The consortium's certification and training programmes have helped raise the level of customer care in Hong Kong; Esprit de corps is key to immense rewards WHEN THE SINGAPORE Tourism Board sends a delegation to Hong Kong to find out how the city has improved its service standards, you know that somebody must be doing something right. 'Hong Kong's service standards have risen markedly in the past 10 years and many Singaporeans who have been to Hong Kong return with glowing accounts of the excellent service they received,' said Jeffrey Ong, director of service quality at the Singapore Tourism Board. 'We are here to learn from some of Hong Kong's leading organisations what they have done to transform the service culture in their organisations and, ultimately, in Hong Kong.' It did not happen by accident. Twenty or 30 years ago, Hong Kong was renowned for what some described as 'service with a frown'. Shopkeepers would often refuse to show you goods unless you promised to buy them. If you walked out of a store without making a purchase you were accused of wasting the shopkeepers' time. Trying on clothes was unheard of in many shops. And if you brought back faulty merchandise, you were sometimes informed that you were unlucky - so please don't expect a refund. Jason Chu, chairman of the Asia Pacific Customer Service Consortium (APCSC), said things were 'pretty bad' even as recently as 1997. 'Hong Kong has been really improving to become a market leader,' he said. 'It's not by accident that standards have gone up. We have been pushing very hard at APCSC with certificate programmes that have trained thousands of frontline staff, managers and supervisors since 1998. We believe that training and certification have helped change attitudes towards customer service.' The Customer Relationship Excellence Awards (CRE Awards), an initiative to promote service quality throughout the region, have also been instrumental in raising service standards in Hong Kong. In their third year, the awards recognised 28 corporate categories. Forty companies took part in the latest competition. 'The CRE Awards are a very important programme in the Asia-Pacific region,' Mr Chu said. 'They help to promote and elevate awareness of customer relationship excellence.' The winners are selected through a combination of self-assessment benchmarking, business case presentations, mystery calls and site visits, with assessments following the criteria of the Customer Service Quality Standard (CSQS). These are followed by public voting on the internet and a final round of judging by a panel of customer relationship excellence experts. APCSC started out as a university research programme, but just disseminating the research results was not enough, Mr Chu said. 'We have to pass on this knowledge and best practices to frontline people because they will interact directly with the customers and create satisfaction and experiences that will foster customer loyalty, which leads to repeat business.' The body's training programmes cover all levels and a variety of topics. Most are two- or three-day classes with online exams and projects. They are drawn up in conjunction with international education providers. 'To have professional customer service, you've got to have a structured, professional certificate programme,' said Mr Chu. In a multicultural place such as Hong Kong, providing good service can be especially challenging. While it is always appropriate to be courteous and knowledgeable, and take responsibility for your actions, what seems courteous in one culture might be construed as rude in another. 'Multiculturalism determines the level of sophistication required,' Mr Chu said. 'If people are very sophisticated, they can identify the customer's background and make adjustments.' Adjustments also have to be made according to the sector. 'Each industry has different protocols,' Mr Chu said. 'The information technology industry tends to be more tech savvy so things can be done by e-mail or on the internet. But in traditional industries such as insurance, you've got to have a more personal touch because you are dealing with customers with different perceptions and behaviour.' The regional economic slowdown in late 1997 had an impact on service standards. 'The financial crisis, 9/11 and Sars all helped to improve service because a tougher business climate creates more competition,' Mr Chu said. But stiff competition alone cannot explain the overwhelming transformation in attitudes towards customer service in Hong Kong in recent years. The APCSC helped improve standards by launching the CSQS, which incorporates ISO 9000, Total Quality Management (TQM) and other management systems. 'CSQS has a detailed and comprehensive checklist,' Mr Chu said. 'We examined all the standards available and made a list of business-case studies, looking at essential factors of providing world-class customer service. It is not coincidental that market leaders tend to have world-class customer service.' CSQS has helped companies set up departments to improve their customer services. 'Another important aspect of CSQS is knowledge management,' Mr Chu said. 'A lot of times customer service is poor because staff are not well trained. They don't know the answers so they can't help the customers. So CSQS requires companies to have good knowledge management infrastructure.' Leadership is one of the keys to good customer service. 'Top management endorsement is important. [Managers] have got to walk the walk versus only talk the talk. You can't do it without a budget. It requires real support from the top,' Mr Chu said. He said empowerment was another key issue, and a sign of how good a company was at serving its customers. Recruiting the right staff is another crucial element for any company wanting to provide world-class service. 'You need to have good people. Not everyone is born to serve. You have to hire people with the right attitude,' Mr Chu said. It comes down to developing a sort of esprit de corps. 'It is not the job of one person, it is the job of the whole company. Every person and every department has to work together to offer good service. Even in today's improving economy, you have shops and restaurants closing not because of economic conditions but because of tough competition.' Good customer service doesn't just happen. It requires a proper framework and an ongoing commitment to making it happen. But for companies that practise it, the rewards are immense.