It takes more than a smile and a 'thank you' to satisfy today's consumers, as customer service has evolved to a much more complicated issue over the past decade. Frontline salesmen must always be on their toes, getting ready for any sudden demands thrown their way to satisfy their clients. 'Consumers' demands are ever-changing and salespeople have to adapt quickly in order to satisfy them,' said Caroline Mak, chairman of Hong Kong Retail Management Association (HKRMA). 'For example, before the loosening of visa applications for mainlanders to visit Hong Kong, local salespeople did not find it necessary to learn Putonghua. Yet with the increase of mainland shoppers, a majority of frontline practitioners can speak fluently in the language.' Paul Ma, chairman of the 2009 Service & Courtesy Award organising committee, said company owners recognised the importance of customer service in a recession and did not mind investing extra in training for their workers. 'In the current recession, one dollar has more value compared with a dollar during a booming economy. People take longer to decide whether to spend that dollar and, as part of outstanding customer service, staff will give consumers extra encouragement to spend it,' he said. To recognise those individual frontline practitioners and supervisors with exceptional performances and emphasise the importance of customer service, the association holds the award annually to reward the best of the best. The award is divided into two levels: junior frontline and supervisory. This year, there were 471 participants from 82 retail brands: 319 nominees at junior frontline level and 152 at supervisory level. Winners were selected for their professional image, presentation skills, interpersonal skills and service concepts and skills through mystery shoppers' assessments and two rounds of interviews. In the end, one winner was selected from each of the 10 junior frontline categories and nine supervisory categories. There was also one winning company selected for the Best Team Performance. Referred to as the retail industry's Oscars, the event is attracting increasing interest despite the economic downturn. Companies are still willing to nominate and train their staff to enter the competition. Over the last two editions of the HKRMA award, one new category was set up per year due to the increasing number of participants. Ma said new categories were set up after serious discussion and research. Each category has strict definitions. For example, the fashion and accessories non-apparel category, set up this year, is only for those companies who sell fashion accessories such as footwear. Categories to be added in the near future will include retail service providers such as banks and shopping mall operators. Held for 24 years, the Service & Courtesy Award is well respected in the retail trade and is useful for benchmarking service excellence in the industry. 'The award is the biggest in the Asia-Pacific region and unique for frontline retail staff,' Mak said. 'It started off with 30 people participating in 1986 and the number has reached 471 this year. It is the only retail award for individual frontline practitioners. Thus, we hope the award will set a benchmark for all local retail companies to raise the level of customer service in the local community.' Hong Kong's level of customer service is improving and is ahead of a number of countries in Asia, yet there is still a gap when compared to the standard in Japan, a country well known for its outstanding customer service. The difference between Hong Kong and Japan that may be hindering the city's retail service from becoming the best may be due to the mindset of its society. 'Most youngsters in Hong Kong have a perspective that there are few prospects in the retail service industry and that is why they don't stay in the industry for long or do not put 100 per cent effort into their work,' Mak said. To change people's perspective, the association is collaborating with universities and other educational institutions to promote retail management courses. 'Courses in retail management and the qualifications framework in the future will provide a ladder for those who are working as frontline salespeople for their long-term development,' said Ruth Yu, the association's executive director. The association will collaborate with the Chinese University of Hong Kong-Tung Wah Group of Hospitals Community College to launch a professional diploma in retail management programme and will also add a new subject domain, retail management, into the existing associate of business programme. Co-operation with the government to set up the qualifications framework for the retail industry is also in progress. The association also understands that to be the best, you have to learn from the best. Apart from providing retail management education, study tours are also organised. Co-operating with the Japan Retailers Association, the HKRMA will invite the winners of the Service & Courtesy Award on a study trip to Japan. 'We have been organising this study tour for many years, and Japan is our first choice because it has the 'best of the best' customer service model,' Ma said. 'When people go into a store to purchase goods, they can feel the passion and earnestness of the salespeople who serve them, and this is what we want local salespeople to learn from them.'