, a middle level person who is able to attract the attention of the top by delivering some results/making a good pitch, will get the support of the top.
    I agree change is usually slower than people expect, but I think 20 years is a bit too pessimistic all the same.

  3. damien permalink*
    April 4, 2008 1:55 am

    Sakuragi: Yes, what you mention is natural in an open market economy. Thing is, good service often means higher prices and if Asians have to choose between price and service, I got a feeling most still choose price. And then they get screwed. (I dunno, maybe Asians have a higher tolerance for pain?).

    Julian: I agree, middle mgmt, being younger and more appreciative of a changing world, will lead the charge. Reminds me of one of my ex bosses. After numerous customer complaints I once proposed to upgrade front line service (at a cost of course) and his reply? Young man, I’ve been doing this for 20 years and it has always worked for me so tell me, why should I change? LOL. And I bet many other bosses use the same reason to justify lousy service.

  4. April 4, 2008 1:45 pm

    One thing I noticed in Malaysia is that there is quite a strong ‘seniority’ culture (or call it gerontocracy if you like 😉 – i.e. ‘the elder is always right’…

  5. damien permalink*
    April 7, 2008 8:04 am

    Yes, seniority is somehow sacred in Asia. Our culture of respect for the elders could have something to do with it and obviously it can have a negative effect if blindly applied in business.

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