By Sunil G. Wijesinha
We often boast of our ‘Sri Lankan smile’ and the friendliness of the Sri Lankans, but all is not well with the Sri Lankan service quality. According to many foreign business visitors, Sri Lanka’s hotels are the worst offenders. Many foreign visitors agree that the Sri Lankans are easy going and flexible but lament about the professionalism in the delivery of service quality.
Poor five-star service
Some years ago, a Japanese professor was in the island to conduct a seminar on productivity, which was being held in a five-star hotel in Colombo. He too was staying in the same hotel. The first half hour of the seminar was devoted to a description of the woeful service he received.
Some examples- he had been waiting for the elevator to come down to the ground floor. As the elevator arrived at his floor, a hotel employee jumped in first. After he arrived at the ground floor and was making way to the reception, another hotel employee crossed his path just in front of him.
When he arrived at the cashier, since he wanted to change some currency notes, the cashier was very busy counting some invoices and had completely ignored him for five minutes. The professor even made the statement that of all countries he had travelled, the worst was Sri Lanka.
The situation is different in the case of the leisure travellers who have given very good reviews in Trip Advisor. The business travellers who I have met and who have experienced far better service elsewhere do not share the same view.
Quality, whether it relates to a product or a service is not just meeting standards. It is doing more than what is required. The Japanese were the first to go even beyond this and deliver a level of quality that surprised and delighted the customer. Delighting a customer is quite easy if you have the correct attitudes.
As the Chairman of the Employees’ Trust Fund (ETF) Board in the early 1990s, I started a ‘Delighting the Customer’ programme. I was curious to find out what sort of inquiries the ETF members and employers make and asked for a copy of all outgoing correspondence for one month.
I discovered that there were many requests for the EPF refund forms and our stock reply had been that the EPF operates under the Labour Department, we are a separate board managing the ETF and therefore, please address such inquiries to the Labour Department.
The ETF and the Labour Department were in the same buildings. We changed the system so that whenever we get a request for an EPF form, we still explain that we are a different organisation but add, “For your convenience, we have obtained an EPF form from the Labour Department which is attached, but please send the completed form to the Labour Department” and we also gave the postal address.
Our Claims Manager who signed these letters received many telephone calls thanking for the unbelievable service never expected from a government organisation. This was just one example.
Changing the culture
When we commenced the ‘Open Sunday’ programme at the ETF, once in four months, we would pay the claims on that day itself. We noticed that claimants would come all the way from distance places along with their little children and spend hours waiting for their claim to be paid.
One of our staff members suggested providing milk packets for the children while they waited. I was happy that the suggestion came from a staff member because the service quality culture had got into the organisation culture.
The claims receiving desk was very arrogant. They would sit back in their chair and in a very arrogant manner would sometimes turn away a member because of some minor flaw in the application. A new rule was implemented that no one should be turned away and any unacceptable claim should be referred to the Claims Manager for a decision.
At Dankotuwa Porcelain where I worked, we would sometimes get complaints that when they opened the packed set at home, an item was broken. Every piece is packed in the presence of the customer and our sales people would be reluctant to believe that it was damaged when packed.
Our policy however was to replace the piece even if we doubted the claim. Once the service quality gets into the blood stream of employees, it remains for many years. I believe we won far more valuable customer loyalty than the cost of replacements.
Japanese customer service
Many aspects of Japanese customer service originate from their culture. The Japanese consider it important to focus more on the other person than you. If you go for dinner with Japanese people, you will notice that no one will pour a drink for himself. The custom is to pour your neighbour’s drink and he will pour your drink.
They will profusely apologise if they have inconvenienced you in any way. They hate to cause any delay to you. The Japanese always bow when they meet or part. Even when you depart from the airport in the limousine bus, the baggage handlers will assemble and keep bowing until the bus has left. In a train, the food cart attendant will, when leaving your carriage, turn round and bow.
Every lift attendant in a department store who directs passengers to the lift will stand in front of the lift as it closes and bows. At closing time in a department store, all employees will line up and bow as you leave. The examples are endless.
When I used to visit Japan often for discussions with our Japanese counterparts, even the directors would never allow me to carry my brief case, they would carry it. If I go shopping, they will carry the bags. Their chauffer would come to the airport and take my trolley over and when I sit down, I notice that the front seat has been pushed right forward for more leg room for me, there is an English newspaper and he will turn on an English music channel. When the Japanese directors come to Sri Lanka, I notice that my driver is very reluctant to carry anything of theirs. He is Sri Lankan.
Some say that the Japanese have three types of bows: First, the 30-degree bow for peers, then the 45-degree bow for your superiors, parents and teachers and finally the 90-degree bow for the emperor and customers. That explains it all.
Having visited Japan sometimes more than once a year since 1980 and followed many courses there, I find it difficult to accept the poor service quality in Sri Lanka. “Sri Lankans will accept any poor quality service without complaining,” said a Swedish consultant adding that Sri Lankans need to be more demanding. I will continue to demand.