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Tuesday, October 20, 2009

Enlightening encounters with service angels

A special feature on service

Lynette Koh

Good service should never come at a cost.

In the course of checking out service standards at various retail outlets for this series (as well as my own extensive non-investigative shopping trips), I have found that a store's price tags are seldom commensurate to its level of service.

Some of the most polite and helpful sales people can be found in clothing stores where prices rarely go above a hundred dollars; and some of the most clueless and curt sales assistants are found in stores where prices rarely dip below it.

The most exceptional examples of service, in fact, can be free, as one of my colleagues, who we shall call Jane, discovered on a ravenous evening several months ago.

Having seized a window of opportunity to grab dinner at a nearby fast food outlet after 8pm — and hours of nonstop work — she had ordered an upsized meal costing about $8, and was about to pay for it when she realised that she had left her wallet at her desk.

Crestfallen and hungrier than ever, Jane prepared to make the ten-minute trek back to the office to get her wallet.

Sensing her distress, however, the server manning the counter unhesitatingly told her she could return the next day to pay for her meal.

Torn between not wanting to take advantage of his kind gesture, and the allure of the food which lay before her, Jane recalled how she had made several half-hearted protests.

Eventually succumbing to the hunger pangs, however, Jane thanked him and promised to return at the earliest opportunity to pay for her meal.

Unfortunately, however, she never saw him at the outlet again, and subsequently, our office moved away from the area.

Even as she got over her feelings of guilt towards the free meal, Jane remained profoundly moved by the server's unreserved gesture of kindness.

My own experience with similarly exceptional service, while not free, was certainly discounted.

I have long nursed a tendency to take more taxis than is fiscally advisable, as well as a chronic inability to make the trip to an automated teller machine even when I am down to my last dollar (or less).

And the increasing number of taxis outfitted with Nets and credit card processing facilities has only served to increase my disregard towards having sufficient amounts of cash in my wallet — which led to my recent cab-related panic.

After work, I had hopped into a cab, unthinkingly as usual, distracted by thoughts of dinner options.

It only hit me halfway through my journey that I was in a taxi that had no credit card or Nets facilities. I had a little over $7 and the journey from the office to town would typically cost about $10.

After rummaging through my bag for five minutes — and losing any hope of finding a forgotten, not-empty ang bao deep in its recesses – I confessed to the taxi driver, asking sheepishly to alight only as far as the seven dollars would take me.

Instead of making sneering noises and throwing me out of his cab at the next traffic junction, as I half-expected, the cabby simply asked me how much money I had.

Amazingly, his jolly demeanour remained unchanged even after I confessed, as he drove on towards town.

"It's okay, lah," he said, adding that it was difficult to get a cab at that time of the day.

Waving off my promises to pay him the balance at a later date, the driver told me about other passengers' similar cash-short situations, which occurred from time to time.

Said the driver good-naturedly: "I just tell them, if you can, donate the money to charity."

My embarrassment faded as he continued making friendly chatter for the last 10 minutes of the journey.

As I neared my destination, I asked the cabby: "When a passenger says that she doesn't have enough money, how do you know if it's true?"

With a smile, he replied: "I don't – but well, all that happens is that I make a little less money, right?"

From TODAY, Voices – Tuesday, 22-Sep-2009

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Parents root of problem?

Coxford Singlish Dictionary, a published book ...Image via Wikipedia

This article, in itself, speaks of what I wanted to say, so I keep mum. Read on…



Liang Dingzi

THE best thing that has emanated from the annual "Speak Good English" movement is not how important the use of proper English is in today's world, but instead, the truth of how badly our standard of the language has deteriorated.

An old chestnut, the campaign, first launched in 2000, generates the usual round of debates on related issues such as the proliferation of Singlish, recruitment of native speakers as trainers and, more recently, foreign workers with limited command of the language. Unfortunately, like most campaigns, the exercise is as good as it lasts. What next, one may ask.

This year's campaign targets young people. Going by the laments over the years of the declining standard of spoken English here, it is the natural group to target.

The committee rightly recognises the changing environment our youth are experiencing, and aims to engage them "on their terms" - via social media platforms like Facebook, Twitter and blogs.

The SMS generation has become careless in their use of the language. Mr Goh Eck Kheng, chairman of the campaign, pointed out the mistaken notion of young people that bad English is acceptable so long as they are understood by their peers. But isn't that what communication is all about, and language is but one of its tools? The end justifies the means, so to speak, however poorly constructed the means?

What our youth do not realise is how this mentality will create a linguistic in-breeding problem that at it's extreme, make us incommunicado with the rest of the world. As it is, much has already been said about the consequences.

The key message of this year's movement is that "good communication skills transcend the use of correct grammar and vocabulary". This is a laudable objective, although I confess that personally I had to struggle with its tagline - "Impress. Inspire. Intoxicate."

However, the initiative seems overly ambitious. Have we overcome the hiccups of retail staff saying "not there mean no got have" and "if got have, you can surely find on the shelf", that we should now be concerned about where they are placing the "but" as to whether it is more proper to say "this dress suits you but it is expensive" or "this dress is expensive but it suits you"?

Each time I ride the train, I quibble internally over whether "priority seat" should accurately be "courtesy seat" since priority connotes a privilege accorded not necessarily to the physically disadvantaged and others who need help, but also to "able" people who are deserving for such reasons as status, affordability and goodwill.

Even "reserved" is not quite right, strictly speaking, unless it means no one who does not qualify to be included in the stated category should occupy the seat. Perhaps we should first look at Phua Chu Kang mixing up his numbers when he says: "Please give up this seat to those who need it."

Indeed, we have a whole lot more walking to do before we can run. It is critical that we take stock of the progress of the campaign from one year to another.

Until we do so, we will not be able to effectively remedy persistent problems and build on the strengths achieved thus far. The movement is not like a carnival, which may assume a completely different and unrelated character each year.

Every campaign in its history is a milestone that marks a significant stage in a continuous process of learning. To move forward, it is necessary to continue the journey from where we left off. That is why it is time we take stock of our progress thus far.

We need to take a hard look at the root of the problem. I cringe when parents speak poorly to their children. The problem is compounded when day-caregivers, kindergarten teachers and sometimes schoolteachers speak as carelessly.

A Today reader put this problem succinctly in a nutshell: "Singapore has a unique phenomenon in that even when Grandma has only 10 words in her English vocabulary, which she pronounces in her Hokkien accent, she chooses to communicate with her grandchild in what she thinks is the English language. The result is an entire generation of kids speaking badly adulterated English."

Ironically, in the days when parents who were not proficient in English would speak to their children only in the mother tongue, the standard of the language was much higher.

The problem will be a hard one to crack, not something that a disparate annual movement can tackle. But, if left unchecked, it can only get worse. That's how a pidgin tongue (Singlish in our case?) evolves as the camel pushes the Arab out of his tent.

The writer has published two books on Singlish among his collection of published works.

From TODAY, News – Tuesday, 22-Sep-2009

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Wednesday, October 14, 2009

Cause and (halo) effect

Shelves of perfumesImage via Wikipedia

To what extent are our purchasing decisions based on the way products are packaged?

If a person is good-looking, does that mean he or she is also honest, kind and intelligent? Any rational individual will tell you the answer is "no".

Good looks have absolutely no relation to one's honesty or intelligence.

However, in real life, when we meet a good-looking person, research has shown that we will assign traits such as intelligence or honesty to the individual.

Researchers call this the halo effect.

The halo effect, a fairly common phenomenon, essentially refers to the tendency to generalize feelings or evaluations of an object, such as the way it looks and its packaging, and associate these evaluations with other aspects of the brand, such as the perception of its quality.

It is a form of cognitive bias prevalent in many aspects of people's lives. It may affect a teacher's judgment of a student's performance, a boss's evaluation of an employee and, of course, consumers' judgments of brands and products.

The halo effect may affect how we view products and brands in two ways.

Firstly, positive evaluations of a product's attribute may influence a person's judgment of the other attributes of the same product.

For example, liking a perfume bottle may also make one feel that the perfume smells better and is more appealing than other perfumes. Knowing that an apparel is produced in, for instance, Korea, may also make one think the garment is better designed and of higher quality.

Secondly, positive feelings towards or evaluations of an item may also be extended to the broader brand. For instance, one's positive evaluation of a product, for instance, the Sony VAIO laptop, may be extended to other products by the brand, such as its MP3 Player.

This is one of the main reasons why companies prefer to introduce new products under a parent brand. By using the same brand name, marketers hope consumers may transfer the positive associations they have about the parent brand to the new product.

This is especially so for companies with strong brands, as people are more willing to try the new products and services they offer. Taking advantage of the halo effect is also one of the reasons why we frequently see lesser-known brands mimicking the packaging of well-known brands.

Thus, the halo effect may lead us to make unsound judgments or judgments that are too heavily dependent on one or two factors.

So, why do people adopt such heuristics (or mental shortcuts)? For a start, many are generally unaware that they are engaging in such generalisations. They are unconscious of its effect.

Even when people are told that their judgments have been biased by the halo effect, research has shown that they are unable to discount it adequately. However, there is an upside to such heuristics.

Given the multitude of decisions one has to make each day, using heuristics is actually a good way to reduce one's cognitive load. It takes one's mind off the complicated evaluation process and simplifies the entire purchasing decision.

In essence, the halo effect is ubiquitous and to a large extent, unavoidable. The next time you make a decision, perhaps you should take a moment to figure out how much of your decision is affected by the halo effect.

This article is contributed by Associate Professor Sharon Ng. She is an associate professor at the division of marketing and international business, Nanyang Business School, Nanyang Technological University. Her research focuses primarily on two main areas: Cross-cultural differences in consumer behaviour and branding issues.

From TODAY, Business – Tuesday, 15-Sep-2009

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