When Nestor Manuel first came to Singapore five years ago, he was bewildered when a customer asked him for some serviettes.
The 27-year-old waiter recalled: “I had to ask my manager what exactly a serviette was because I had never heard of it before.”
Learning a new name for what’s more commonly known as a tissue where he comes from was just the tip of the iceberg to his culture shock. Describing his first few months working at a restaurant here as “difficult”, Manuel told The Pride: “It was a culture shock, from the way people talked, to the terms used, and the accents.”
Manuel was not new to working on the service frontline as he had waited tables back home in the Philippines. Yet while the principles of good service may be universal, the nuances of Singaporean cultures, languages and etiquette were a whole new ball game for him — an experience that many of the foreign workers living in Singapore and working in our service industry can relate to.
Great service requires great rapport, which requires great communication. This is something that a China-born bus captain based here learnt the hard way back in July this year, when a fare dispute with a passenger took an ugly turn.
The passenger had lost his patience at the bus captain’s inability to speak English, and by an eyewitness’ account on Facebook, insisted the hapless bus captain reply in English while refusing other commuters’ offers to translate.
While it may not be wrong to expect customer-facing staff to be able to speak English, it being the administrative language in Singapore, how possible is it for a person to learn a language practically overnight, much less apply it with a level of working proficiency?
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And even then, just being able to speak a language does not guarantee good service, as Roberto Gagliardi tells The Pride.
The 51-year-old general manager of Attica Nightclub and Le Noir Lounge arrived in Singapore 11 years ago with a wealth of hospitality experience accumulated in the West.
He said: “Here, I discovered a whole new diversity in race, religion and ethnicity that I did not experience in Europe and the States. In the service line, these things affect how you would approach people and interact with them. It makes a huge difference, from the tone of voice to the distance to be kept between people.”
For the passionate and expressive Italian, it meant rethinking how he approached his customers, starting by learning about their culture and backgrounds.
Gagliardi explained: “At the start, people would look at me with their eyes wide open, wondering – who is this guy? Where I come from, going to the restaurant is to socialise and meet people, but I found that they preferred to keep to themselves and didn’t want to be bothered, although that has changed a bit in recent years.”
Aside from customers, both Manuel and Gagliardi also tackled other complications.
Some of Manuel’s team-mates could barely speak English when they first arrived, so it took a few months for them to establish a rapport and carry out good teamwork.
For Gagliardi, staff briefings unveiled a whole new workplace dynamic. He said: “Nobody would vocalise their opinions or ask any questions, which was an incredible difference for me, coming from places where people are less afraid to express themselves.
“It made me wonder if I was speaking too quickly so they couldn’t understand me. Then I found that the people here were just shy and scared to make mistakes. They think, if I talk and say something silly, people will laugh at me.”
Such reticence was a no-no for the industry veteran, who sees passion as the driving force of the service and hospitality industry. With time, he’s fostered a more collaborative culture which empowers crew members to speak up, which he believes has resulted in a lower turnover at the establishments he runs.
What about when the dreaded demanding Singaporean customer rears his or her head?
Akemi Iizumi, a guest relations manager at 1-Altitude bar, was shocked by the straightforwardness of Singaporeans when she first came here 10 years ago. Now, she has come to see this as a positive thing as compared to customers in her native Japan, who are more reserved by nature.
Iizumi, who is in her 30s, told The Pride: “I have more difficulty with Japanese customers as they would make complaints only after they have left. Here, people are more straightforward. They give comments on the spot, which makes it easier for us to address the situation promptly and turn a negative experience into a positive one.”
Similarly, UK-born Rob Collins, who has six years of F&B experience in Singapore, felt that Singaporeans have high expectations when it comes to good service. While he believes these expectations come with the territory of working in the service line, the director of Dorothy’s Bar observed: “As a whole, customers here are wonderful, but they can be a little fiercer to staff, compared to what I’m used to in the UK.”
While outrageous demands and unreasonable requests are part and parcel of the job for any service staff, Gagliardi sees ripples of dislike towards foreigners among some Singaporeans as possibly adding another layer of difficulty to the work that foreign service staff do here.
Using the China-born bus captain as an example, he observed: “For someone who can’t speak English, they can become a target for people to take advantage of them or unload all their frustrations on them, and it eventually ends with — go back to your country.”
There is some irony when some of these foreign workers are here to fill a gap, taking on jobs that Singaporeans are not keen on, as Gagliardi said: “It’s not their fault. Their only fault is in trying to make a living, trying the best that they can. Some people don’t understand this, unfortunately.”
If faced with a difficult request, Manuel and his team-mates are taught to alert a manager and let him or her handle the situation.
Despite his early struggles, he counts himself fortunate for having never been scolded by a customer. In fact, he’s struck up some friendships of his own with regular customers, like the couple who values how he knows their dining preferences like the back of his hand, and the pilot who enjoys joking around with the staff each time he visits.
For former S-League footballer and now restaurant owner Esad Sejdic, 48, it’s all about knowing how to talk nicely and patiently to customers.
Speaking to The Pride, Serbia-born Sejdic said: “If your restaurant is busy, the chef is busy and the customers are impatient, then explain to them, give them a drink. We are making our money off them, they want to feel good, they want to have some attention. It is the same everywhere, and wherever my guests are from, I make them feel comfortable.”
After all, Singaporean or foreigner, that’s what great service is really about — making people happy.
And it’s a brand of happiness that goes both ways, from the server who finds joy in catering to customers’ needs, to the customer who appreciates the effort that he puts in.