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Get rid of poor service staff, let only the fittest survive

Does Singapore have an inbred poor service culture? To shake things up, make staff compete for limited positions, sack the poor performers and raise the remainder's pay.

Imagine you are hosting an important business lunch at a fine-dining restaurant but end up having to raise your hand repeatedly to ask the waiters for service.

The chief executive of a well-known company here told me recently: "It's not that the restaurant did not have enough people. It's whether we have what it takes to wow first-class tourists (when they come) to Singapore. In fine-dining restaurants overseas, they will even ensure the water in your glass will never be half-filled."

His story is not unfamiliar. Many Singaporeans have encountered shoddy treatment at restaurants here, such as being ushered to a table that is next to the toilet or kitchen in a near-empty restaurant. Recently, I was given a table next to the entrance even though I had made a booking at the six-star hotel restaurant almost a week earlier. The waitress just pointed at the table nearest to her, even though the restaurant was half-empty. Of course, we also have a similar experience at many retail stores here where the common answer to a query on a different size or colour is the common, curt refrain: "If it is not there, we do not have it."

Service quality is not a trivial issue to be ignored if Singapore aspires to be a world-class destination.

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In our quest to remake Orchard Road and promote Singapore overseas, we must realise that while the quality of places of attraction matter, the software - the people providing the services - is just as important, if not more.

When was the last time you heard someone raving about good service in Singapore, in the same manner that we often gush about the service we received in Japan? If poor service continues to be common occurrences here, the hard truth is that a customer-unfriendly culture has sunk its roots. Yes, it's true that there are more service staff who give decent service than those who do not. But like a splash of ink on paper, the black sheep will ruin it all for us.

Before employers start blaming the Government again for not allowing them to hire more foreign help, note that having more workers does not guarantee good service if all of them just gather in a corner to chat and ignore the customers. What they should do is motivate their existing workers and turn them into great service champions. The workers should know that every customer who is turned off will translate almost certainly into a loss of future income. Surely having a bad service reputation is not an accolade employers want to collect, even if their business is thriving.

Many of us who have dined at overseas restaurants will be able to recall instances where some of these joints provide great service even when they had one or two waiters. I once witnessed a lone waiter in Germany giving marvellous service to about 10 tables - he was so attentive that mere eye contact would have him standing next to you. Invariably, appreciative diners would leave generous tips for him and so, the harder he works, the more he will earn.

Financial reward is a good motivator but it must be given in the right manner to be effective. In the German example, the waiter had every reason to do better because he got to keep every cent. This will not work here because we do not have a tipping culture. Also, tipping is ineffective if the pool has to be shared by a team. There is no motivation for bad apples to do better since they still get a share.This will even discourage good workers because nobody likes to see his rewards enjoyed by undeserving colleagues.

One solution may be to subject staff to a survival test. If you have five average workers, tell them that only the best three will remain. Those who remain will receive a hefty pay rise of about 30 per cent each, which should be a strong enough motivation to change.

From the management's perspective, such a drastic measure will deliver two desirable outcomes - you spur and identify people with the right mindset to do better while you save cost by not hiring those who refuse to change.

This exercise borrows from ancient Chinese war strategy in creating a fighting fit army that can take on enemy forces twice its size. To do this, everyone must put in equal effort because all it takes for a defensive line to break is a weak link.

Employers must know good employees are human too - if they see lazy colleagues getting away with it once too often, they too will develop a "why should I care" attitude. So a strong message must be sent to workers with poor attitude that their behaviour will not be tolerated.

Employers too should raise their game, and should not view employees as digits on their ledgers because behind every number is someone who has a family and an aspiration. When was the last time you spoke to your staff, planned their career and rallied them behind you? If you do not care about them, why should they care about you or your business?

This sounds simple enough but the simplest instruction is very often the hardest to follow. Just like how two simple phrases - "Thank you" and "I am sorry" - are still the least used ones by many people in the service industry today.


  • Tan Ooi Boon, a former Straits Times journalist, is senior vice-president (business development) at Singapore Press Holdings' English / Malay / Tamil Media Group.
A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on June 10, 2017, with the headline 'Get rid of poor service staff, let only the fittest survive'. Print Edition | Subscribe