THE CONSENSUS SEEMS to be that judging has never been as tough as in this year's Service & Courtesy Award. In the 20 years of the event, participation and interest has grown hugely and competition is fierce. The best of the best are still getting better, and the rest are catching up fast. 'It was my first time being involved with the award, but I was really surprised and impressed with the candidates,' said one of the 16 final interview judges, William Chan, chairman of the Federation of Hong Kong Watch Trades & Industries. 'They were just so professional, well-trained and experienced.' Although it wasn't his first time, fellow judge Chan Wing-Kai agreed. 'The standard is again so high. The entrants are very well trained,' he said. As the head of the complaints and advice division of the Consumer Council, Mr Chan knows when customer service is genuine. 'We gave [the entrants] mock-up situations and they were very capable in handling complaints,' he said. Support for this year's Service & Courtesy Award once again came from American Express, which sponsored this year's prizes, HKNet, which provided technology support, and Just Gold, which sponsored the 18 coveted 14-carat gold pins given to the winners. These regular sponsors share the same goal as the association: to promote customer service and enhance Hong Kong's reputation as an international haven for shoppers. 'This is our fourth year as sponsor of the programme,' said Ian Ng, president of Just Gold. 'Like the HKRMA, we want to promote excellence in servicing, to reward brilliance and attract new blood. The scheme receives extensive industry recognition and is the Oscars of retail servicing.' Susanna Lee, American Express director of client management in Hong Kong and China, said she had noticed a shift in priorities. Not only were companies investing in frontliners through training, they were also really creating a culture of customer service. 'Businesses are very responsive these days,' said Ms Lee, who was also one of the final interview judges. 'Hong Kong is doing an exceptional job on all levels. Retailers really seem to have a kind of mindset that understands the importance of quality customer service.' An example of this focus is the involvement of retail staff in award schemes.