by Marilyn Peh on

Depending on who you ask, Singaporeans are either some of the most demanding customers in the world, or the long-suffering victims of bad customer service.

When customers and businesses don’t see eye to eye, does it always have to turn ugly?

Taking it to the pros, The Pride asks seasoned service professionals to sound off on a few of the high-profile customer service blow-ups that went viral on social media this year.

“So you go around knocking people’s doors? F*** off!”

hawker, customer, kindness, skm, pride, singapore
Image Source: Facebook / Fabrications About The PAP

When a door-to-door salesman pays you a visit, what do you do?

Do you (a) invite them in for tea, (b) pretend nobody’s at home, or (c) scold them for knocking on your door?

For one Starhub employee, an exchange with a HDB resident turned oddly confrontational after he explained that he was there to “check on home internet services”. After brushing him off, and despite the Starhub staff accepting the rejection politely, the resident declared: “F*** off, okay.”

When customers get mouthy, Bernie Utchenik, who founded the Botak Jones franchise and now runs Big Bern’s American Grill, thinks it’s best to just walk away from the situation, much like what the Starhub representative did.

Unpredictability is part and parcel of working in frontline service, as Utchenik told The Pride: “In this line, your interaction with people can go anywhere. Some people could be having a bad day, and a small number of people are just angry or contrarian by nature.”

Having thick skin and ending the situation swiftly is key. And if there really is a need to respond, Utchenik favours a softer approach.

He explained: “It could be a matter of explaining to them, look, we want to take care of you, we value you as a customer, so I don’t think we have done anything to deserve that tone and language.

“Respond with a little kindness, and more often than not, you’ll get a similar response.”

In the Starhub employee’s case, a recording of the exchange was uploaded onto Facebook, by, of all people, the foul-mouthed resident.

Nobody knows what he was hoping to achieve by making that post, because he sure didn’t receive any pats on the back for his behaviour. Online commentators made their feelings known by calling him out for verbally abusing someone who was simply trying to do their job.

“Why should I leave when I haven’t finished my drink?”
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Image Source: Facebook / Fawn Chia

Late-night F&B establishments here are governed by strict alcohol licensing regulations mandating that patrons can’t consume alcohol on the premises beyond business hours.

For those of us not in the know, we may feel a little irked when the waiter brings us the bill without prompting, and see it as being chased out before we’ve signalled our intent to call it a night.

That may have been the case for customer Fawn Chia, who was displeased with Stickies Bar for repeatedly reminding her group that they had to leave by midnight. In a review left on the bar’s Facebook page, she complained about not being allowed to finish her drink even though there was still eight minutes to go before midnight.

The saga eventually exploded into a battle of he said she said on social media, after Stickies’ CEO Norman Then came out to defend his staff and point out what he felt was Chia’s unreasonable behaviour.

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Wary of how things can go viral on social media, Utchenik prefers to take the conversation offline to explain the restaurant’s position, and apologise, if necessary.

And while he understood the desire to protect the employees, Utchenik told The Pride: “As an owner, it’s hard to be sure what was said to a customer and how it was said by the staff.”

If customers are enjoying themselves too much to leave, Utchenik’s staff will give subtle signals by cleaning up and moving things away from the customer.

He said: “It makes them realise that all the great people who served them that night are actually cleaning up to go home, and waiting for them to be done so they can get some rest.”

For the stubborn ones, he’s even told them – “I’m going to need to kick your *sses out of here.”

Not the most conventional way to respond, but Utchenik knew he was talking to a group of customers who would appreciate his humour.

He explained: “It’s about understanding your guests and knowing what to say at the right time, so that your point is understood and doesn’t cause offence.”

“Hawker wasn’t kind enough to bring me my food”

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Image Source: Flickr / Charles Haynes

It’s tough eating out at the hawker centre these days. Think long queues, huge crowds and the challenge of finding a table to enjoy your mee pok tah in peace.

All these came to a head for one STOMP contributor named Lim, after a hawker at Chong Pang Market and Food Centre refused to deliver her food, citing his stall’s self-service policy.

Lim complained that the hawker had not been “kind enough” to help and declared that “his attitude sucks” because he responded curtly even after she explained that she was dining alone and needed to guard her seat.

The post ended with an ominous warning to other hungry patrons: “If you want to eat here, do it at your own risk then.”

Placing himself in the hawker’s shoes, retail manager Sadiq told The Pride that he would have agreed to help Lim instead of brushing her off.

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Speaking to The Pride, the 35-year-old said: “I would stop what I’m doing for just a short while and take that extra 10 to 20 steps to help. It won’t take me a lot of time, and the gesture of goodwill could also make the point that I’m having to put in extra effort just to accommodate her demands.”

However, Sadiq, who has a decade of hospitality and customer service experience under his belt, would draw the line if the same customer returns and makes the same request repeatedly, saying that would be “too much”.

He would then turn her down, but politely because he believes not all demanding customers are intrinsically nasty.

“Usually, only a handful of customers would make additional demands, and they don’t always do it on purpose. Singaporeans face a lot of stress, and it could be because they’re just having a bad day.”

“How can you be a taxi driver if you don’t know your way around Singapore?”

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Image Source: Flickr / Kevin Utting

In the case of a taxi passenger named Liang, an ordinary taxi ride took an exasperating turn after his driver lost his bearings. Irked, he filmed a video of their exchange and put it up on Facebook, where he could be heard goading the driver, asking how a “professional” like him could drive a taxi if he didn’t even know the roads well.

While it’s fair for customers to feel let down when there’s a service failure, Sadiq believes we should cut taxi drivers some slack.

He explained: “It’s common that people don’t know their way around, because there are always new roads and buildings being built in Singapore. And GPS is not always reliable.”

Related article: Are we a generation of entitled customers?

Given that the driver truly did not know the way, and the customer was at the same time unwilling to help with directions, Sadiq felt the driver was probably right to drop the customer off so he could find alternative transport.

On the post where he uploaded the video to Facebook, Liang was criticised for how he treated the taxi driver by other netizens, some of whom were his own friends.

Following the backlash, he eventually published an apology and declared that he would give away 100 plates of char kway teow free to taxi drivers at his hawker stall in Bedok.

In Sadiq’s view, customers who are excessively pushy or rude in trying to get their way, could sometimes find that it backfires on them.

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“When people complain about everything, the service staff may see them in a bad light, and that could affect the quality of service they provide.”

And if he were the taxi driver, Sadiq’s priority would be to stay in control of the situation.

“Adjust your tone of voice, even you have done nothing wrong. Keep yourself calm, and the other person will also check their own behaviour when they realise how they look to others.

“It’s best not to fight fire with fire.”