Omar Khan calls for a service revolution in Sri Lanka – amid appalling service!

I love Sri Lanka, and have done so ever since becoming enamoured with its gifts and charms back in 1993 – and building a consulting business that went on to serve clients across the Asia-Pacific region and beyond.

Returning years later, following a hiatus in the US and Europe, I’m delighted by the evident development in infrastructure, business choices, brand sophistication, consumer engagement and more.

Development is in the air!

However, the quality of customer service is often appalling – and this is shocking. In the 1990s, I consulted for legendary hotelier the late Gamini Fernando who so unforgettably vivified the Hilton Colombo. He often agitated over this matter.

He’d say “build a beautiful hotel… but without passionate service and people to enliven it, it’s a haunted house!”

Today, there are grander hotels, sparkling shopping malls and IT amenities galore. Yet, the extremely poor service standards (to which virtually everyone I’ve spoken to in the island concedes – from the most patriotic Sri Lankans to besotted expats who love it here, as I do) are particularly jarring for a nation with natural friendliness and warmth in its culture.

With friendly people exuding genuine warmth and filled with a captivating spirit, why is there such apathetic – and at times incompetent – service despite the evident noble intentions of service providers?

IS SERVICE ALL THAT BAD? A few vignettes might suffice, as this doesn’t seem controversial.

A major mobile service provider in a shopping mall with five people milling around and an empty store needs over 30 minutes to hand me a phone with one month package – even though I’m armed with passports and every other bit of stipulated documentation.

Drinks printed on menus are perpetually absent at numerous well-known restaurants. No one seems to bother with either revising the menu or offering what it advertises. The excuse is always that ‘suppliers have delayed.’

A famous new restaurant deems it fit for oil to drip from the exhaust of an air conditioner in the path of the main entrance, leading to a ‘customer spill’ that requires medical attention… and then a free meal and other bits of service recovery. The pool of oil was obvious – yet, the overstaffed restaurant was unable to prompt anyone to notice or act.

Even in shopping centres, pharmacies tend to have a curious practice of not enabling pharmacists to operate a register; so they issue a handwritten bill. You wander over to the register to pay. Then you return with a stamped bill – now, possibly once more in line behind numerous other customers – to ultimately pry your goods loose.

The retort is the same: ‘Management, systems, rules.’

In fact, this is the service anthem throughout.

There’s a soiled napkin clearly visible on the floor in the bar or lobby area of a city hotel, which has undergone a major refurbishment and numerous programmes celebrating the joys of service. The general manager runs across the lobby, picks up the item and asks the relevant manager why he hadn’t done so. “I called housekeeping,” is the surprised reply.

The detachment between personal behaviour and what is taught in courses on service is evident.

A major travel company won’t return calls to someone who wants to pay for a service. The vexed senior executive eventually contacts his daughter’s boyfriend, who happens to work for a credit card company (the executive is also a cardholder) and has to convince it to break through the walls of apathy and inertia at this business establishment, which nevertheless has a dazzling website and brand slogans galore.

At a prominent tailoring operation, it takes four different ‘pass off chains’ despite using IT every step of the way to go from placing the order to being able to pay and be on your way. Meanwhile, these same people are responding to delivery drivers and anyone else who might wander in seeking guidance or direction.

A major new mall advertises free customer WiFi. But to access it, one has to scroll through a drop-down menu of virtually every country on Earth.

When you find the relevant location and key in your mobile number as instructed, you’re supposed to receive a text code – but it doesn’t work. You find an information desk manned by three people, only one of whom can help. They call an internet provider who informs them that “the function does not work.” As it turns out, nor does the local number option!

CALL TO ACTION Extolling the virtues of service to front liners (who are at times willing and keen to serve) while they’re hamstrung by silly paradigms, rules, systems and leadership behaviour that is more self-aggrandising rather than being customer focussed can’t be the primary solution.

Of course, personal initiative matters and can transcend a great deal of systemic difficulties. However, to lead a true service revolution (one that will shine across the major moments of truth and make the price of quality a pleasure for which to pay), service needs to become a strategic plank of business success.

It has to be enshrined in key performance indicators (KPIs), integral to performance reviews and entrenched in business plans – and probably requires a ‘Chief Customer Officer’ to join the board!