Saturday, November 15, 2014

Where does Good Customer Service End and Where Does Abuse Begin?

The restaurant owner and I had drinks with one of our higher spending customers. The young lady in question happens to a member of a family that owns a small shipyard and the young lady in question and has the ability to spend a good amount in the restaurant. Unfortunately, while she’s been blessed with financial resources, she’s been blessed with a rather low emotional quotient (a quality not uncommon in well to do Singapore Chinese girls).

After she left, I mention to the restaurant owner that the young lady has a habit of treating our chef like her personal valet (her idea of being nice is to invite him out to her table for a glass of wine. Then, in front of him, she will proceed to pour out every half-drunk glass into a single glass and offer it to him). The restaurant owner just shrugged, said he knew but it made her happy and she spends money and brings her friends who spend money at the restaurant. His sound bite was simple – “it’s business.”

That got me thinking about one of the biggest challenges that business, particularly those in the service industry face – when does customer service end and where does abuse begin.

The restaurant owner has a point. Business depends on paying customers and life is such that very often, the key differentiator is service – or should I say the ability to make the customer happy. Products have become such that they’re virtually indistinguishable and so the business has to find another reason to get the customer to spend money.

Let’s look at the restaurant. In Asia, the key ingredient to success is good food. One of the signs a good hawker meal is on how rude the said hawker is to his or her customers – it’s a sign that the guys food is so good that there will be a million customers outside his stall waiting to eat what he makes. Things are, however, different at the higher end of the market (a place where Bruno’s is). Your food has to be good but you need something else too (At that level – every restaurant cooks good food). The distinguishing factor is usually in the service and building up the relationship between customer and the establishment.

So, in our case, it makes good business sense for us to allow the young lady direct access to the chef. It makes sense for the chef to provide her with special off beat items that are not on the menu. She, as the customer is willing to pay and who are we to reject her money.

However, there is a point where this “special” relationship between the customer and the establishment goes beyond the requirements of good customer service and becomes abuse. In the case of the restaurant, the point is quite clear – the chef is clearly being abused when the customer believes he should come out of the kitchen whenever she summons him so that he has the privilege of drinking the dregs left behind by her dinner companions.

While this is an extreme example (as most of them in Singapore’s restaurant industry are), it is not the only one. I think of my days back in the agency business when it was common for the client to call you just as you when you were about to knock of work – and it was always because the client had a hair-brained idea that he or she thought was necessary to execute at the last minute.  

Service providers work on the principle that success is whatever makes the client happy without getting ourselves into legal entanglements. Hence, in every agency, the key operating procedure is to get “client approval.” Every action you perform as a member of a service provider has to be blessed by the client. Law firms are particularly good at showing the world that everything they do is blessed by the client –“Instructed.” As far as lawyers are concerned, they are merely acting under “instructions” from the one paying them.

The word “instruct” has helped the legal profession find that balance between demonstrating their competence with the client’s blessings. Other professional service providers are less good at this. Advertising and PR professionals (particularly the independent ones) are one of the worst at balancing the need to keep the client happy and demonstrating their expertise. I’ve been in too many situations where we, as the service provider have been so keen to make the client happy, we’re practically taking dictation from them.

The problem here is that when things go wrong, the client will blame – you. Yes, the client signed off on everything but at the end of the day he or she will turn around and say, “You never advised me.” This will inevitably be followed up by the phrase, “You’re the expert – not me.” It doesn’t help that the client may have an entire department of “experts” telling them what to do too. In such cases, it’s clear that the in house experts have got you, the external expert hired because – well, you’re there to take the blame.

What does one do? I remember telling someone that at the end of the day, you got to respect the client’s decision because it’s their money and their business that your business services. However, you need to place on record that you “advised” them. You as the service provider are there to ensure that they follow advice and get it half way right.

I’ve tried to take this mindset from PR into the restaurant business. Too often waiters see themselves as here messengers between the customer and the kitchen. The easy part of the job is that it doesn’t require any brains. The difficult part of doing this is that people tend to shoot the messenger first whenever things go wrong.

So, I make it a point to try and “advise” customers as what they should try. I do qualify that I am not a wine sommelier and I do make it a point to stress that what I recommend is based on what “I like.” However, I still give an opinion and if one were to judge by the results – that approach seems to work. I’ve managed to become the most successful sales person.

I want people to respect my professional opinion and I have to ensure that I have professional knowledge. In the case of the PR work, I write for the press so that I know what the press will buy. In the restaurant work, I eat at the restaurant so that I know what’s good. Somehow, I get it right for the customer more often than not.

The other flip side to getting people to respect you is having the ability to say “no.” Saying “no” can upset the proverbial paymaster, but sooner or later, people find a way of respecting your opinions. My chef, makes it a point of not serving dishes if he knows the ingredients are fresh. As long as people see you are trying to look out for them.

I think of PN Balji who used to tell me, “We are NOT prostitutes.” A prostitute has do whatever the client wants. All prostitutes will tell you that you are the world’s best lover because this is what you want to hear. How many of us will provide a prostitute with repeat business if she tells you you’re hung like an ant?

That’s prostitution and the business of prostitution. Other professions depend on the “respect” that people give it. Respect, is often in doing the right thing or at least not doing everything .....  

Sunday, November 02, 2014

The Delight in Unreachable Pennies

Singapore’s main pension system, the Central Provident Fund (CPF) has been going through a bit of bashing recently. The finance industry has been capitalizing on the fact that CPF savings are insufficient for people to actually retire on and the newly found group of activist have had a field day accusing the government of misusing the “people’s money.”

Some of the bashing is deserved. The biggest source of frustration lies in the simple fact that CPF money is the money of the individual. Unlike “Social Security” in the USA, where the funding comes from the current generation of workers, CPF functions pretty much like a giant savings account. The individual stashes away 20 percent of his or her gross wages, while the employer matches another 13 to 16 percent. The funds pile up on a monthly basis and every year there is an interest payment of two to four percent (compared to commercial banks paying 0.025 percent on a fixed deposit). In theory one is not allowed to touch these funds until one reaches 65. The main exceptions to this rule are when one wants to buy a house (hence Singapore’s high percentage of home ownership) and when one needs emergency medical treatment.

However, this simple scenario has been tweaked so much that things are no longer simple. The retirement age has been raised from 55 to 62 and now to 65. With increasing life expectancy, there’s no reason to imagine that the age may be raised yet again. This is on top of the limitations on the things that one is supposed to be able to use the money for. The biggest example is the case of medical care. My dad found out the hard way. When he needed to go for a hernia operation last year, he found that he could only use S$5,000 of his MediSave (the portion of the CPF system devoted for medical needs) to pay for an S$30,000 operation. As such, having it done in Thailand proved to be a more economical option.

The reason for everyone’s frustration is obvious. This has become a game where the goal post have shifted constantly. Imagine working hard for 40-years, expecting to get your savings at the end, only to find that you can’t.
Having said all of this, there is another side of the story – namely life without CPF savings, which was pretty much my position until 2012, when I took the job in the restaurant. I escaped self-employed contributions to my MediSave account and cruised below the radar of the Central Provident Fund Board.

I call what I did youthful arrogance. I thought I could plunge straight away into doing my own thing. I left my first job with a local printer/designer because I thought the Old Rogue was offering me a chance to build up his magazine. There was no steady CPF but it looked more fun and so, much to the annoyance of my father, I jumped ship. I did get a small salary and I did earn a bit of commission. Then in my second job, they decided to cut the CPF portion to save the company money. I went along with it because it felt like what a good employee should do and I had the boss telling me, “Ehh – better for you – you get more money.”

What I didn’t learn until much later on in life was that its virtually impossible to save money unless you have cash flow and that life’s unexpected expenses have a way of popping up and thumping you on the head on a rather frequent basis. It didn’t help that I had a few hanger on’s who seemed more content to add to my bills rather than my wallet. So, whatever little savings I had, found a way of drying up pretty quickly.

With the exception of the stint with Asher Communications and BANG PR, I actually made through life without a CPF contribution. I had retainers from Alcon and Mark Goh & Co and a few pennies in savings thanks to the Indian IT industry.

However, the retainer clients did not continue and the projects dried up. I also didn’t realize that the poor are sometimes the way they are because they deserve it. Thought God might actually benefit me if I put an unemployed friend of mine to work trading hi-fi (he’s a hi-fi enthusiast) equipment. My savings went into buying hi-fi equipment, which never got sold but buying him decent meals didn’t exactly stop.

So, at the end of 2010, I was stuck with no income, no savings including the ever elusive CPF. In short, I looked like I’d end up old and broke.

I am not going to say that I won’t die old and broke but I’ve reduced those chances. Ah Huong tells me that marrying her was the best decision I made. I leave time to be the judge of that but I will credit her with doing things like finding odd jobs for me whenever I’ve been down. There’s also plenty to be said about having a somewhat emotionally stable partner in life. I had a more intense relationship with Joyce, but I ended up being less productive.

Downgrading on the social scale to work as a regular waiter proved to be a good decision. The income was low and remains low, especially for the hours I work. However, I had an income to pay my daily expenses. What money I made from projects like SIPF and IIMPact 2013, went into the cash savings that are now locked away with RHB across the Causeway in a fixed deposit. Passive income from that is not great but there’s enough to buy myself a cup of tea.

The part of having a regular job so to speak is the fact that I got CPF contributions. The contributions were small but grew bigger as I worked longer hours in the restaurant. 

Since IIMPact 2013, I’ve not had a big project. However, I’m now working two jobs. By day, I work in liquidations and I continue at the restaurant. Both jobs pay me CPF and while I’ve not saved cash in the conventional sense of the word, I’ve managed to grow my CPF.

In my last CPF statement, I’ve managed to double the total amount in my CPF in the last 15 months. The job in liquidations has helped with larger and more regular contributions.

This is money I can’t touch. So I can’t say that my lifestyle has improved dramatically. However, there’s a hope of sorts.  I can entertain the idea of buying a house from the government. CPF savings are partially paid by someone else and they are steady enough to keep the banks happy. I can even afford to get sick, though I wouldn’t rush out to expose myself to every germ known to man.

CPF is not a perfect system and I don’t think it has been managed as well as it should be. However, I think of my Dad who, upon hearing I left a CPF job said, “You’re not going to make any money without CPF.” It’s my personal shame that I took so long to understand that he was right.