Saturday, February 22, 2014

Singapore’s Customer Service Culture Sucks

Why is that so, and what can be done about it?

I visited Singapore earlier in February, and on the recommendation of some of our Singaporean friends in Colorado who are mothers to toddlers and babies, my wife had asked me to book our air tickets with Singapore Airlines. Singapore Airlines takes good care of passengers who are flying with babies, they said. We have an 11-month old son.

I objected to my wife’s suggestion – order? – on the basis of my past bad experience with Singapore Airlines, plus the fact that we would be paying more and going out of our way to fly with them from Denver, Colorado. I also remembered a friend of mine – who’s in the aviation management industry – advising that their ground service was horrible. The air service is all that matters, you say?

Always eager to prove people – my wife included – wrong, I declared that I would be happy to spend (extra) money to substantiate my claim. We didn’t even need to get past the ticket booking stage for me to affirm my bias. Here’s what happened:

We couldn’t get the website of Singapore Airlines to process our booking properly, so I called to ask what happened. The agent told me – without a moment’s hesitation – that the error is due to the fact that I tried to add our infant son to the itinerary, and the only solution to that is to go ahead and make the reservation, and then call back to add our son. Which I did.

Then when I called to add our son on the reservation and to request for a bassinet on the flights, I was told that the bassinets were unavailable as all of them were already reserved by other passengers. So I asked to change my flight, and while being put on hold, I was hung up on. I called back (again), explained the situation and asked to change my flight (again), only to be told that we would be charged fees for changing our flight! I hung up on that agent after giving him a piece of my mind, and then my wife called. This time she got a more helpful agent who canceled our flight without charging us fees.

While my wife was on the phone, I managed to provoke a response from Singapore office through Twitter, and someone called me – long distance – to offer me a solution. However, it was too late. The damage was done. We flew with United Airlines instead and their service – both ground and air – was nothing short of exceptional on our trip to Singapore and back to Denver.  I will never fly with Singapore Airlines again.

The fact that the first agent told me without hesitating that the booking error was due to my attempt to add my infant son to the itinerary, and that the solution was to book the tickets without him and to call back to add him suggests to me that this error has been known for a long time, and nothing has been done to rectify it. My Singaporean friends with babies confirm that fact.

It is amazing that an airline with a $12-billion dollar capitalization cannot get its website right.  It is incredulous that an agent tried to charge us fees to change a flight when it was the airline’s fault. If the last agent that my wife spoke to could authorize the cancelation of the tickets without penalty, why wasn’t that done in the first place? Because you can, and because you don’t care?


So, in Singapore, I went to OCBC Bank at White Sands to close out my account, which I haven’t used in years and was accumulating fees. There were four teller windows open, and the line was about 15-deep. It took an average of two minutes to serve each customer. I was in line for about 30 minutes.
In my bank, if the teller line were 15 deep, my vice president will come out of his office and help. At the Walmart I used to work at, the managers would personally open additional registers to check out customers on busy weekends.

Not here though. Only four windows to serve a line designed to hold about 20 people in line, and the managers would rather hide in their office then to come out and help. No matter, it just gave me one more reason to close my account. Does OCBC not realize that they have only one branch in the whole of Pasir Ris, a town of almost 200,000 people?  There were more desks to service customers with new account and loan requests than there were teller lines. What’s the point of getting a new customer if you can’t serve your existing one? You will only anger two people.


We were at River Safari’s Giant Panda Forest section when my son was hungry, so we gave him a sippy cup of milk. An employee approached us and told us that drinks were not allowed in that area. He’s a baby, and it’s a sippy cup, we protested. No, you can’t consume drinks in here, she reiterated. If we wanted, we could leave the area and feed him. I gave the employee a dirty look, and proceeded to pull the cup out of my son’s mouth slowly and dramatically as if to prove my point. Expectedly, he started crying. What do you expect? A baby cries when he’s hungry, but that employee didn’t seem to care.

As we started to make our way out, my wife saw several visitors consuming drinks in that section. She went back and confronted that employee about the arbitrary enforcement of the rule. A minute later, another employee – apparently a supervisor – came out with a sign that said “No photography, food and drinks.” My wife started reasoning with this employee, saying that exceptions should be made for babies. The second employee merely repeated what the first employee had said.

At this point, I was more concerned to get out of that area to feed our son. I told that second employee that “a baby eats when he’s hungry, and I won’t argue with you here because I don’t want to wake up the sleeping pandas.” With that, I walked out.

The point of not allowing the consumption of food and drinks in this enclosed section is that if they were spilled, it would be very difficult to clean up the mess quickly and quietly, as compared to the more open areas of the park. And, you know, pandas don't like to be disturbed. At the Denver Zoo, in enclosed areas where they don’t allow drinks to be consumed, they ask you to leave the drinks outside on a table, eliminating the risk of you spilling it, whether or not you’re sucking on your straw. And at various attractions in Denver, the no-drinks rule does not apply to babies, but that’s besides the point.

Anyway, what I disagree with is the employees’ blanket application of the no-drinks rule, even on babies drinking milk. A milk bottle or a sippy cup will not spill even if you dropped it on the floor, provided that you have sealed it properly.

Do the rule makers and enforcers at the park think that it is acceptable to bring drinks into that enclosed section so long as visitors do not drink out of it? Do cups not spill so long as you don’t drink out of it? What kind of cuckoo logic is that?!


Still at River Safari, after we left the enclosed section, we decided to take a break and snack at the Mama Panda Kitchen. They had very cute buns shaped like panda faces. You could choose from two flavors – chocolate or red bean paste. The price was one at $2.90 or four at $11.90 for both flavors. Since we were in a party of five adults (and a baby), I chose to buy four at $11.90. 

What flavor, the server asked. I asked for two chocolate, and two red bean paste. Oh no, sorry, you can only choose one flavor or you can buy all four individually at $2.90, she says. Oh, ok, red bean paste then, I said, thinking that perhaps the four buns came from the kitchen prepared in a single basket, and she could not change the buns out according to customer request. When the buns were served, each and every one of the four was in a separate basket. Like this:

So, you can’t grab one flavor from each side of the counter to satisfy this simple request?

Well done, River Safari. If you were doing mortgage loans like I am, I could understand why you were so hard and fast about what you could do due to laws and regulations. You are selling coffee and buns. The buns were discounted by only 30 cents if I got four of them. Get over your stupid policy, unless:
  1. You start serving all four buns in one giant basket, but even then, you should think about having an option where you can have two of each flavor.
  2. You start charging different prices for each flavor but your accounting and cash register system should be updated accordingly so you still have no excuse.


Finally, on our last day, we decided to shop at Bedok Mall. My wife came across a really pretty dress at a small shop, which had no customers. “Sale for $19.90. Original price $49.90.” the sign read. She picked it up and asked to try it on, but the sales assistant told her that she couldn’t because it was already on sale.

What kind of logic is that? Have you ever seen a lady buy a dress without trying it on? I guess she didn’t want the sale. I understand that you don’t want customers to hog the changing room to buy your discounted items on a busy day when you could have customers wanting to try on the non-marked down merchandise, but you had no customers in the shop! I guess she just wasn’t that invested in the profitability of the business…


Why is customer service not a thing in Singapore? As you can see in the above examples, employees apply rules without knowing the reason behind them. Without knowing the reason, they enforce the rules blindly, not acknowledging that there are situations in which exceptions could be made.

But they’re not managers, you say, otherwise, they wouldn’t be on the ground arguing with your stupid self! Yes, but if the employees had realized that those situations allowed for exceptions to be made, then they might have asked a supervisor if they were allowed to make the exceptions. Instead, the employees stood behind the rules, because rules are rules are rules. This is not the army, ok?

Secondly, customer satisfaction does not seem to be a priority. It appears to me that employees are there as warm bodies, and not as an enhancement to customer experience. That is a shame. Employees are a resource! Use them wisely! Motivate your staff and always help them understand the bigger picture of which they are a part of.

Finally, employees are not invested in the success of their employers. “If the business doesn’t make enough money and folds, I’ll work somewhere else” seems to be the attitude. Have you ever been told at a fishball noodle stall in a coffee shop that you could not customize your order? Like, requesting for more chilli, more noodles, extra fishballs, or to cut up the noodles and get a small bowl because a young child is eating the food etc.? Sure, you might be asked to pay more depending on your request, but most stall owners will try to accommodate with your (reasonable) request. That’s because being small business owners, they’re invested in their stall’s success.

As Singaporeans compete in the international market, we’d better be aware that good customer service is expected and does exist in other countries. If we don’t improve our customer service culture, we may find it difficult to sell the Singapore brand.  This is especially so since Singapore is trying to become a wealth management center. I don’t think I need to remind everyone that rich people do not take poor customer service too well. They will, however, take their business elsewhere, and quite easily too, I may add.

Tuesday, February 14, 2012

Facebook Going Public: What It Means for Users' Privacy

Facebook’s Geniuses Know it All. Or Do They?

I once wrote to Facebook's customer service department to demand to know why I had to choose from a list of cities to fill in my "Current City" field on my profile. In my message, I accused Facebook programmers of pretending to know it all; there are so many cities in the world -- how could they possibly list them all?

Being a persuasive writer, I have managed to get U.S. Senators and cabinet-level ministers and secretaries to reply to my correspondences before, but I guess I am more important to politicians as a constituent than I am as a user to Facebook, for Facebook never replied to my message.

Later on, I figured out why Facebook insists on only letting users choose from a list of cities to describe where they are from and where they currently live in, instead of letting users fill in the fields themselves – potential in making money from marketing. This New York Times op-ed explains it succinctly:

[U]nlike other big-ticket corporations, it doesn’t have an inventory of widgets or gadgets, cars or phones. Facebook’s inventory consists of personal data — yours and mine.
Facebook makes money by selling ad space to companies that want to reach us. Advertisers choose key words or details — like relationship status, location, activities, favorite books and employment — and then Facebook runs the ads for the targeted subset of its 845 million users. If you indicate that you like cupcakes, live in a certain neighborhood and have invited friends over, expect an ad from a nearby bakery to appear on your page. The magnitude of online information Facebook has available about each of us for targeted marketing is stunning.

If Facebook allowed users to fill in those fields themselves, it would be much more difficult for Facebook to provide demographic information to advertisers who are their main source of revenue. For example, if a user were to merely put “Aurora” in the “Current City” field, would s/he be referring to "Aurora, Illinois" or "Aurora, Colorado" or "Aurora, Victoria" or "Aurora, Ontario"? There are so many places in the world named Aurora and Facebook could not possibly sell ad space to potential advertisers based on such vague descriptions.

Facebook as a Marketing and Marketing Research Company

Five years ago, in my business strategy class at the Singapore Management University, my instructor asked the students what kind of business we thought Google was in. Google had then just become the world’s fastest growing search engine whose market share was overshadowing Yahoo!’s. We answered that it was in the internet communication and search industry. My instructor said that it was really in the marketing industry. He was right – since then, an entirely new industry has been created around Google; companies have been founded, careers have been made and books have been written and published solely on helping businesses and organizations rank higher on Google. Personally, I have written on how to use free social media tools to help one’s small/medium business rank higher on Google.

Facebook is not in the social media business. It is, like Google, in the marketing business. Now that Facebook is going public, it will certainly face pressures from its shareholders to increase profits. Where does Facebook’s profits come from? The same New York Times article I block-quoted earlier states that 85% of Facebook’s revenue comes from advertising – that’s to users like you and me. Facebook hires from among the smartest and the most creative; they will figure out a way to make more money from personal data and other means, such as being a sales website. I predict that in the medium-to-long run, Facebook will go into the marketing and advertising research industry, and be the leading authority on demographic data, overshadowing the likes of the Nielson Company and its famous Nielson Ratings.

So What?

What does this mean for everyday users of Facebook? Since Facebook’s most valuable asset is our personal data, it will entice you to share more and more of your life on the social networking website. In fact, it already has attempted to share more about your past by implementing the timeline feature and will slowly force every user to adopt that type of profile eventually.

So what, you say? It’s no big deal – you don’t mind letting people know about your life, past and present. Really? As Facebook grew and evolved over the years, it has engaged in questionable tactics to force users to share information with others, such as implementing a de facto "follow" feature or failing to inform users that they have to opt out of being automatically tagged in pictures by the facial recognition technology. It is to Facebook's benefit for you to share as much with as many people as possible, whereas it is not necessarily to your advantage to do so.

Facebook is growing at an extraordinary rate. Like any other company that grows at such a quick pace, it occasionally commits a mistake. So far, it has been great with online security, but mistakes like this one in April 2011 where email notifications were reset accidentally, this one in late 2010 where some applications improperly shared data with third parties, or this one in late 2010 where deleted pictures weren’t really deleted beg the question of how long it would be before users’ security is compromised.

Personal information that you have posted on Facebook may be used against you. Status updates and pictures that you have uploaded on Facebook may:

  1. stop you from getting a place in graduate program,
  2. cause you to lose a job opportunity,
  3. cost you your job or reputation,
  4. allow the government to invade your privacy,
  5. allow the police to track you,  
  6. lower your credit worthiness,
  7. render your online banking account susceptible to hacking,
  8. identify you in public areas (especially with Facebook’s facial recognition feature and technology),
  9. inspire you to do really stupid things, and
  10. cost you your divorce settlement.
Setting the highest privacy controls won’t really help. There is no harm doing that, however. Here are some more tips:

  1. clean up your Facebook (and other social media) accounts
  2. be careful about what you post
  3. don’t reveal information on Facebook that you wouldn’t post on your front door
  4. avoid uploading inappropriate photos
  5. don’t talk about your job on Facebook unless you have something good to say
  6. stay away from the details while you’re at that
  7. even though it is tempting – and some may say it is the whole point of Facebookdon’t brag on Facebook.

And if you have found yourself on the wrong side of social media, it’s not the end of the world, especially if you can afford to pay. It may be expensive though.

Like this blog? Please like it on Facebook! You may like I Lost My Job Because of Social Media. Follow me on Twitter (@nicholas_cheong).

Monday, November 21, 2011

How Many Ways Can You Jumble “Denver,” “State” and “University”?

How an institute of higher education created free publicity by prolonging the renaming process

This is a stroke of genius. Knowing that there are few newsworthy stories at this time of the year, the leaders of the Metropolitan State College of Denver (MSCD) have decided to create free publicity for the university by deliberately ruffling the feathers of the University of Denver and by prolonging their renaming process.

The process to change MSCD’s name is not a new one. The Denver Post ran a story on it on a slow news day in April.

Here are some facts which constrain and affect the renaming of MSCD:

  1. The University of Colorado system already has a Denver campus (University of Colorado at Denver).
  2. There already exists a University of Denver (and it is a good school, but more on that later).
  3. There is also a Colorado State University in Fort Collins, 70 miles north of Denver.
  4. MSCD’s leadership believes that non-Coloradans don’t know the location of the university because it’s more commonly known as Metro State College (“Which metro area?!”).
  5. Apparently, people who are unfamiliar with MSCD tend to think that the “College” in MSCD’s name suggests that it may be a two-year college, which it is NOT.
  6. It is important to retain the word “State” in the university’s name to reflect the affordability of tuition.

Hence the leaders of MSCD have decided to play with the words “Denver,” “State” and “University”.

Monday, October 31, 2011

Are Singaporeans Really Materialistic? (Part Two)

Why Do Singaporeans Place So Much Emphasis on Material Things?

(Part One can be found here.)

Most Singaporeans One Generation or Less Removed from Poverty

My father once told me that when he was a boy, his family was so poor that they lived in a dirt hut with no running water or electricity. He and his siblings were warned by their parents not to play too far away from their house. The reason for that warning is NOT because their parents were afraid that the children would fall into a river or a canal and drown, or that their parents were afraid of kidnappings.

The village that his family lived in consisted of houses built closely to one another, made out of scrap materials. Everyone used firewood or charcoal for cooking, and fire was a constant hazard. If a hut caught on fire, there was a real risk that the fire would spread to neighboring huts quickly. If the kids were playing too far away, they would not be around to help put out the fire or to save the few precious belongings they had.

That is still in the living memory of a large proportion of Singaporeans aged 50 and above. When one is a generation or less from such poverty, one is more likely to put material needs above others. This is articulately and elaborately explained in the theory of Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs.

Monday, October 10, 2011

Are Singaporeans Really Materialistic? (Part One)

The title of the article was provocative: Singapore Girls Are Materialistic.

This did not surprise many of my male counterparts back home. In fact, going by the Facebook shares and comments on my newsfeed, it seemed like they felt vindicated.

Upon reading the article, however, I figured that the article probably articulated the study’s results in a provocative way for journalistic purposes, and that the study probably concluded no such thing as Singapore girls are materialistic.

Saturday, June 11, 2011

If An East Asian Apologizes "Insincerely," You Should Still Accept It

I was half-right.

Soon after the Minister Mentor Lee Kuan Yew and Senior Minister Goh Chok Tong “stepped down” from Singapore’s Cabinet after the May 2011 General Election, I asked what title the former would be given. I had guessed “Minister Emeritus.”

My joke on Facebook about Lee Kuan Yew becoming Minister Emeritus.

For those who are not familiar with Singapore’s history and politics, Lee Kuan Yew was the first prime minister of Singapore (1959-1990). When he voluntarily “stepped down” as Prime Minister after 31 years, he assumed the title of Senior Minister in the Cabinet of his successor, Goh Chok Tong from 1990 to 2004. The position of Senior Minister was part of the Prime Minister’s Office and it came without any official responsibilities; Lee Kuan Yew was an elder statesman and it was felt that his experience and advice would still be helpful to and needed by the second generation leaders.

After Goh Chok Tong stepped down as Prime Minister in 2004, he became Senior Minister in Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong’s Cabinet. Lee Kuan Yew then assumed the odd title of Minister Mentor. It was as if titles meant so much to the statesman. It was to this odd title that I alluded to in the “Minister Emeritus” joke.

Two days after I posted the joke on Facebook, Senior Minister Goh Chok Tong was given the title of Emeritus Senior Minister by Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong. Sadly for me, Lee Kuan Yew wasn’t given any title, thus denying me of an opportunity to declare myself as “prophet.”

Jokes aside, this article isn’t about how prophetic I was (or even to suggest that I gave Prime Minister Lee the idea of naming a former prime minister as an emeritus minister), but rather, how face-saving is a huge part of communication in East Asian cultures.

Friday, May 6, 2011

Seven Things that the PAP Needs to Learn About "New Media"

If they can afford professionally filmed and edited videos and teleprompters for their new candidates, why can't they find an effective social media consultant?

As I observe the use of “new media” by the People’s Action Party (PAP) for political communication in the last few years, I can’t help but wonder why the PAP doesn’t get it. Do they not have “ordinary mortals” in their midst who understand how online communication works?

Monday, March 14, 2011

If You're a Lawyer, Move to a Metro Area With a High Median House Value

Analyzing Data on Top Lawyer Salaries by Metropolitan Area

A month ago, surprised at the lack of non-technical literature on the subject, I wrote a qualitative article titled How to Examine Numbers and Statistics Critically. Soon after I published the article on this blog, Google crawled” it and my blog was on one of the first few search results returned on the search phrases “how to examine numbers critically” and “how to examine statistics critically.” (That, by the way, is a strong indicator that there really is a lack of literature on the subject of examining numbers and statistics critically!)

Since then, I had been looking for an opportunity to write a quantitative – and technical – piece on analyzing data. I was lucky. Two weeks ago, I came across an article on the New York Times Economix blog which reported on ten metropolitan areas where lawyers enjoy the highest average pay.

Top ten highest mean wage of lawyers by metropolitan area

After taking a quick look at the table, I noticed that there did not seem to be a discernable relationship between mean wage and the other variables, so I decided to analyze the data using SPSS.

Monday, February 28, 2011

How Americans Benefit from the Greatness and Vastness of their Country

“Critical Mass”

In physics, “critical mass” refers to the smallest amount of fissile material needed for a sustained nuclear chain reaction. In the theory of the diffusion of innovations, “critical mass” refers to a point at which an innovation has been adopted by enough individuals or organizations so that the continued adoption of the innovation is self-sustaining.

In the theory of the diffusion of innovations, reaching critical mass is often dependent on achieving sufficient economies of scale such that the innovation will become cheap and plentiful enough for the majority of the population to adopt it.

Many of my American friends do not realize or appreciate that the vastness of their country affords them and their organizations many advantages that citizens and organizations of smaller countries do not enjoy. This article is to address the various advantages that Americans and American companies, businesses and organizations enjoy due to the United States’ large domestic market that is rarely hindered by cultural and legal barriers to entry, as well as its status as the world’s leading economic power.

Tuesday, February 15, 2011

How to Examine Numbers and Statistics Critically

Numbers Don’t Always Tell the Whole Story

As a social scientist and market researcher, my introduction into research began with small steps in junior college in Singapore. My history tutor had taught me to examine sources critically. My math tutor taught me not just how to solve statistics problems, but also a more important skill in life – that of examining statistics critically. My economics tutor was the first to introduce to me the idea of differences between reliability and validity in social science, through the lesson that Gross Domestic Product is not the only factor with which we compare the quality of life among citizens of different countries. Later, I developed more critical thinking and social science research skills in college and in graduate school.

One of the first things that one learns in a statistics class or a social science research class is that numbers don’t tell the whole story. A friend of mine believes that “statistics examine everything and prove nothing.” It is thus essential for one to ask relevant questions about the data that is presented and questions on data that is unavailable.

If You Were Moving to a New or Unfamiliar City

Suppose you were looking to rent or buy a property in an unfamiliar city where you have no contacts. Although you live near enough to the new city that you can take a weekend or two to visit its neighborhoods and suburbs, it is more efficient for you to shortlist a few "desirable" neighborhoods. You are able to find most of the data you need online. How do you examine the numbers critically?