Tuesday, July 1, 2008

Language not key issue in service: Study

The Sunday Times on 29 June 2008 had a published letter with the same title as above from one Caroline Lim, the Director of the Institute of Service Excellence at the Singapore Management University.

I haven’t been following the talk on the presumably poor quality of service provided by foreign workers in the service sector due to language difficulties, except for a reference to Straits Times spin in a previous post.

The recent edition of the Sunday Times had three letters in support of foreign service workers. While there are without doubt cases of poor quality of service from foreign service workers, and no letters describing such cases were published in this most recent edition of the Sunday Times, I hesitate to tag this post with my “straits times spin” label. The selection of Caroline Lim’s letter may be a subjective choice on the part of the editors, but her opinion is still an independent opinion (I hope). More importantly, she presents some data.

I have some thoughts on her letter, foreign service sector workers, and the service industry. Let’s discuss the letter first.

An excerpt from Caroline Lim’s letter:

We would like to take this opportunity to share some relevant findings from the Customer Satisfaction Index for Singapore.

This is a national-level study on customer satisfaction in Singapore. The fieldwork for the study was conducted between May 1 and July 23 last year, and the results were released in April this year.

The study found that 99.16 percent of 12,388 respondents who were asked about their experiences with front-line service staff indicated that language was not a barrier during interactions with service staff.

This means that only a small 0.84 percent of the respondents had to use a language different from what they had expected to use when talking to the service staff. [1*]

For example, if English was the language that most respondents had expected to use, a majority of them had no problems using English when communicating with service staff. [1*]

The more important issue, however, is whether there is effective communication between customers and service staff. The study found that only 90 percent of respondents felt that they understood what the service staff were telling them, or that their needs and requests were properly understood and communicated across to service staff.

The conclusion is that language proficiency (be it English or some other language) is a secondary issue which could easily be resolved with the right level of training. The key concern lies in the ability to understand customers and their needs…


From the study, it would appear that the headline for the letter, that language is not a key issue in service, is correct. After all, 99.16% is a really high figure, and I think we may safely assume that foreign service sector workers constitute more than 0.84% of front-line service staff.

I have a problem with Caroline Lim’s letter though. Given that most Singaporeans are Chinese and bilingual, and that many foreign service sector workers are from China, inferences [1*] do NOT necessarily follow from [1]. Unless we are given the exact phrasing of the question posed to respondents, and information on the languages they speak, we simply do not know whether [1*] follows from [1].

The letter also makes no mention of how satisfied respondents were with service provided by service sector workers. Even if language were not implicated, we have no way of disproving the hypothesis that foreign service sector workers are not as good as local workers. We also have no way of disproving the converse, that local workers are not as good as foreign ones.

In addition, the letter mentioned that “only” 90% of respondents felt that they understood what the service staff were telling them, or that their needs and requests were properly understood and communicated across to service staff.

Without an understanding of the service industry, I have no clue what “90%” means, whether it is good or bad. At first, I was actually quite impressed (I thought 90% was a high figure). Then I wondered whether I was setting the bar too low for service standards in Singapore.

In addition, I wondered whether the 90% figure means that 10% of Singaporeans have trouble all the time communicating with service staff on their needs, or that on average, 1 out of every 10 shopping experiences that any Singaporean undertakes will encounter communication problems. We simply don’t know from the data presented here. [The former could be an example of Wittgenstein’s Ruler at work, and if true, shows that Singaporeans are difficult customers and poor communicators indeed.]

Caroline Lim’s letter is an illustration of the pitfalls of relying too heavily on statistics. Even though I work with statistics in my job, I have a healthy respect for the problems associated with statistics. How to lie with statistics is a 5-star book recommendation from me, as relevant today as when it was first published in 1954.

Other thoughts:

In recent years, the presence of foreign service sector workers in Singapore has grown pervasive. My impression is that they come mainly from China, the Philippines and Myanmar. I actually find this somewhat disconcerting, because it doesn’t really gel with the government’s argument that we need the foreign ‘talent’. Does talent extend to wait staff as well? It seems like a good way for businesses to cut costs if you ask me.

Service staff in Singapore are in general, poorly paid, so it’s unsurprising that Singaporeans, facing the Singaporean costs of living and raising a family here in Singapore, don’t exactly relish these jobs. Hence, the poor service attitudes by local workers who do work in such jobs. For foreign workers coming from impoverished countries however, a service sector job can be a big improvement in their living situation, particularly when the Singapore dollars are remitted back home to their families.

Perhaps that’s why businesses praise their foreign service sector staff while lamenting that Singaporeans are unwilling to take these jobs or perform less well. Foreign service sector staff are paid the same as locals, or even less, and are more enthusiastic about their jobs. The unspoken other half of this truth is that a service job’s salary is just slightly above subsistence level pay for a Singaporean.

Bad service in Singapore is taken as a given, but honestly, I can’t say that it really bothers me. In fact, I only notice that service is bad in Singapore when I travel to other countries and the service there is markedly better. For example, the poor product knowledge of service staff here is a perennial bugbear among shoppers, and I’ve noticed that as well. But since I research most of my purchases beforehand, I haven’t faced problems with that. Perhaps it can be chalked up to the fact that I’m very much a DIY person when it comes to shopping. From studying abroad, I developed habits like shopping online and using the self-checkout at the supermarket, so service standards are really a non-issue for me.

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