Professor Robert Johnston

THE recent reports that Singapore organisations are providing "less than sparkling service" must be a source of concern to a country that prides itself on its service standards.

It must be of even greater concern to the Government which has poured vast amounts of money into service provision over the past few years.

Yet, Singapore is home to many world-class organisations that deliver excellent service. They include Singapore Airlines (SIA), the National Library Board (NLB), the Singapore Zoo and even the Singapore Police Force (SPF).

Data from my ongoing international service reputation study, which began in 2000, shows that SIA is, year on year, the top-rated international organisation for excellent service.

The NLB has a world-leading reputation for its innovative approaches to service design and world-beating service provision. Singapore Zoo is a leading zoo renowned for its top-rated Night Safari, conservation efforts and public education.

Even the SPF provides outstanding service as it comes out tops in global benchmarking studies. Compared to the police forces in many other countries, it provides a proactive and caring approach.

Singapore residents who are used to their neighbourhood police stations should try the "service" in the United Kingdom, where many neighbourhood stations have been closed and those that are open operate for very limited hours.

If you are lucky enough to get inside a station to report a crime, the public areas often resemble cells with bare walls and bars.

Members of the public also have to endure less than sympathetic service. One person recently reporting that some hoodlums were smashing up equipment in a children's play park not far from the police station, was met with the following reply: "Well, at least they're not on the streets".


So why does Singapore find itself in 7th place, alongside Denmark — not a country renowned for its provision of outstanding service — in the Customer Satisfaction Index, and below other countries like South Korea, Hong Kong and the UK?

Several reasons have been cited, including the global downturn and increasing customer expectations. There are two other more important reasons, both of which can be dealt with.

First, my experience in more than 20 years of working in Singapore (and comparing it to other many countries) is that Singaporeans are particularly hard on themselves.

I am often taken out to sample the wonderful food here. As a self-confessed "foodie", this is always a delight, yet frequently at the end of a meal when I express my admiration for the quality of the food, my local colleagues manage, to find some fault: Too salty, fish not fresh enough...

The Singapore Management University's Satisfaction Index this year was based on questioning of slightly more than 30,000 residents and 4,000 tourists.

I suspect the ratings given by the tourists would greatly exceed those of the "hard-on-themselves" locals. A comparative analysis may provide some support for this view.

However, one would need to be careful since the services used by tourists are not always those used by residents on a day-to-day basis.

The second reason is that service training to date in Singapore has focused on the front-line (Go the Extra Mile for Service — Gems) and the Government has, quite rightly, pumped money into improving the service delivered by frontline staff.

However, this has only solved part the problem. The other areas more critical to the delivery of excellent service are the quality of management and the organisation's systems, procedures and policies.

Without great service leadership, good and easy-to-use systems and customer-focused policies, no amount of effort put into frontline training will be enough to deliver great service.

Indeed training frontline staff without having good leadership and service-focused systems could even make service worse as frontline staff, encouraged to deliver great service, become frustrated as their efforts are thwarted, or at least made difficult, by the organisation's systems, procedures and policies.

This issue has now been recognised by the Government and its latest Gems Phase II is becoming focused on service leadership and culture.

In support of this, the Workforce Development Agency has recently stepped up its support through Spur for managers taking the Graduate Diploma in Service Leadership at the Singapore Institute of Management (in conjunction with Warwick Business School) to the tune of 90 per cent of their fees.

By "educating" the population to recognise the high levels of service that are provided in Singapore and by training organisations' managers to ensure their leadership, culture and systems are aligned to excellent service, Singapore will soon rise to its deserved position in the Customer Satisfaction Index.

Professor Robert (Bob) Johnston is a specialist in Service Excellence at Warwick Business School, UK and Academic Director of the SIM-University of Warwick Diploma in Service Leadership Programme at the Singapore Institute of Management.


From TODAY, News – Thursday, 07-May-2009

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