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02 May 2011

Terrible Customer Service? The Answer Might Surprise You

By Susan Crotty
Customer service in the UAE is a fascination for many. Anecdotally, we hear complaints in the media about service from banking and retail to hotels and restaurants. In most cases, these businesses are most likely trying hard to get it right.
In a tone that implied an idiot should know this, the head of retail consulting for a large international firm recently told me that investing in good customer service does not make economic sense in this region. In another conversation, a self-styled customer satisfaction expert said the issue was obvious: you just needed to train staff and let them know that secret shoppers would be watching.
Neither point of view makes much sense in my opinion. Research on management practices, including some of my own, shows why these "experts" are wrong.
Customer service is typically viewed as a problem at the level of the individual business. In a global economy, however, where tourists and citizens choose where to spend their travel and shopping dollars, this is a very narrow and short-sighted viewpoint.
If women do not like the customer service in a high-fashion outlet in Dubai Mall, they will simply buy handbags in Europe instead. A businessman who feels slighted by the attention he receives at a restaurant in Abu Dhabi may choose to vacation in Asia on his next holiday. It's difficult to measure these losses, but anecdotal evidence shows that they do occur.
Retailers and business owners have two typical arguments why they cannot deliver better customer service - or why it doesn't matter. The first involves a common complaint about the available labour pool. I find this argument to be almost overtly racist. Having travelled in many countries, I've seen fantastic customer service offered by people of every nationality. If there is a problem with performance, race or nationality does not explain it.
The explanation that customer service is not important to economic viability, because 80 per cent of the population is expatriate with many people coming from countries where service standards are low, is also unconvincing.
Here's why. Customer service is really about basic civility, facilitating transactions and bringing customers back to your establishment. If you have a product, you want people to buy it; regardless of what people are used to, they are going to buy more things if you make it easier for them. The few tweaks required to achieve quality customer service are about good management. How does that not make good economic sense?
Why isn't establishing good customer service standards as simple as monitoring staff? The beauty of social research shows that people do not, in fact, behave in intuitive ways. By introducing monitoring systems, such as secret shoppers, we often signal to employees that we do not trust them.
At the policy level, the UAE would benefit by focusing on management training, changing autocratic practices and encouraging partnerships between academia and industry.
Social research has an obvious value for economic development. We need a greater recognition of the importance of customer service and how it is achieved through good management. A manager is not just somebody who lords over employees, monitors their every move and punishes them if they go astray. We left that behind in the 1920s because it did not work.
This article was originally published in The National.
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