Hail, lord customer arrives!

NOVEMBER 1 — My godchildren visited Sunway Pyramid, in order to spend time with this unwieldy godparent. It was a mixed bag, not the bond among misfits but the customer service on offer.

Mission-Q, the real escape game, ended up a real experience escape. The cashier cum guide expressed zero warmth as her brief to both participants was flat and disinterested. 

Which did not calm the six-year-old who wanted out minutes in when freaked out by ragdolls on the floor of a dark room. It was not the game’s fault, but the reaction from Miss “I don’t care” did not assure anyone.

The archery centre was excellent. Both staff members were attentive and made sure Chloe’s first time with bow and arrow will not be the last time. We doff our caps to those blokes at Stars Archery, give them a visit.

Bowling was borderline offensive. The service counter personnel were cold and dismissive. They gave the impression we the customers were a nuisance. That they’d prefer us leave them alone. With failing malls right, left and centre I sincerely hope Sunway Mega Lanes does realise their staff’s ambition.

My effort for a local cuisine experience at Simply Penang went south as there was only interaction with the foreign staff.

There was discernible difference between how foreign and local employees responded to customers, unfortunately this gap reflects badly on my countrymen. Not the other way around.

While I concede these observations are limited to my own experiences and views shared to me, and I readily admit there are amazing Malaysians who go way beyond their roles to match and exceed the expectations of customers, it does appear the average employee meeting customers can’t be arsed.

The Alam Jaya Cheras 7-Eleven employees I encounter just want to scan the items, bag them and collect payment. Grunts are likelier than words.

The Alam Damai KFC staff members won’t say hello, good morning, afternoon or evening, or goodbye or even see you soon. Apparently, they are taboo words.

The Taman Segar Burger King won’t apologise even if they are out of chilli sauce, have an order delay or lack change.

The T411 MRT feeder bus drivers are genuinely surprised to be thanked or wished. Not that they would initiate pleasantries, anyways.

I say all these, not to target or isolate these people. Except I want to ensure these are actual instances and not imaginary ones, but more importantly raise the question, is positive engagement in the commercial sense impossible for general Malaysians?

Reasons

Are foreigners trained better?

If so, then we can train our people too?

Or, are there more wide-ranging and cultural reasons behind our local deficit?

Have Malaysian families ceased to pass down norms on how to treat guests? After all, in a commercial setting, the customer is the guest.

My pal, Rico, would say the opposite. He presents Malaysians always overextend hospitality to foreigners like himself. 

Would that mean, that when in employ, we do not regard our customers as guests, but rather as means to a pay-cheque. And therefore, the principles of caring for a stranger does not apply in those instances?

Conversely, the foreign employees fear loss of employment in a strange land, and therefore make up for what they lack in ability or local knowledge with effort. Wanting to do good in Kuala Lumpur to avoid an exile back to Chittagong, Medan or Tacloban.

However, that does not explain the general over-effusiveness on display in those cities by their local staff at their hotels, restaurants and inside taxis. Oh yes, anecdotal. 

Someone quipped Singaporeans are the worst when dealing with people. I wanted to qualify that. While I have come across a fair number of transactional Singaporeans and also those with much heart, the employed Singaporean cares plenty about the customer even if the treatment is motivated purely by financial returns.

An island built on perception, and little natural resources would keep up with minimum customer service.

Or is it probably shyness among our people? That it’s not rudeness, but rather an astonishing fear of speaking to a stranger.

And finally, can it be just about low pay? That our outlets pay peanuts and demand staff members to avoid being monkeys, but not incentivising them adequately. Would more money ensure better engagement?

These are questions, and I hungrily welcome replies. The apology is deposited at this juncture for the massive overgeneralisation of our service industry and the potential of exhibiting a grievous disrespect to some of our brilliant performers.

The future served

Answers are necessary because after our reliance on commodities to spur the economy — in a borderless but connected world — service would be critical to why businesses would prefer our tropical wonderland.

To not tap Malaysia’s location and tie it with improved service to draw investments would be criminal.

Our education system has to factor engagement and communication heavily in the preparing of our future workforce, and probably the easiest way is to tell teachers in our government schools that reason and not might determines the appropriateness of a person or action. That politeness is infinitely more desirable.

Add to our media and information diet, more emphasis on how to care for strangers, including less xenophobia to foreigners from “perceived” weaker nations.

Increase governmental disapproval of rudeness in the public space. Fewer rude officials would not be rejected.

Businesses can do more, obviously. Are they emphasising service? I’ve not been to one Malaysian Starbucks in the past five years where the barista — oh so fancy! — offers candid conversation to justify their inflated prices, in the guise of superior interaction.

Are retailers serious about upping service, by not merely threatening their staff members, but equally incentivising them? Malaysian companies are rife with poor treatment of non-executives, servers and contact centre staff without proper consideration of how much they affect the profit bottom line.

Yet, I won’t leave all of it to government and business, the individual must assume ownership too.

With ramped up automation and the looming arrival of full-on artificial intelligence, the human component of the sales and service experience is at risk. Anyone serious about employment in the new economy would accept the banality of being indifferent to engagement and communication. Yet, it is more lip-service than actual up in service, in practice.

The minimum required thanks to our weather and location, is not quite being met. It won’t take much to meet, but I suppose a start is necessary and the best way to go about it. How do you feel, and how can I make you feel better about this column?

*This is the personal opinion of the columnist.

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