Service with a smile

Even the best products will not sell if a company struggles with its customers. A conference in Abu Dhabi last week discussed ways to improve this relationship.

Abu Dhabi, United Arab Emirates - January 29, 2009 /   Basheer Alungal makes a dash to deliver food on a recent night. Alungal is one of the drivers at Tandoori Corner Restaurant who successfully navigates the streets of Abu Dhabi. ( Delores Johnson / The National )   / For Arts and Life Section *** Local Caption ***  dj_012909_TandooriDelivery_003.jpgal09fe-cover.jpg
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Katherine Rain, a senior health officer at Health Authority-Abu Dhabi, was ready to try out Abu Dhabi's smorgasbord of eateries when she arrived in the country in 2008. But a small Indian restaurant on Airport Road with tasty food, prompt delivery and a happy atmosphere put an end to her gastronomical plans, enticing her back week after week with its butter chicken and garlic naan. "The food at the Tandoori Corner is excellent, but really it's the staff which keep me going back there," says Ms Rain, who is from the US and lives in Al Mushrif.

"They always seem so happy and friendly and from the second time I went there they remembered me, what I liked and even the variations which I made to the meals." Customer service is the lifeblood of any industry and as the economic boom eases and people choose to live longer in the UAE to achieve their goals, businesses are realising they need to keep customers to retain their revenue stream. But companies and clients often have very different ideas on just what the customer wants.

"Many businesses focus on what they find important, like the premises and the sales brochures," says Robert Keay, the managing director of the Dubai-based customer service consultancy Ethos Consultancy. "They will spend millions of dollars on marketing and building a palace, but for the customer what's important is that the person they are dealing with has the right experience and the right knowledge."

It is the same across the board whether it's a coffee shop, a bank or hotel, Mr Keay adds. "People go to Starbucks, not because of the way the premises look but because they like their coffee or the sandwiches and they know they will get the product they want without having to wait." Tucked away between small grocery stores and shops selling light-fittings and with parking almost impossible to find, Tandoori Corner is simply decorated and easy to miss. But the restaurant takes between 150 and 200 orders a day.

"This was not always the case," says the restaurant's manager Devendra Rawat. "When we opened three years ago, things were not good. People were not coming back, so we sat down and had a look at what needed to be done." Mr Rawat says management listened to what customers were saying and held training sessions with staff to meet these demands. "Home deliveries are very important to us, but when we started our staff were very slow, they couldn't find addresses and would get lost, so the owner took them out and showed them the streets and different landmarks."

When customers complained the food was too spicy, they adjusted the menu. "Now we know our Arabic customers, about 30 per cent of our business, like the grilled food, English like their chicken masalas and the Indians like the more traditional spicy curries," Mr Rawat says. "We have staff training sessions regularly and we educate our staff on how to recognise people and what to recommend." Knowing what the customer wants is the first step to good service, Mr Keay says.

The second step is good staff. And this is not just a matter of smiling and being polite. Consumers now expect staff to know in detail everything about what they are selling or the service they are providing. Many residents in the UAE love to one-up each other with tales of bad service, of being repeatedly given the wrong meal with no apology; waiting for hours before being told the person they should see is out of the office; or getting three different sets of instructions from various units of the same organisation.

The good news, however, is that the public's perception of not being able to get good service is being taken seriously by a range of institutions in the UAE, including banks, large hotels, retailers and its governments. The Government of Abu Dhabi, for instance, sent dozens of its staff to the country's first Customer Service Week Conference held in the capital this week. The conference, held by Ethos Consultancy and The International Consumer Service Institute (TICSI), which is headquartered in London and has offices in Dubai, aims to grow and raise service standards through awareness and education.

Attendees at the conference's workshops were urged to rank themselves on TICSI's global performance index, looking outside the region and comparing themselves with the best in the industry. "The UAE is far better at customer service than its fellow GCC countries, but it still has a long way to go," says Mr Keay, who has been studying the sector in the Middle East for seven years. Initial findings from Ethos' latest Middle East customer service bench-mark study, which is due out this month, shows that between 85 per cent and 90 per cent of Western expatrates polled believe customer service in the UAE is lagging compared with their own countries.

Curiously, the same figure, between 85 per cent and 90 per cent, of people from South Asia found service here better than in their home countries. "This supports what we are trying to tell industries; to find out what your customers expectations are," Mr Keay says. "Take retailers, for example, while millions are spent buying franchises, space and decorating, but all too often staff are hired based on whether they fit into a uniform and speak a bit of English," he says.

Banks, on the other hand, have improved. "It's a sector that is really trying hard to improve its customer service. Now they pay very good salaries, they are trying to attract the right people. They give them the right training and they try and hold onto them." Jeffrey Keneally, a British engineer who lives in Mirdif in Dubai, says he switched banks three times before finding a financial institution that suited him.

"The first bank I went to, I won't mention the name because I still have a small account there, started taking extra charges out of my account that I knew nothing about," Mr Keneally says. "When I went to a second bank to open a new account, I was left sitting in a chair for 25 minutes waiting for someone to help me. I left without seeing anyone." Mr Keneally now does most of his banking with HSBC and says he is happy with the service he is getting.

Dubai Bank is another bank that values its customers. In 2008, when Ethos Consultancy released the results of its annual customer service study, the bank was rated 21st out of the 29 in the region. The bank undertook a major push to improve its performance and last year, it jumped 19 places to second overall behind RAKBank and was rated the UAE's top Sharia-compliant bank for customer service. After the Ethos survey ranking was announced, Lutfi al Shukaili, the head of Dubai Bank's service quality and performance development, acknowledged the contribution all staff made and visited each of the bank's 22 branches in person to congratulate them and to remind them not to rest on their laurels.

"We've got a bigger challenge this year," Mr al Shukaili said at the time, adding that he was eyeing the top spot this year. The biggest judge of customer service is the public. Outside government departments, it is the customer who can make or break a business, says Philip Forrest, the president of TICSI. "Everyone's wages are in the customer's wallet," he says. And if a client is unhappy they will simply walk away. "I eat out a lot," says Ms Rain. "I've been to many, many food outlets, particularly in the malls, where staff aren't rude but they don't know what they're doing. "I don't go back to them. In fact, I can't even remember their names."