Saturday, November 15, 2014

Where does Good Customer Service End and Where Does Abuse Begin?

The restaurant owner and I had drinks with one of our higher spending customers. The young lady in question happens to a member of a family that owns a small shipyard and the young lady in question and has the ability to spend a good amount in the restaurant. Unfortunately, while she’s been blessed with financial resources, she’s been blessed with a rather low emotional quotient (a quality not uncommon in well to do Singapore Chinese girls).

After she left, I mention to the restaurant owner that the young lady has a habit of treating our chef like her personal valet (her idea of being nice is to invite him out to her table for a glass of wine. Then, in front of him, she will proceed to pour out every half-drunk glass into a single glass and offer it to him). The restaurant owner just shrugged, said he knew but it made her happy and she spends money and brings her friends who spend money at the restaurant. His sound bite was simple – “it’s business.”

That got me thinking about one of the biggest challenges that business, particularly those in the service industry face – when does customer service end and where does abuse begin.

The restaurant owner has a point. Business depends on paying customers and life is such that very often, the key differentiator is service – or should I say the ability to make the customer happy. Products have become such that they’re virtually indistinguishable and so the business has to find another reason to get the customer to spend money.

Let’s look at the restaurant. In Asia, the key ingredient to success is good food. One of the signs a good hawker meal is on how rude the said hawker is to his or her customers – it’s a sign that the guys food is so good that there will be a million customers outside his stall waiting to eat what he makes. Things are, however, different at the higher end of the market (a place where Bruno’s is). Your food has to be good but you need something else too (At that level – every restaurant cooks good food). The distinguishing factor is usually in the service and building up the relationship between customer and the establishment.

So, in our case, it makes good business sense for us to allow the young lady direct access to the chef. It makes sense for the chef to provide her with special off beat items that are not on the menu. She, as the customer is willing to pay and who are we to reject her money.

However, there is a point where this “special” relationship between the customer and the establishment goes beyond the requirements of good customer service and becomes abuse. In the case of the restaurant, the point is quite clear – the chef is clearly being abused when the customer believes he should come out of the kitchen whenever she summons him so that he has the privilege of drinking the dregs left behind by her dinner companions.

While this is an extreme example (as most of them in Singapore’s restaurant industry are), it is not the only one. I think of my days back in the agency business when it was common for the client to call you just as you when you were about to knock of work – and it was always because the client had a hair-brained idea that he or she thought was necessary to execute at the last minute.  

Service providers work on the principle that success is whatever makes the client happy without getting ourselves into legal entanglements. Hence, in every agency, the key operating procedure is to get “client approval.” Every action you perform as a member of a service provider has to be blessed by the client. Law firms are particularly good at showing the world that everything they do is blessed by the client –“Instructed.” As far as lawyers are concerned, they are merely acting under “instructions” from the one paying them.

The word “instruct” has helped the legal profession find that balance between demonstrating their competence with the client’s blessings. Other professional service providers are less good at this. Advertising and PR professionals (particularly the independent ones) are one of the worst at balancing the need to keep the client happy and demonstrating their expertise. I’ve been in too many situations where we, as the service provider have been so keen to make the client happy, we’re practically taking dictation from them.

The problem here is that when things go wrong, the client will blame – you. Yes, the client signed off on everything but at the end of the day he or she will turn around and say, “You never advised me.” This will inevitably be followed up by the phrase, “You’re the expert – not me.” It doesn’t help that the client may have an entire department of “experts” telling them what to do too. In such cases, it’s clear that the in house experts have got you, the external expert hired because – well, you’re there to take the blame.

What does one do? I remember telling someone that at the end of the day, you got to respect the client’s decision because it’s their money and their business that your business services. However, you need to place on record that you “advised” them. You as the service provider are there to ensure that they follow advice and get it half way right.

I’ve tried to take this mindset from PR into the restaurant business. Too often waiters see themselves as here messengers between the customer and the kitchen. The easy part of the job is that it doesn’t require any brains. The difficult part of doing this is that people tend to shoot the messenger first whenever things go wrong.

So, I make it a point to try and “advise” customers as what they should try. I do qualify that I am not a wine sommelier and I do make it a point to stress that what I recommend is based on what “I like.” However, I still give an opinion and if one were to judge by the results – that approach seems to work. I’ve managed to become the most successful sales person.

I want people to respect my professional opinion and I have to ensure that I have professional knowledge. In the case of the PR work, I write for the press so that I know what the press will buy. In the restaurant work, I eat at the restaurant so that I know what’s good. Somehow, I get it right for the customer more often than not.

The other flip side to getting people to respect you is having the ability to say “no.” Saying “no” can upset the proverbial paymaster, but sooner or later, people find a way of respecting your opinions. My chef, makes it a point of not serving dishes if he knows the ingredients are fresh. As long as people see you are trying to look out for them.

I think of PN Balji who used to tell me, “We are NOT prostitutes.” A prostitute has do whatever the client wants. All prostitutes will tell you that you are the world’s best lover because this is what you want to hear. How many of us will provide a prostitute with repeat business if she tells you you’re hung like an ant?


That’s prostitution and the business of prostitution. Other professions depend on the “respect” that people give it. Respect, is often in doing the right thing or at least not doing everything .....  

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