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Living Globally, Contributing Locally – The Expat Living Interview with Ron Kaufman

This interview was originally published in EXPAT LIVING Magazine, and written by Monica Pitrelli.

Struggling with bad service? Yeah, us too. But before you unleash on the next bumbling waiter or clueless salesclerk, hear the words of RON KAUFMAN, a global service consultant who has been on a 20-year crusade to improve service standards in Singapore. Here he tells Monica Pitrelli that getting good service in Singapore is not only possible – it’s easy – as long as you check your attitude at the door.

How did an American from Connecticut end up in the service industry in Singapore?

Twenty-two years ago, Singapore was going through yet another economic shift – low-cost processing and back-office work were moving to China, India and other locations. The government could see that the future in Singapore was going to be in services: research and development, education, hospitality, conventions, medical, finance, legal – they’re all services.

But the education system was designed to produce people who were “do it right the first time”, no-defect types. The struggle was how to turn a population geared around not making mistakes into people who are ready to respond to requests that nobody has ever made before. Because that is what customers do. So the National Productivity Board and Singapore Airlines created a joint venture to raise service standards, and I was one of the people that they brought in for a week. It’s been a long week. (laughs)

Which industries have you worked with?

I’ve worked with everybody – consumer goods, retail, hospitality, manufacturing, telecommunications, hardware, software, banking. Everybody.

How has service in Singapore changed in the past twenty years?

In terms of speed, efficiency, choice, options and accuracy, the quality of service has skyrocketed. This is one of the most efficient places on the planet.

Yet, everyone is still complaining. Is there something about the culture that makes adopting a service mentality difficult?

From the early days, the school system has been testing people to see who was going to get to the next level. The pressure is always on. Anybody with kids in school here will tell you it’s pretty intense. What that produces is a culture where the last thing you want to do is make a mistake.

And, there is an old mindset that asks, “Why should I? What’s in it for me? If he gets more, I lose.” Plus, there is an attitude here that if you are in customer service you are subservient – service means that you are servile – which is crazy.

Where does Singapore excel, and where does it falter?

Singapore is good at making operational improvements, like opening up two new branches or extending service hours. But the spirit, the attitude – the warmth and personality – that part has not been as easy to improve. When you are face-to-face with someone, and you have a question that isn’t in the script – that’s where the personality side pops up. And, that’s the transition that Singapore is in right now.

How do you go about shifting a personality trait in a populace? Seems like a tall order.

The task is to educate a population to be responsive to new ideas and requests. We need to change the old way of thinking, which asks, “What’s my checklist?” and “What’s my procedure?” to the new way which questions: “Why do I have this procedure?” and “What’s the purpose of it?”

Are you seeing improvements?

Yes. The old fearful style is melting away as people become willing to take a risk. “What’s in it for me?” is gradually transforming to “What can I do for you?”

How did Singapore Airlines get it so right?

Those with exposure to cosmopolitan clients get it. That’s why Singapore Airlines got it from the very beginning. From Day One, they were landing in foreign airports and carrying passengers from all over the world, so they rose to global standards to make Singapore stand out.

What’s your personal view on service here?

Here you have an ang moh (points to self) going, “This is great! Look at all the improvement. We have to tell the rest of the world!” But Singaporeans and expats are grumbling. Service has dramatically improved over the 22 years that I have been here.

But there is still room to grow. Once, I was teaching a class and we were discussing the leapfrog that Hong Kong has done in their service sector in recent years. A Singaporean student asked, “What did their government do?” I said, “Wrong question!”

Today, it’s not the government’s job to fix the situation. It’s our job. And by our, I mean every person who lives, works, plays in and visits this country has a role to play in uplifting the service experience.

So you believe that customers play a big role in the quality of service that they receive?

Service is always a two-way street. As a customer, if you engage with the person who is serving you in an uplifting way, you are going to get more uplifting service back. And for an expat (shakes head), it’s so easy. It is so easy. Just start out by saying, “Hi, can I have your name please… Oh, hi Siow Wee, thanks so much for your help. I really appreciate it.” How many people do you think say that to Siow Wee each day?


Nobody. So you stand out, right? And, there are going to be language issues. Just ask the person to please slow down rather responding angrily with, “What’d you say?”

I hear that tone a lot. So I’m guessing you don’t subscribe to the squeaky wheel gets the oil mantra.

For service providers, squeaky wheels are a huge opportunity. Squeaky wheels have made the choice to bring a problem to you rather than go to TripAdvisor, Yelp, Facebook or Twitter and hammer your reputation. This guy is telling you straight versus all the others who walk away and tell others instead.

The person who is the squeaky wheel has two choices. You can bang on the table and yell – and that can work sometimes – but nobody is going to respond to you out of a desire in their heart. Another option is to say, “Hi, I’m a loyal customer. My name is Ron, and I’ve got this problem, and I’m really hoping you can help me.” If these two customers come to you with the same problem, who are you going to help?

Number Two.

Right. The service provider decides who gets the upgrade, the discount and the freebie. You want to be that customer. So be appreciative even when you have a complaint.

Do you believe that the expats’ dissatisfaction with service levels here is related to expectations that we bring from home? The “this would never happen at home” attitude?

I think a fundamental adaption needs to occur. It’s not so much a lowering of standards as it is a raising of the willingness to contribute to that service interaction. An expat has huge social power to bring to the interaction.

What about when “good service” falls flat due to cultural differences? For example, it drives a lot of expat women crazy to be followed around retail clothing stores.

Imagine you are that retail assistant and your boss told you to do that. You think the thing to do is what your boss told you. If you understood that some cultures like space, you’d recognise that the proper action would be to back off. That requires the service provider to understand what the other person values. That wasn’t the way that the educational system worked here; it asked “Do you know the answer?” and “Did you do the right thing?”

So, the key is to drop the one-size-fits-all approach?

Yes, it’s about listening to what someone else values. Take a restaurant – some people will come in with a client, and they want a quiet corner; others are tourists, and they want to be right in the middle of it. Some people have kids and need a lot of attention; others are on a date and want to be left alone. Some people want to nurse a cup of coffee for an hour before their next appointment; others are in a rush and want their bill before the meal is finished. We just went through six different scenarios, each requiring different actions. How are you going to train people for that? There’s no script anymore. So the whole idea is to educate rather than train.

I can’t imagine how many stories and complaints you must hear. Is it helpful or harmful for people to recount their experiences?

First, my response to the grumbling is always constructive. I can’t hear a complaint without understanding what could, should and can still happen. Then I think about the difference between whining and complaining. When you whinge about something, you don’t want it to be fixed, you just want to talk. When you complain, you’re calling for action.

How do you advise dealing with angry customers?

There is a phrase that I use: “Make the customer feel right without making yourself wrong.” I’ll give you an example – tell me something that you complain to your husband about that relates to him.

His messiness around the house.

Yeah, I got it. (laughs) If your husband says, “No, it wasn’t me” or “C’mon – get off it”, that doesn’t help. But if he says, “You know, you’ve got a point. Keeping a clean house really makes it much nicer for the both of us,” there’s no fight anymore. He made you feel right without making himself wrong by admitting, “You’re right – I’m a slob.”

Usually when someone throws you a complaint, the emotional reaction is to fight back. But I tell people to exercise compassion, which doesn’t always come naturally. But the key is that you don’t know what’s really happening in that person’s world. You don’t know about their mother’s health, their finances or what happened to their kid at school yesterday. All you know is that they are presenting anger. There will be times when that is you, too. And, you would love it if someone didn’t react to a punch with a punch.

I have to give you at least one personal story before I go. I was eating at a restaurant on Orchard Road where you could get any non-alcoholic drink – soft drink, tea, coffee, juice – with the lunch set. They were all written on the lunch menu but Coke Light was left off. The waiter refused to give me a lunch set with a Coke Light, though it was the same price as the other drinks. Why?

This is an example of the ridiculous Singaporean “you gotta follow the rules” old way of thinking. Either buy the Coke Light separately and enjoy your meal, or, if it’s the principle of it, then take your business somewhere else. But don’t do it in a huff – that just allows them to blame you.

You could say (speaking very nicely), “We so wanted to eat here. Doesn’t the menu look good, honey?” Then, take out a pen and add up what you were going to spend. Then actually take out the money! “I’m sorry that your boss won’t let us give you all this money because that is really why we came… oh well, bye!” And walk out. At this point, you are finally, maybe, getting somebody to wonder, “What just happened?” Ultimately, people have to realise that there is a choice to be made between following the rules and letting hundreds of dollars walk out the door.

But the key is to not get angry.

Do it with joy – do it with laughter. And by the way, if you do it with enough spirit, they’ll give you the Coke Light!

I definitely didn’t use enough charm. So what if you get the drink?

Compliment the server. Ask his name and write a letter of compliment. Then the boss will see it and think, “I guess this is okay.”

You would really write a letter to the company?

Why wouldn’t you? The guy took a risk, right?

So we should not be demanding good service but asking what can we do to contribute to the encounter?

Absolutely. Each of us has small opportunities to make the difference for the next guy.

So what’s your advice to the portion of the expat community that enjoys whingeing about bad service?

C’mon, anybody who is an expat in this country is living a good life. Anybody who reads Expat Living magazine is living a good life! The contribution that we can make to help uplift the spirit and service in this country is enormous.

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