Singapore is once again waging war against poor service, particularly in its retail stores. Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong led the call for better service in his National Day Rally speech in August, and since then Singaporeans have been inundated with newspaper articles about best and worst practices.
The city-state's consumer-orientation ranking has steadily dropped, to 17th this year in the World Economic Forum's Global Competitiveness Report, from eighth in 1998. Rival Hong Kong, meanwhile, rose to 10th place last year from 29th in 1999.
What does this mean on the ground? Most sales assistants still take no pride in their work: recent 'investigative' reports in the local press have 'discovered' that poor service is even present in top-end shops. If you complain, they simply call the police: this happened to my husband when he tried to exchange a defective mobile phone he had bought the previous day.
Locals blame everyone else - the ungracious attitude of many shoppers (a new breed of the so-called 'ugly Singaporean'), and low wages. As one salesman put it: 'If you're earning less than S$1,000 ($4,600) a month, what's there to smile about?'
Civil servants dealing with the issue ask themselves: 'How did Hong Kong turn the boat around?' Maybe it was the creation of organisations to push up service standards, such as the Hong Kong Association for Excellent Customer Services; or the constant monitoring of consumer satisfaction. In any case, Singapore is now closely studying what worked for Hong Kong.
A new customer-centred initiative is extolling the virtues of 'Greet, Smile and Thank' (a play on the abbreviation for the Goods and Services Tax?). Employers are getting the message that bad service will hurt their bottom line. One expert recently spoke about the 'Three Cs' of success: care, concern and compassion.
The authorities are working on a 'Singapore service quality indicator' (where do they get such catchy titles?), which will involve regular surveys to track performance in a more timely way (similar to Hong Kong's consumer index). I have been getting e-mails inviting me to become a 'mystery shopper' - going on an undercover mission to play the 'bad service, good service' spy game, and earning a bit of cash in the process.
Changing this mindset will be an uphill struggle. But when it comes to improving service, naming and shaming might work where a top-down approach has failed. As is often the case in Singapore, economic reality may bring faster results. If customers started voting with their feet, you would see service improving quickly indeed.