THE GROWING understanding of consumer rights by Hong Kong people, coupled with their improved product knowledge, has lifted the quality of customer service in the city's booming retail sector. This year's Hong Kong Retail Management Service and Courtesy Award was an indicator. It attracted 570 participants from 80 retail companies, up 4 per cent from last year's 547. Competition among the 45 finalists was intense, making it a difficult task for the panel of judges. Launched in 1986, the prestigious award not only promotes the service industry, but is also regarded as one of the top honours for frontline customer service staff. 'The award is extremely motivating to participants,' said organising chairman Benedict Li Pun-tak. 'It is a bonding opportunity for frontline staff and their managers. Throughout the competition, managers can show their appreciation for their staff and even more importantly, frontline staff will realise that their work is noticed and appreciated.' It is easy to see what Mr Li means. Emotions ran high throughout the announcement ceremony, with screams of surprise and tears running down the faces of some winners. The awards were divided into two categories: junior frontline and supervisory. The company award for best team performance was won by Pizza Hut. This year also marked a change to the assessment structure; with an initial visit from a mystery shopper replacing the first round of interviews so that more companies could be included. 'We decided to amend the process so that we could accommodate more companies from the start and ensure a more accurate screening method by lowering the level of subjectivity,' Mr Li said. Seventy per cent of the marks were awarded as a result of interviews in which attitude and presentation skills were key considerations; with the remaining 30 per cent allocated to the mystery shopper initiative. The city has seen its service standards evolve over the years. 'Customer service is much more proactive now, with the market seeing more cross-selling activity compared with the very reactive type of service years ago,' said Mr Li, who is manager for learning and development at Jardine Aviation Services. 'The trend is moving towards the offering of many more value-added services.' The surging number of mainland tourists to Hong Kong had also provided a good learning platform for frontline staff, prompting greater fluency in Mandarin and better sensitivity towards different cultures. 'Regionally speaking, customer service in Hong Kong is considered very good,' Mr Li said. 'Japan is one of the world's leaders in customer service, and I would rate Hong Kong almost reaching that level. While we may not have a culture of politeness and hospitality in the same way the Japanese do, Hongkongers make up for that with their efficiency and effectiveness.' Retailers will, in the long term, increasingly need to distinguish themselves in an intensely competitive market. 'Companies will constantly have to think of something special, and fulfil a service niche that no one else has thought of,' Mr Li said. This will only get more difficult as consumers become more educated about products and consumerism. Frontline staff will no longer be able to get away with a vague understanding of what they are selling. They will need to know more than their educated consumers, and be able to sell it in an affable manner, Mr Li said. 'Hard selling is a thing of the past. In today's environment, the trend is to sell products in a friendly manner, in such a way that the customer doesn't even realise you are selling something to them,' he said.