The Irk of Bad Service Quality in Sri Lanka: A Case of Weak Competition and Missing Incentives

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If I ever receive exceptional customer service at a Sri Lankan establishment, I am surprised, almost shocked. I’ve become quite accustomed to mediocre service at best, with little attention to detail and sometimes with a smile. So when a waiter is actually good and doing his/her job, it feels almost ‘unusual’. But that’s not how it should be.

Expanding Sri Lanka’s services sector, especially exportable services like tourism, is nothing without good service quality. Some may argue that ‘its an Asian thing’ to have mediocre service and ‘its a Western thing’ to have good service. That’s a fallacy. Once on a visit to China (and not on any luxury tour package – just something booked online), I found the service quality to be consistently exceptional.

Duty Free Service at BIA: Magic of Competition?

Competition matters to this. A simple example is the duty free stores in the Arrivals section of BIA. Earlier there was just one store – Alpha Orient. Now the rights have been re-granted, and there are two players – Flamingo and Autogrill (a.k.a. World Duty Free). Earlier, when I pass through immigration, walk into the store and asked for a particular type of wine or chocolates, one of the twenty sales assistants (idling and chit-chatting among themselves) would point to the far end of the store and say “anna athana balanna puluwan” (you can look over there). Now when you walk towards either of the new stores, there are girls greeting you with a lovely smile, offering you a shopping basket, and escorting you to help you find what you need. Competition. It went from a monopoly, where there was just one player and a captive consumer base (all arriving passengers must pass through there) and you had no choice but to buy your duty free requirements from that one store, to a duopoly, where you have two players to choose from, and both offering fairly the same product range at similar prices. Service quality then becomes critical.

Sri Lanka: sans Competition, sans Service Quality?

Take restaurants in Colombo as another example. Rarely have I ever been impressed with service quality in a Colombo restaurant sufficient for the occasion to actually be memorable. Of course, I’ve rarely had an experience where I’ve had to wait an hour for food. But I know plenty of others who have.

I was told of a recent experience at Cinnamon Grand’s London Grill – touted as a top fine dining restaurant in the city – where the food took over an hour to arrive and the waiters were totally unattentive. The patron who told me about the incident described the experience as “an absolute fail“. Its rarely a case of being understaffed that causes this though. Sri Lankan establishments are notoriously overstaffed and yet provide terrible service – a classic symptom of Sri Lanka’s lack of productivity. The evidence is everywhere. A bar with half dozen idle waiters, but they’re chatting to each other in a corner rather than being attentive to a customer struggling to get served. A coffee shop where there’s 5 people behind the counter – one to take your order, one to make the coffee, one to put the cap on the cup, and another to hand it to you. Contrast this to the coffee kiosk on the 2nd floor of the UNCC in Bangkok, Thailand, which is handled entirely by one girl. She takes your request, punches it on the PoS, quickly makes your order, serves it, takes the cash, dispenses the change, smiles and greets you a nice day, and warmly welcomes the next customer. Multiple tasks. One efficient person.

I have been frustrated many times. Waiters not listening when you are ordering, taking the order down wrong, and bringing out the wrong items. Not being attentive when you are ordering, and returning multiple times to reconfirm the order. The bill taking nearly twenty minutes to arrive. Water not being served even 10 minutes after first sitting down, or not being replenished when required. Dozens of waiters flitting around, but none actually paying attention to diners’ needs.

And its not about size or cost positioning (there’s equally poor service at Colombo’s top-end and mid-end restaurants), its about whether a place actually cares or not. And again it comes down to competition.

Take the Lewis strip in Negombo – the cluster of bars, cafes, and restaurants. The one place I remember, and keep going back to, is Serendib Restuarant - just next door to Rodeo. And it’s not just because I think they have the best Mojitos in the country, the best coconut-infused curries I’ve tasted and the most generous portions of papadam. It’s also because they are attentive and friendly. They can hardly pronounce the names of their own cocktails (“mojeeto” and “gin pizz”), but are certainly on hand when you need a second one, and always keen to understand what the customer likes and wants. Competition does it. If Serendib offered terrible service, I could just pop over to one of dozens of very similar places on either side of it or across the Lewis strip, with fairly similar prices. A case of near perfect competition. So, what keeps me there throughout the evening, and keeps me coming back? Good service quality.

New York City: Great Competition, Great Service Quality?

Now lets take a foreign city – New York, for instance (or any big city in the US), and the story is very different. Nearly every single restaurant  bar, or cafe you go to offers exceptional service, bar none. Waiters are attentive and alert. They are keen to make the customer happy, willing to be malleable on what the menu offers, genuinely passionate about the food they serve, and most of all – extremely welcoming, friendly, and hospitable. When was the last time you went to a restaurant in Colombo or elsewhere in Sri Lanka and could say all of that about the level of service you received?

I see a couple of reasons for this. First, my earlier argument about competition holds true here too. Its true, all restaurants aren’t exactly identical – the market is of more a monopolistic nature that perfectly competitive – but the basic value proposition is essentially very similar across them and people can exercise tremendous choice.

Hundreds of restaurants to choose from in NYC, all of them serving exceptional food (if they didn’t, they’d quickly lose business, not be able to afford the high rent, and soon shut down), serving exceptional food, and in a broadly similar price range. So, what would make a New Yorker keep patronizing a particular restaurant if the price was right? What would be the defining feature? Excellent service quality. So, ceteris paribus, exceptional service quality is what will set you apart. And so every restaurant, bar, and cafe strives for it. Competition makes service quality a key determinant of success.

Missing Incentives: The Magic of Tips

The second, in my view, is all about incentives. And in the food and hospitality service industry -  the incentive to serve your customer better and earn a better tip. But in Sri Lanka there is rarely the incentive for that. Why? A thundering service charge is already built in to your bill, and it’s high. Service charge has risen, yet service quality standards have not. Not surprising, though, because neither the customer not the management determine the service charge based on performance of a particular waiter. The customer has to pay service charge on the bill regardless of the quality of service offered. And because it’s a flat charge across all staff, the management cannot discriminate between staff who perform better than others.

Some people feel you must leave a tip, out of obligation. Earlier I used to leave a modest cash tip. Now I rarely, if ever, do. I’m annoyed by the high service charge built in. If a particular staff member has been exceptionally good, I make it a point to slip him/her the tip in person before leaving, rather than leave it in the case containing the bill. But in a country like America, a waiter must work for his/her tips. The better your service, the happier the customer, the larger the tip (in theory, but of course wealthier customers are likely to tip higher anyway). The incentive to perform better and provide a good service is present. Whereas in Sri Lanka, it rarely is. You know that at the end of the month, all the staff are going to get a divided-up share of the service charge that customers have been charged on their bill. So why bother being particularly hospitable and attentive to customers, more than the minimum level that will be sufficient to keep your job?

Tourists’ Irk: Bad Service, High Prices

And this opinion is not just mine. It seems tourists are pretty tired of it too. At a session organised by the European Chamber of Commerce in Colombo last week, European tourists voiced their grievances on the tourism “product offering” in Sri Lanka. In addition to the critical issue of sexual harassment of tourists that came up, the second most cited issues was that service quality was not commensurate with prices charged. An official of the Chamber, Delaney, said that in a survey conducted by them on a cross section of European visitors in Sri Lanka, many pointed out to poor service standards even in 5 star hotels.  “One complaint received was of having to wait for 45 minutes before the meal was served and another half-an-hour for the bill, she said”. One tourist had complained of “high prices charged by some 5 star properties where the service provided didn’t warrant for the US$ ($) 200-300 charged by such hotels. [...]  The inability of hotel staff to communicate in English was also an issue. Voicing similar sentiments, Dominique Tanghe of the Belgium Consulate in Sri Lanka said that he doesn’t mind experiencing such a service if he was paying $ 20-30 for a room, but not when the charges are as high as $ 200-300. Worse is when the food served is not what one ordered for…”. “Service is not equal to the price in many hotels in Sri Lanka,” said another.

Poor service quality is not easily forgotten, and for a country that prides itself on great hospitality and a warm smile, a very poor standard of service quality in our shops and restaurants (lets not even get to government service offices) is something we should be ashamed of.

Finally, I also believe its something about our work ethic – about not caring, not wanting to go the extra distance but rather taking the ‘path of least resistance’. Last evening I wanted to order some Chinese wet noodles from Flower Drum. Just the day before, a friend of mine had ordered it and advised me to ask for the crispy noodle and the soup to be packed separately. So when giving the order over the phone, I made this request. I was quickly denied and dismissed. The conversation went a little bit like this:

Me: Can you please ask them to pack the noodle and the soup separately so that it doesn’t get soggy? 

Man taking order: No we can’t do that.

Me: Why not?

Man: Because we don’t.

Me: But just yesterday a friend of mine ordered the same thing and they packed it separately for her and delivered. Can you please find out?

Man: Let me ask my manager.

(less than 3 seconds go by – surely not enough enough time to actually verify this from someone?!)

Man: No we can’t do it. we pack it all together.

Me: But like I said, you did it yesterday for someone else who ordered the same thing – why can’t you just do that for this order also?

Man: Maybe yesterday sir, but can’t do today.

Me: Nevermind. Thanks. *Click*.

That’s the story of Sri Lankan service standards. A case of insufficient competition, skewed incentives, and terrible ‘service’ ethic. And this is just in the hospitality industry. I bet its no better in many other service sectors – but getting it right in hospitality matters most for an exportable service like tourism – the sector that the country seems most obsessed about at the moment.

(PS: Later on I ended up ordering from 88 on Havelock Road. They readily obliged with my request – “of course sir” – no questions asked. That’s why I keep going back there.)

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11 thoughts on “The Irk of Bad Service Quality in Sri Lanka: A Case of Weak Competition and Missing Incentives

  1. Thank you so much for putting this in writing. It’s something I have felt for a long time, and yet many of my peers prefer to just say “Aah yes, what to do?” or laugh it off and call me a whinger. There’s nothing wrong with expecting higher standards in relatively simple things like this.

    While tips are a good incentive, I have been to many countries other than the US where service charge is enough. I’m not sure about it, but I’m assuming that orders taken down by certain waiters are logged with some form of ID, so service charges are given directly to that waiter.

    The main problem is the work ethic… You see it everywhere. Everyone is so very lazy, if they don’t have their tea break they will waste the day away for example. Take the easiest option, don’t care about offering the highest quality product possible. I’m not sure where this problem stems from, but it’s something that needs to be sorted out if the country hopes to be taken seriously on a global scale.

    • thank you for taking the time to leave a substantial comment, chinsen. Everything you point out is well taken. I don’t understand why expecting better service standards is made out to seem as if one is “being fussy” or “expecting too much”. And it absolutely about work ethic. That sense of “urgency”, “get it done”, “do it as well as you can” as opposed to “whatever will get the boss of your back” attitude. This WILL hold Sri Lanka back, regardless of the massive infrastructure thrust…

  2. One more element that feeds the “poor service” beast…Sri Lankans in general are not demanding customers. We have come to expect mediocre service and doing the minimum as the norm. Contrast the to the Europeans and even the Indians who visit here as tourists…

    • very true, Arj. We are not demanding. We don’t expect the best, and so we are happy to dole out mediocre service in return. Nobody gets worked up about it. And so true – some tourism industry people complain that Indian, European and American tourists are “tough customers” – of course they are – they want their monies worth – who wouldnt? We just roll over and accept mediocrity. And this is all-pervasive – you see it everywhere – in the workplace, in government…

  3. This was a really interesting article– more so for me because I am currently working with a few Service Industry based companies who want me to help them with this very same problem. What I have noticed though, is that a big part of the problem is rooted in a culture of indifference. Getting in to the building where the training was taking place, some of my trainees cut in front of me at security, were very rude to the security guard, and walked through with an incredibly rude sense of entitlement. It was ironic to me that these very people were expected to be trained as good customer care representatives, when it was obvious that they hardly cared about anyone else, period. How can we expect people to turn on customer care like a light switch when their personal values don’t match up to the same?

  4. Where cafes are concerned, I have experienced exceptional customer service at Coco Veranda, Ward Place, Steamboat Restaurant, Nawala and at Al Hambra restaurant, Hotel Ramada. Other places, not so much. I believe it’s in the general nature of most people in the customer service sector to be apathetic and lazy because at the end of the day, we are treated like cash-cows. The same is true throughout telecom companies here.

  5. Love the blog.

    So true about the service, try as we might (to train, inform ad teach) it will never be as good as we’d like, or expect it to be. I feel it’s something the wait-staff/service staff have to experience themselves. It seems to makes a world of difference when they do.

  6. Is the service charge compulsory by law though? I reckon it is not and you’d be within your rights by law to refuse to pay it if you’d not received good service. However, I’d not want to be the person explaining this to a waiter back home.

    Excellent post by the way.

  7. Thank you so much for coming up with this article. I totally agree on all the facts as i have faced similar or worse problem in my 4 years of stay in Srilanka. I myself is coming up with a blog of many incidents that has happened to me. And i have 100 of them to write.
    I wish things would change in this country as its such a beautiful country by it self.

  8. Great post. I think that the owners of these establishments bare the ultimate responsibility for the utterly lamentable customer service that their employees deliver on a consistent basis. Such service speaks volumes about a respective brand’s inherent culture and values (or lack thereof), and it’s unspeakably depressing to face the reality that most of these individuals are comfortable with maintaining the hitherto unchallenged status quo attitude of ‘that’ll do’. To inculcate staff with a true understanding of what real customer service looks like is certainly an aspirational aim that all brands should aspire to but suffice it to say, I think that rather than challenge & question ingrained and outmoded practices that are no longer effective, useful or relevant to today’s market demands, nothing will change and a ‘business as usual’ dictum will continue to be adhered to.

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