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SALAAM: Attitude lessons for T&T: seeing tomorrow’s salvation in today’s customer service

Once in a store in Canada, I saw a sign that read, “Customer service is not a department…it’s an attitude.”

In Trinidad and Tobago, we have a serious problem as it relates to the attitudes of people who have to deal with customers and clients. For years, people have complained about the type of service they receive, especially when they visit retail outlets. And they are usually even more vexed by the total lack of professionalism displayed when they go to public establishments to conduct business.

Photo: Here's your tip...
Photo: Here’s your tip…

What is interesting is that nowadays—both in Trinidad, where the gas and oil are running out, and in Tobago, where Sandals is said to be preparing to put down some roots—there is a much greater awareness of the need for proper customer service. If oil and gas fail us, the pundits are saying, our best bet in the short term is tourism.

But what are we actively doing about it? As far as I can see, nothing.

Employee orientation in most retail and franchise establishments—whether it is your little one-branch neighbourhood grocery or some multiple-branch big-name supermarket that you can find in the capital city—has a customer service component.

Those responsible all know that this is an important pre-requisite for maintaining the company’s standards and protecting the image and the brand. They know that good customer service requires serving persons to be assertive without being aggressive, communicative without being a chatterer and smart without being smarmy. And there’s essential stuff about appearance and positive language and conflict avoidance that is always, always included as well.

However, it often seems that those lessons remain right in the training room because the reality is that, except for KFC and the banks in particular, it seldom becomes second nature to the front-line employees who have to deal with the public.

Photo: A satirical take on customer service. (Copyright Glasbergen.com)
Photo: A satirical take on customer service.
(Copyright Glasbergen.com)

Hospitality 101 teaches that persons whose job it is to interact with the public—whether to provide a service or to sell a product—should seek to ensure that what they deliver exceeds the customer’s expectations. However, what we often get in T&T is hostility, discourtesy and less-than-customer-friendly service.

There is hardly any but the most curt greeting, smiles are either absent or forced and attitudes are often surly, saying clearly, “I wish I was home in my house right now.”

Are things any better at public entities? Can you truthfully say that you leave the passport office or Licensing Office with a bigger smile on your face than when you go into the gas station, take a maxi or stop on the corner to buy a doubles?

Is there a real difference? And if yes, where is the service likely to be better—in the small operator business or in the Public Service establishment?

Where are you guaranteed to find approachable, respectful, reliable employees who are responsive to your queries? Are you less frustrated when you interact with the ‘To Protect and Serve’ police people or when you interact with people for whose services you have to pay?

And why are customers who are paying for services sometimes subjected to experiences that are memorable for all the wrong reasons?

Photo: Can you follow me, please...
Photo: Can you follow me, please…

Building a loyal customer base is essential for keeping any business running. If we as a country are going to have to depend on tourism, we are going to have to try to make the kind of favourable impression on customers that lasts and lasts and lasts.  It starts, I suggest, with providing exceptional service.

And, more importantly, it has to start now. And at home.

We as ordinary citizens have to change our attitudes towards people on the whole and so force our customer service people to change their attitudes to clients, both foreign and local.

Maybe the Magdalena Grande and TSTT can count on continuing patronage from a handful of people who minister only to their own selfish needs. People who are not spending their own money and who, therefore, couldn’t care less about how they spend it. Either because “it remains in the system” or because they didn’t trouble to find out the cost.

But there are only 20-something ministers and maybe a few more ex-ministers with that same attitude. And besides, the problem is not what money is in the system now, it’s what money will be in the system tomorrow when the ever-decreasing oil and gas inflows finally trickle to a halt.

Maybe then we shall all see that the problem is—or may be—what acceptable attitudes there are in the system.

Photo: A satirical take on customer service. (Copyright Glasbergen.com)
Photo: A satirical take on customer service.
(Copyright Glasbergen.com)

Because the ones we know are there now stink to high heaven.

And it’s not just in the economic system but, much more importantly, in the political one as well.

About Salaah Inniss

Salaah Inniss
Salaah Inniss is an ardent writer with an enthusiasm for bringing insightful views on national issues. He graduated from Cipriani College in Environmental Management, and is presently working in the Integrated Facilities Building Service Industry. He is an empathetic supporter of conservation and the protection of the environment.

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66 comments

  1. I’ll be the good news person again. Tru Valu and recently Massy Stores are making tremendous efforts at customer service and we can hope that other companies take a page from their book. Maybe the realisation is setting in that it might make a difference in how and where we spend our money.

  2. I have been following these stories for since it started. So far while I will knock our government for not having a proper policy and plan. Still the country is not ready. There is no national pride. Therefore we don’t understand country first.
    Here is a question, how many of you say good morning to your garbage collector and at Christmas leave a gift of them.
    How many of you’ll take your head out of your phone and pay attention to the person in front of you? Just asking

  3. I ahve realized thata you need to ask questions before lining up i establishments , since no one informs you until you reach the counter. Ilined up for over 30 min last week to pay FLOW bill, then was told “I’,m only accepting cash or cheque, the machine not working” in a very aggressive manner. Customer service

  4. Lined up for Two hours and told there was no forex

  5. I have had bad experiences before and although I got angry I learned first hand from people working on the frontline what goes on behind the scenes . The stories ranging from having to wash the owners clothes to businessmen deliberately squeezing their private parts . It happens all over but the incidences are higher with businesses owned by Asians . I know the majority won’t say anything for fear of losing the only income they have but spear a thought for them . It’s Rough .

    • This is not restricted to any one culture. I’ve lived and worked all over the world and seen bad service and unhappy workers across all . on the contrary seen happy workers and good service across all.

    • True . In this small country its a disease . And funny enough they think that by treating the customers badly it affects the businesspeople .

    • We have always had bad service in TT! There was even a time recently when a politically connected man and his wife was going to all the state agencies to consult at very high fees to teach people to smile. And the heads of these agencies were being encouraged to use the services. This has nothing to do with Asians, Africans, Indians, Syrians. It has to do with a cultural disposition which sees service as servitude.

  6. The bad customer service begin given is a reflection of today’s society. From very young i was thought that charity begins at home and ends abroad.
    Then on the other hand there is trickle down effect as consumers do not respect customer service Representatives they come into contact with so now there is no neutral respect coming from either the CSR or the consumer.

  7. Customers Relation Courses are needed across the board in T+T.

  8. The worse of the lot are those women in Mayaro gas station…..i

  9. That’s like I went into maraj jewellers in West Mall. Stood there 10 mins. The two ladies in there saw me come in.
    I had my money but quite possibly I didn’t look like I could have afforded what I was hoping to buy. So I was left to myself… standing… at the counter…. waiting….yeah I got no service and I got the HELL out of there.

  10. There has to be a desire to provide good customer service. No amount of orders and commands from the top backed up by training will do it. If people have pride in what they do and are happy doing it, it reflects in the service they provide. The research shows this! The idea of developing a “happy company” came out of such research. Happy employees serve customers best. Herb Kelleher understood this when he started Southwest Airlines and they quickly became the known for the highest service standards. Herb once said “The essential difference in service is not machines or ‘things.’ The essential difference is minds, hearts, spirits, and souls.” In TT we do spend a lot on training. I know several consultancies who churn the same stuff out – organization after organization then repeat the next year. We do not get the results! We have always tried to mandate it from the top because we see leadership as power not as responsibility. So people do as they are told not what they know may be right, by and for the customer. Richard Branson says, “employees are number one”. As such he selects people who take pride in what they do, who they are and treat them well – creating a happy environment for them to perform. They in return treat their customers well. This is no magic! It’s leadership and humanity 101.

  11. Customer service relates to the provision of service to customers before, during and after service. This is sadly lacking in T&T. The type of customer service depends on the particular organization, whether it is in the public or private sector. In the public sector, there is minimal “good public service” since no one is held accountable in most cases. There is some level of improvement in the private sector because jobs could be at stake.
    Poor customer service emanate from the top, because employers are not committed to allocating funds to ensure best practices in customer service.If employees are not paid adequately and given incentives then obviously this will be transmitted to the customer in the form of poor customer service. There should be intensive and ongoing training programmes to maintain a high level of customer service. Employers and employees should be mindful of the fact that the CSR represents the face of the organization. Employers need to ensure that there is a system to provide feedback on experiences of CSR and customer interactions, since the income and revenue of the organization depends heavily on this interaction in any service industry.

  12. This country will never move forward unless the citizens change their attitude. We need to take a page from the Jamaicans. Top of the line service everywhere you go. We not ready yet!

  13. My point was management sets the tone of an organisation, they can’t force you to be friendly but they can force you to be customer oriented in your dealings with the customer.

  14. Good and much needed article. However, Customer Service in KFC is non existence, except for maybe the Airport branch, they do not give proper service. Customer service is limited to just the way the staff response to you but also how the organisation value their customers. KFC is the seller of chicken, yet when you go to buy they don’t have CHICKEN or they want to sell combos of chicken that they wouldn’t normally sell you otherwise and without an explanation, just to name one.

    We can’t even use the excuse that it’s minimum wage workers who behave that way because , some banks, Government offices and one company which i visited this week, their front line workers doing their hair and putting on make up. All of these not minimum wage workers.

    Pennywise PoS, poor service but Trinicity, Tunapuna and Arima give such wonderful service and try to help as much as possible when needed. Pos branch I think it’s deliberate, i refuse to believe this is normal human behavior, they are the most disrespectful and rude in short – bad attitude! Anyway continue to provoke these thoughts, good article Salaah.

  15. Why do we always blame everyone for our shortcomings. Trinis are friendly to everyone except their own, You go to pay a bill, purchase something, and sad to say women are more guilty than men when it comes to service (my experience), If you are Ms Piggy, no one can help you but yourself, Customer Service stinks in T&T , because in T&T we on a downward spiral, Say good morning in a maxi, how many answer you.? Today young people are angry and some old ones are the same, This HAS TO DO WITH YOU THE INDIVIDUAL ,how you see yourself and how you see others. How many of us interact with management? The CSR is the first person you meet in any business/org etc. Manners , etiquette and protocol are not taught by parents and schools so how do we expect people to care? .Its an individual decision to be nice to others. for many its is a JOB, I don’t have to be nice nor informed.

  16. I disagree with you about customer service being an art……I believe that the average Trini is friendlier than the average American but in the US customer service performance is high and if it is not, typically when you complain something gets done about it. Whereas in Trinidad customer service is poor from management all the way to the persons dealing with the public.

    Its a management and training issue.

  17. Employers don’t care, if employees don’t abide , they simply fire you and hire someone else. Do employers invest in customer service training? Another aspect is not everyone service oriented. I keep saying customer service is a skill, an art. Being nice to people takes love and patience.But in the end if you have pride in your job a welcoming smile and a soft word does so much. I went to pay a Bill in FLOW POS yesterday and the CSR (cashier, a young lady) was a literal pig.I asked a question and she was rough and aggressive. I just smile. This is a norm in T&T . People have to want to change or to be nice. No money or employers can change that. JUST don’t ‘put them in the front of your business, ti tells us much about the organization

  18. A memorable customer service experience in T&T is a rare commodity unlike other countries where it’s easily available on the shelves…But the experience must begin at the top and everyday I continue to hear horror stories from employees about the dogmatic treatment meted out to them from their employers??? Remember every individual is a customer and all establishments whether it be restaurants or otherwise must take heed.

  19. Anytime anyone mentions tourism in Trinidad, know that they are brain dead mimics.

    I could write a thesis as to why that idea is a lived proven farce. Consistently
    From 1956 to now
    I can use pictographs, comparisons, and measurement data of other places to outline this theory. Of what tourism looks like. And what it doesn’t. From global resources and references.

  20. That’s Trinidad customer service. You get what you pay for These people pay their servers mimimun wage they lack professional training and work extra long hours and are not treated with dignity

  21. Its a management issue, i have gone to establishments gotten bad service, complained to the supervisor / manager who then attempts to explain why the behaviour occurred.

    The least we accept is the most we can expect!

  22. Trinidad has no interest in quality and profressional customer service. The service culture has nothing to do with pleasing the consumer. Society accepts the rude , wait in long lines, lack of follow up as they do not know the power of the consumer or the rights of a consumer. The other islands know the power of the consumer which brings millions in revenue thru tourism but somehow Trinidad continues to lag behind.

    • True Michelle. These other islands know what customer service is. They depend on it but until we get over our total dependency on government, we as a people will never prosper.

  23. Customer service is non existent in Trinidad and Tobago.
    It seems like we are doing the service personnel a favor by patronising their business.

  24. I also recently had an excellent experience at WASA’s Customer Service Dept. We have good people everywhere but, alas, they are outnumbered.

  25. I would like to add a spin to the discussion. When we walk into the so call government offices/ business do we do so with a happy face or an angry one. Do smile say good morning and how are you? Why I ask this is every time I do that the reaction is interesting.
    After that my service continues to get better

  26. Excellent commentary, but do employers have customer service training?. I will answer no, not with the CSR we deal with daily. they are hired and just put to work. This is the result of the resource curse oil. When you travel to the Caribbean particularly the smaller islands you get excellent customer service , you know why ‘Tourism is their main revenue generator, In T&T we have oil, and sad to say’pigs’ at front desk and it is throughout, If I recall I never see a vex doubles vendor (ha ha) kudos to them

    • Botj Massy Stores and Tru Valu have been working with their staff. I have seen dramatic improvement at Tru Valu and some improvement at Massy. Work in progress.

    • It’s not the result of the resource curse. It’s simply that we have not paid attention to these details before. There are countries with similar resource based industries where service is too notch. As a people we never paid attention to process or systems and we use oil and gas as an excuse. There have been at least five examples in the last two months where we messed up on services and processes. Even if tourism is not our main industry we can provide good service and have good processes in place

    • I am not sure I agree with you fully many firms including the government spent money on CSR training. The question to ask are employees taking it seriously, since to many it has no direct monetary value. So why do it. Since our firm/company/ ministry is the only one that does it so you have to come back.

    • A one day training is no training. why is it the people with the worst customer training are the first person you meet?.Is it because people look down on CSR as you said no monetary value. In fact I say customer service is one of the hardest jobs in the world. either you have it or you don’t?. its something natural, but if you are interested you can learn. CSR is not only about smiling, but speaking properly, and most importantly be knowledgeable about your work place. In T&T is 0 . A civilian walking into a business place or service industry and the first person you meet tells you about that organization.

  27. On the phone right now with NIS and getting attitude because the CSR ( I presume that is what she is) said her introduction spiel in a “just wake up” voice and I didn’t get her name so I told her I didn’t quite get her name (very nicely) and when she said her name alone I wasn’t sure I got it so I tried to repeat to ensure what I heard is what her name was…and the distinctive attitude voice came on, and I haven’t even made a request yet. *sigh*

    • I think NIB on a different level, just because of the nature of the work.
      While I admit I had a very helpful CSR at my visit to the Tunapuna branch (sorry can’t remember her name but she said she was new there, and this was a couple months ago), I think the system also needs to be more efficient.
      In my view, they could have separate folders with all documents related to-retirement benefit (residing locally or foreign), maternity, etc.
      Or train a CSR to provide information only, clarify information for persons etc.
      Maybe even vet the forms before proceeding to CSR, saves time for CSR, and public.
      I have less ROI with NIB than the banks so they could at least provide some service.
      I just love wasting-sorry, waiting hours to see a CSR, only to be told info incomplete/ have to provide this info, etc.

  28. Well when we ranking is 136/138 on “Degree of customer orientation,” yuh think is juss so we get there? That requires real effort. (Source: Global Competitiveness Report 2016-2017)

  29. I have been saying this a long time. It’s not a government problem it’s the whole country. Granted the government policy for tourism kinda sucks. It’s our current culture and attitude in the private and public sector to customer service. That is the killer of tourism. While I have see an improvement in a lot of public sector areas. The private sector is horrible