A common topic of discussion on which I have written before is the strange and disappointing nature of customer service in Singapore. Examples abound. But let me just give one mini-example to set the stage.
To get a Singapore driver’s license I had to register for classes online. The webpage registration failed. But not before the charges were deducted from my checking account. When I called the support number they told me I would have to go to the main office to ask for a refund. The office is 30 minutes away by cab and much longer by public transportation. I do not have a car (as my pursuit of a license makes obvious).
Despite my requests, my pleas, and ultimately my screaming, they had no better way for me to get my money back. They said there was not even a phone at the office that could help with a refund. They screw up, I lose 90 minutes of my work day. End of story.
You might think that I could dispute the charge to my credit card. But that’s a feature of American companies. Not Singaporean banks. I have tried that before and failed. Once the money is gone it is gone.
But these side stories are not my focus today. Today I am writing about Chinese-style restaurant table service and why it is broken. In these restaurants there is no dedicated server for each table. Instead, the staff serves as a pool of support. Customers wave to the nearest waitress who services the request. Every restaurant in China works like this. Many restaurants in Singapore work like this. This is a broken system.
I have seen this system fail horribly at RedDat Brewhouse at Dempsey in Singapore. Plates are delivered individually, Chinese style, and not shared by the group (very un-Chinese like). This results in most of our group without food while others are staring at their steaming plates. Each time we called for help a new face assured us she would look into our dishes and then disappeared. 10 minutes later we were yelling at the fourth or fifth person that gave us the same hollow response: “I’ll look into it.”
While we instinctively knew the system was broken. I could not articulate what was wrong until I read the following passage from The Most Human Human by Brian Christian.
Service works by the gradual buildup of sympathy through failed attempted solutions. If person X has told you to try something and it doesn’t work, person X feels slightly sorry for you. X is slightly responsible for the problem now, having used up some of your time. Person Y, however, is considerably less moved that you tried following her colleague X’s advice to no avail–even if it is the same advice that she herself would have given you had she been party to that earlier conversation. That’s beside the point. The point is that she wasn’t the one who gave you that advice. So she is not responsible for your wasted time.
This quote perfectly described a common failure in customer service worldwide. But its description of the failure of Chinese-style restaurant service is what resonated with me. At RedDot when we continually escalated demands to staff that fell on new, deaf ears. Each subsequent waitress was unaware of the repeated failures. So she felt no responsibility for the problem.
The general problem of anonymous service is not unique to Singapore. But the problem is amplified here. As I mentioned in my story including an attempt to purchase a phone at M1, all store staff were going to follow the policy no matter how ridiculous it might be. In the U.S. a minimum wage sales person is surely inclined to follow bad rules, too. But the highly polished capitalistic system in the states has worn the rough edges off policies that hamper business. And the U.S. education system has developed a sense of entitlement in its citizens. This means that when a process seems broken even a cashier may take action to improve customer happiness. That will not happen in Singapore.
Malcolm Gladwell wrote about this sense of entitlement in Outliers: The Story of Success:
When we talk about the advantages of class, Lareau argues, this is in large part what we mean. Alex Wiliams is better off than Katie Brindle because he’s wealthier and because he goes to a better school, but also because–and perhaps this is even more critical–the sense of entitlement that he has been taught is an attitude perfectly suited to succeeding in the modern world.
American education–specifically the better education that wealthier citizens gets–teaches children to take charge in a situation. They are entitled to do so. If something is going wrong, assert yourself. The typical Asian education system, perhaps typified by Amy Chua’s Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother, is focused on respect, composure, and discipline. Gladwell writes later in his book that the Asian system creates better behaved children. The western system creates more difficult children but more capable adults.
I am not too sure if I have gone too far in equating educational differences with the quality of service. But I have noticed that Singaporean children are exceptionally well behaved. Vandalism here is famously non-existent. Kids step aside for their elders and yield seats in busses and trains. The children are generally quiet and unobtrusive, even into their high school years when American kids become little shits.
So, I think that Chua, Gladwell, and Christian might be skirting around a fundamental issue of personal engagement and responsibility. Something created in school and reinforced by society. Something that fixes some aspects of life (like service) and breaks others (behavior).