“From today onward, the word ‘no’ needs to be stripped from your service vocabulary”. In between 1996-97 I did a stint as an international flight attendant with a certain Australian Airline. Upon our first day of training the indoctrination of their service policy began – “Don’t Say No”.
This airline had been operating for many years in Australia as a domestic airline. It had just recently opened its international operations and “Don’t say No” was a part of a larger strategy to win its share in the market. The idea was to provide a fresh customer experience to airline guests that had become weathered from years of mediocre to bad service from ‘the other airline’. The hope was that it would ‘shock’ the socks off of them (in a good way) and keep them coming back for more.
“Don’t Say No” didn’t just mean that we had to give guests everything that they asked for. What it did mean was that if a request couldn’t be fulfilled exactly as requested, then we should look for a solution where the guest would be satisfied – even if it meant swallowing our pride temporarily when we believed we had the high ground in a dispute.
After several years of that airline running its international operations, our airline did become renowned for its service. Sadly after several mergers, it ceased to exist and many of my former peers shifted their employment to ‘the other airline’. Moving to another ‘brand’ of hospitality can almost be a religious experience as new paradigms of belief and behaviour are expected to supplant our old ones. They mentioned that rather than ‘Don’t Say No’, the mantra at this airline was ‘Don’t Set Your Peers Up To Fail’.
While the first airline was new (in regard to its international business), relatively small and had a more family feel to its corporate culture, ‘the other airline’ was a behemoth that had been operating internationally for decades and had been in operation since 1920. The staff numbered in the tens of thousands. With that many people, the chances of customer service being consistently exceptional were unlikely. Better to not set guests’ expectations too high, lest the guest be let down in the future and they turn against the airline. I suppose that as long as a guest is simmering in a service culture of mediocrity, they will expect it, accept it and not complain.
Over the years, I have run communication and service training for many companies across the region including hotels and airlines. Just like the airlines, each hotel would have its own service culture, service standards and expectations of how their staff should deal with the guests. While all say that they would like to provide ‘outstanding customer service’, or a much more vague term ‘world-class customer service’, the reality is that there is an enormous disparity between how different hotels define what ‘outstanding customer service’ is. Where for some hotels, outstanding customer service might mean sweeping the guest off their feet and treating them like royalty, for other hotels a feat of outstanding customer service might be defined as simply not messing up the breakfast order for once for the guests.
One of the core areas of training that I do across Asia is Cross-Cultural training. I have noticed a distinct difference with how many westerners approach such training as opposed to how many Asians approach it and in particular Southeast Asians. I find that the difference in mindset also parallels the difference in service culture mindsets – ‘To Over-impress’ or ‘Don’t Say No’ service culture versus ‘To Under-impress’ or ‘Don’t set the service standard bar too high’ service culture.
Countries across Asia have some very rich cultural traditions and expectations of behaviour depending on who is meeting or talking to whom. If you examine it closely, it isn’t really that difficult to act in the correct or ‘expected’ way that won’t offend your peers, guests or people around you in general in one of these cultures. It really just comes down to understanding what it is that is respected, why it is respected and then building a desire in oneself to want to respect those same things. Within each culture, those things that are respected are actually quite easily defined. If we really want to respect those things and create harmony with the people around us, even though each situation may be different, we can find a way to improvise and find a solution. This is more of an Asian and especially Southeast Asian mindset and I find that it parallels the ‘Don’t Say No’ service attitude.
Many westerners when taking my cultural workshops would tend to ask however, “Can you just give me a list of the things I can do and can’t do?”
I have seen western manager after western manager come and work in Asia with that attitude and it has led to their peril. When you start getting into lists of ‘do’s’ and ‘don’ts’, the discussions then lead towards:
“Well, what if I did ‘x’ then instead of ‘y’ – could I get away with that then?”
All of their energy starts to get focused on how they can get away with how they want to behave almost like a lawyer would try and find some loophole in a law to get his guilty client off.
The key to working well in this part of the world is just to have a mindset of ‘What do I need to do to respect these people as they would expect to be respected?’ The behaviour follows naturally and is not something we are forced to do.
Giving a set of black and white rules of what an agent can and cannot do for a guest is giving them the ammunition that they need to go on a power trip with guests and not only under-impress them, but could also potentially drive them away for good.
Rather, developing an attitude of not wanting to say ‘no’ to a guest will force customer service agents to start looking at situations more positively and constructively and they will develop valuable skills in being able to improvise and find a solution to a situation, even though that solution might sometimes mean taking a momentary blow to the ego. The pay-off is worth it, and as those positive experiences make their way onto Trip Advisor and social media, you can galvanise your edge on the competition.