Getting to the Art of the Heart of Service (in Singapore)

Uplifting the Spirit of Service in Singapore

Uplifting the Spirit of Service in Singapore

A condensed version of this article was first published in The Straits Times, Singapore.

I moved to Singapore in 1990 because I was inspired by the opportunity to help raise service standards in the nation and be part of the “Singapore story.” Manufacturing was migrating to lower-cost factories in China, and back-office processing was moving to India. It was evident that the nation’s economic future would require delivery of higher value services: financial, legal, medical, education, hospitality, conventions, research, logistics, and more.

Most of Singapore’s population had been carefully trained to succeed in factory environments, delivering zero-defects, on budget, and on-time. This rigorous approach works well when customer requirements are consistent, as in manufacturing, but falls short when customers present a wide variety of interests, needs, and preferences for service.

Re-educating a national workforce to embrace this change and deliver higher-value service is a massive undertaking that can only succeed with unrelenting ambition, commitment, and effective leadership. The government and people of Singapore share the aspiration to be ranked among the best service economies in the world. The government has the drive and commitment to ensure success as well as the budget to back it up.

However, building a national service culture will not come from budgetary allocations or competitive rankings alone. The creation of an outstanding service culture requires more than skills and measures; it requires a collective mindset of generosity, compassion, empathy, and genuine interest in the welfare and well-being of others.

This dual approach succeeds in delivering long term value. Apple’s elegant technology is matched with genuine care at their in-store Genius Bar. Amazon’s impressive speed and logistics are matched with an attitude of respect and responsiveness for customers whenever things go wrong.

Today Singapore wrestles openly with our service improvement effort. We face an internal struggle. We have become better at accuracy and speed, and our technical standards have reached world class, but we are experiencing conflicting desires; the desire to protect our own well-being, and the desire to be genuinely welcoming of people from all over the world. The tension between “What’s in it for me?” and “What can I do for you?” is an example of the challenge that each of us face every day.

This struggle can be seen in Singapore’s retail sector, where some sales assistants offer service only to obvious buyers, while others make a point of welcoming everyone whether or not you buy. Giordano fosters this generous spirit with the tagline “World Without Strangers”. Their dramatic expansion from Asia to the world demonstrates the return on investment of generosity. Generosity is also seen in NTUC Income’s “Orange Force”, attractive three-wheelers patrolling Singapore’s highways looking for opportunities to help. A large percentage of the people they assist are not even customers of the company. With such goodwill accumulating daily, it is not surprising to see the Income brand scale new heights in customer satisfaction and market share.

If we are to make living in Singapore an uplifting experience socially, communally, and commercially, then changes in attitude and behavior are needed. Singapore is already a world-class city, with excellent infrastructure, and high levels of safety, security, and GDP. We also have very high expectations which can affect the way we treat one another each day. To become one of the world’s best places to live, we must balance our stress and striving to succeed with social attitudes that are less calculating, and behaviors more encouraging to others. We want to be uplifted in our lives together, not only in our incomes. Being rich is more than financial wealth. It is living with a shared sense of well-being, where we feel good about, and comfortable with, those around us.

We face four challenges in achieving this social transformation:

1. Cultivating a Bigness of Spirit

Building a more generous society means focusing on what we can give to others, before counting how much we can get. This approach is not purely altruistic, however, as volunteering, philanthropy and pro-bono work can pay rich rewards in non-monetary satisfaction. The iconic image of a Boy Scout helping an old lady across the street is not only good for the lady; it develops character and self-concept in the Boy Scout. On a large scale, Singapore’s Youth Expedition Program sends thousands of Singaporean youths throughout the world on learning expeditions in service to others. We need more such bold undertakings. On a personal scale, the F&B captain who speaks to his customers with a smile gets the benefit of a happier customer who is easier to serve and to please. The civil servant who is patient with an irate citizen may earn the benefit of a compliment as well as higher job satisfaction. The military service man who gave his slippers to an elderly man was rightly praised as a positive example for the nation.

2. Uplifting the Dignity of Service to Others

Service is not a lowly task, and being a service provider does not put one below the person being served. We are all service providers to someone else. Each of us works and contributes in some way to the welfare of other people. In Singapore, we can enhance the respect we accord to service providers by taking the time to learn and use their names, to smile and make eye contact, to appreciate the efforts they make rather than focus on their mistakes, and to say “Thank you” when we are served and mean it.

Think about what life would be like without all of our frontline service providers. Think of the household help who frees you up to enjoy other things, sweepers and gardeners who keep our environment beautiful, restaurant and shop assistants from other lands who have come to Singapore to make a living, and to make their customers happy. It makes a difference when people doing these jobs are in a good mood. Think about the sense of comfort you have when leaving your children in their care, the security you feel when a street sweeper or gardener smiles, and the better service you receive when a security guard is happy to help you.

3. Enhancing the Partnership of Service

Service is a two-way street with value flowing in both directions between customers and service providers. Service is a partnership between two parties where the experience of serving and being served occurs in real time. Both parties contribute to the success or difficulty of each service interaction.

The Singapore Girl has long struggled with the perception that she gives more attention to non-Singaporean passengers than she does to locals. But this perception does not do justice to both sides of the equation. When non-Singaporean passengers are more expressive with their appreciation or more proactive with their praise, their contribution as customers elevates the service experience for both parties.

It takes two hands to clap. And it takes both hands clapping vigorously together to achieve a sustained and satisfying applause.

4. Teaching and Learning the Skills of Service

Our children are not being educated in the foundations of a superior service culture. In school our children study mathematics, science, history, and languages, but not the essential principles that create value for others. By essential principles, I mean appreciating the world from another person’s point of view, deepening partnerships over time, building advocacy, recovering effectively, managing stress, and managing expectations.

I believe that developing a robust curriculum in service should be an important national objective as each student who enters the workforce will be in service to others. The view that service is too commercial and therefore unfit for schools is a view too narrow for the future. Waiting for students to enter the workforce before teaching them the principles of service is too late to build a powerful competitive advantage for the nation. We are missing the opportunity to shape young people’s thinking about service to others, and we are missing the opportunity for students to become better service partners with teachers, administrators and other students in school, with their family members at home, and with the community at large.

The mindset and skillsets of uplifting service are not just “nice to have” as an augmentation to Singapore’s excellent infrastructure and products. Excellent service understanding and behaviors are “vital to have” to keep our country attractive and fulfilling for everyone.

I am confident that Singapore will continue to improve and that we will get a little more each time we are served, or serving others, in Singapore. But this will not be achieved by government policies and investments alone. This outcome requires the harnessed passion and compassion of the wonderful people who make up our nation.