Going the extra mile

In 2005, the Singapore government launched something called the GEMS campaign (Going the Extra Mile for Service), a strategy that received a somewhat lukewarm response. Many saw this not necessarily as a real effort to spruce up service, but as a knee-jerk move to ensure the IMF and World Bank Board of Governors annual meeting of September 2006 would occur as smoothly as possible — similar to what China did to instil public etiquette ahead of the Beijing Olympics.

Others saw the campaign as a great opportunity to implement a genuine service-oriented culture of excellence that could then be sustained and supported over the years.

In 2009, GEMS evolved into GEMS Up as a refreshed movement that would enhance service delivery by Customer-Centric Initiative (CCI) Icons such as the Changi Airport Group, ION Orchard, and the Sentosa Development Corporation.

The project rolled out strategic initiatives supported by SPRING Singapore, STB (Singapore Tourism Board), WDA (Workforce Development Agency), the Institute of Service Excellence at SMU, and NTUC, and focused on creating a deeper sense of ownership of local service excellence among businesses, service staff, and customers.

All of these efforts seem to have slowly but surely yielded results; a recent Straits Times survey showed that in general Singaporeans have developed higher expectations for service excellence than foreigners, the very people this whole incentive originated for.

According to the poll, locals are generally less satisfied with service standards here than tourists visiting Singapore for a few days: 81% of local customers rated current service levels “acceptable, above average or excellent”, while 100% of the tourists gave the same rating.

In the “extra mile” category, 56% of local customers said service staff fell below expectations in acting “beyond the call of duty” while only 11% of tourists felt as negatively. In fact, 60% of tourists polled felt that service staff performed above expectations in the “extra mile” category while only 13% of Singaporeans felt as positively.

Does that mean Singaporean patrons are more difficult to please? Or perhaps tourists are more lenient and patient? Or could it be that service staff treats foreigners better? Or maybe people working in the service industry are exhausted, unmotivated, or underpaid?

There are so many factors to consider that it’s hard to say for sure.

The most difficult factor to grasp being the exact meaning of “going the extra mile”. Does it mean smiling? Being polite? Being fast? Carrying bags for people? Opening doors for them? Giving them discounts or freebies when they have been wronged?

In the US it’s a pretty common practice for waiters or owners to “comp” a person’s meal if they feel they have been sufficiently inconvenienced (wrong order, delayed food, etc.). Some restaurants can “comp” an entire meal or a few extra food items in hopes that the customer will leave satisfied and compensated and hence bring in more business in the future.

As most other generous behaviours, many people exploit the system by pretending to get wrong orders or by rejecting dishes once they have eaten them in order to get out of paying the bill. Such abusive customers plague the f&b industry in the US and are the reason some restaurants have to increase some of their prices (similar to how items in malls and supermarkets are priced with a margin that allows the business to offset the cost of theft).

In Japan sales people take their job to heart and really work hard to inform, guide, and satisfy. It’s not uncommon for tourists asking for directions in local businesses to be helped above and beyond the simple “pointing towards the general direction”. And this is despite the language barrier with most tourists!

The downside is that instead of being treated like a king, the customer is treated like a god. To the point that sales people take their duties extremely seriously. Maybe even too seriously.

Meanwhile, cities like Paris have embraced their reputation and even made it a crucial part of their tourism branding strategies; the rude French waiter is now such an iconic figure that many tourists queue to get yelled at in some of the poshest restaurants! Could satisfying the stereotype be considered “going the extra mile?”

One thing’s for sure, “going the extra mile” contributes to customer satisfaction, which itself is an important part of a business’ bottom line.

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Vince Chen

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