The Service Factor

I have a confession: I often pay reluctantly for the service charge at eateries.

Now, I am no Scrooge. The problem is that I do not see why taking my food and drinks order, and serving the food up should cost 10% of the bill. While there are establishments that deserve that 10% (hats off to you!), most eateries make a complete mockery of the service charge. Pay for service? Pay for a seat, rather.

I have a theory why the 10% is abused by eateries. No, it has nothing to do with foreign workers. The root of all this is a misunderstanding of service. We Singaporeans equate efficiency with service. Unfortunately, that only begins to scratch the surface of what service really is. Delivering good service is about making people feel they matter – making them feel good. In that respect, efficiency is a given. Knowledge of the products… a real smile (real smiles start with the eyes)… noticing the details like a half-full glass of water… a plate overrun with prawn shells… banter.

These little things will probably make customers more willing to part with the 10% (or even more, in the form of tips). They could make converts of customers to regulars.

But how to encourage such behaviour?

Companies have introduced service standards to project a consistent image, from management to the tea lady. Some establishments the names and pictures of service-conscious employees on the wall. A local university has even set up a centre to study local service levels and provide recommendations.

Among the solutions I have heard, the most interesting (and slightly controversial) is tipping. Remove the 10% service charge from restaurants. Let the wait staff deliver impeccable service, and let the customers reciprocate with tips. I think this idea might work in the future. But not now. The tipping culture is still almost non-existent. Those willing to tip are probably well-travelled and live a relatively cushy life. Most locals will not tip because of their value-for-money motto, and the unspoken equation of being served to being privileged and having a higher societal standing. And Asians are all about face.

But I remain hopeful that with all the efforts to study and improve service, one day we will truly appreciate the essence of those seven letters. Then, we will be able to deliver a world-class level of service that we locals can unabashedly say is Uniquely Singaporean.

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