Many books and movies from the past feature the notorious highwayman, who would often stop travellers and relieve them of their valuables, and sometimes even steal the heart of the pretty maiden.
Stand and deliver was the expectation, and the experience was not something for the faint hearted. Most modern countries still have these characters, and in Sri Lanka too we meet them often. Use any of the local expressways and the travellers are made to stop, and part with some money as part and parcel of travelling through. The modern highwayman sits at our tollgate and continues an age-old tradition, except more legally this time around. However, there is one interesting aspect that I noted.
The highwaymen manning our tollgates are often smiling and have quite a pleasant attitude when one interacts with them. The role certainly does not seem to be an exciting job, given its repetitive nature, somewhat in a cramped environment, limited colleagues in the vicinity and night shifts. Still I have always found the short interaction being done smoothly and politely at all times. Full marks to all the folks who play these roles, and please keep it up.
I have also wondered if someone has put some added thought into their orientation, or built up a certain style and culture which is simply being sustained successfully across the board. Finding this kind of attitude in a public service is not common here in Sri Lanka, and therein lies the crux of an interesting issue.
Our country is renowned for its people being warm, caring, hospitable and smiling. Indeed it is almost engrained within most Sri Lankans and it is very much a part of our outlook to life. So how does it disappear so dramatically when the same people move into their work roles? Why is it that our government, corporate leadership and others have not been able to fully translate a natural trait into a national strength, when it comes to having service excellence across all forms of government and business? Most people have experienced waiting in a queue to buy train tickets, pay electricity and phone bills, board a bus, interact with a bank, shop at a retail outlet etc.
We also interact with various local municipalities, other state agencies, and different companies and SME’s as well. In more cases than not, we are likely only to walk away relieved that the job is done, rather than feeling content as a result of a good interaction and friendly service rendered at the location. Many times it could also be one of pure frustration.
Even at the highest end of corporates and within the restaurants and service industry in Sri Lanka, if one pauses for a while to ponder on this issue, you are only likely to tick off a very small number of entities where you know that the service is warm, caring and friendly at all times, across the board. Sri Lanka certainly has been able to create small pockets of excellence. But, in most cases it would be acceptable service but hardly something which excites and encourages you to go back merely because the people took great care of you. A trait which we cherish each time we meet most Sri Lankans, seems lost in a working atmosphere.
Better service in every aspect
At a national level, few companies and industries thrive on the people and service factor. The tourism and hospitality industry does keep growing, but Sri Lanka’s natural beauty and heritage etc probably play a larger role as a driver of growth, compared to service excellence. Granted though that good service is an essential component which complements these things and it has to be at a certain standard within the industry at present, since the industry is doing well.
Still, is there room for wider benefits to accrue to Sri Lanka? Countries like Philippines have leveraged their natural outgoing disposition and English language skills to foster a booming IT outsourcing industry. Could Sri Lanka have a more efficient government, private sector and a more developed, happier nation at large if we turn on better service in every aspect?
The notion of ensuring good service, being polite and friendly and treating people with respect and dignity does not feature too much within our formal education at present. Religion probably fills in a few gaps on this front. Interestingly many Industries also do not treat it as a core part of their value proposition, and the emphasis, focus, measurement and training efforts behind Service, are limited. The Service component seems to get peripheral treatment. There is ‘lip service” paid however to this, and most entities seem to be providing outstanding service if one were to reference their web sites, mission etc and other material. Businesses are likely to find that wherever they succeed in developing a work ethic where Service excellence thrives, their business usually would be accelerated as well.
National focus to improve service levels
We have seen many national level initiatives to develop infrastructure, agriculture, industry, job creation and the likes. However, national focus to improve service levels and efficiency sadly does not seem to get the same attention. Ironically, were service levels and productivity to improve across the nation, we are likely to see far greater capital flowing into the country and greater interest in new business initiatives etc.
Imagine if we get faster, more predictable service when it comes to payments, legal and other documentation, business registration, tax issues and refunds, services from government, boarding a bus, complaint resolution and more? If Sri Lanka could move beyond pockets of excellence in service, into a nation of service excellence, our path towards becoming a developed nation may get accelerated faster than the classical approach of pushing for more investments and infrastructure against a backdrop which lacks predictable standards for Service delivery. Let us ensure that the smiling highwaymen are not isolated instances of service excellence, but an example of a widespread phenomenon in the future.
(The writer is the MD/CEO of Textured Jersey Lanka PLC and a former Country Manager of Microsoft, and is actively engaged with Chambers, Academia, Charities and other organizations who further Sri Lanka’s development agenda).
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