When I was a kid living in Malaysia and growing up in a small town called Ipoh, there weren’t many franchised outlets or fast-food joints. In fact, there were only two; A&W and Kentucky Fried Chicken (now known as KFC). Back then in the 80s, practically every teenager would have had a date at the A&W outlet because of its strategic proximity to the only cinemas in town.
It was a time where shops were run by families, where the business was passed down from one generation to the next. The “uncles” and the “aunties” (Malaysians don’t require similar DNA to bestow upon you these “honorifics”, as long as you are older, uncle or aunty you are) who ran sundry stores and kopitiams (coffee shops) often knew whose spawn you were and would probably know your grandparents too. You could be miles away from home but somehow news of how you sat whiling away your time having yum cha (Chinese tea) and getting all giggly and smiley with a boy from a neighbouring school would get to your parents long before you got home.
Nothing can beat the super-efficient network of small town connectivity. Back then, we didn’t need wifi or mobile devices to stay “connected” with each other. Yet we were very much connected.
I don’t even remember the term “customer service” being used. I doubt my dad ever came home after getting groceries from Chai Seng (a sundry shop) and told my mom that “service was bad” and that he would have to call their “customer care-line” to complain.
I remember that if he needed to sort banking issues out, he would drive to the bank and speak to the manager of the branch. I don’t ever recall seeing him punch a series of digits on the phone because “his call is important to the bank” and that a “customer service representative” will answer his call shortly to “serve him better”.
We didn’t have all the labels and systems for “customer service” yet somehow our needs were being met and our problems attended to by people who were courteous, knew their job and had common sense.
We ate in restaurants where no one greeted us in a fake chorus of welcometoxyzzzzzz! The wait-staff were not dressed in brightly coloured uniforms and didn’t speak to us like they had a lobotomy and were then programmed by Japanese scientists to speak in the same annoying way using phrases that they have memorized.
No, we ate in restaurants where people greeted each other like adults, asked and answered questions genuinely and served us food that was cooked from the heart. We didn’t have redemption coupons, back then it was something on the house for regular customers whenever it fancied the owner.
There were no loyalty programs either because strangely, the owners would be the ones telling us about a new restaurant that opened up in another suburb or that we really should “check it out” because the new place was serving some “awesome braised duck” or something equally tasty.
Ironically, back then, when we didn’t even know the term “customer service” we were doing more than alright. We were connected to each other, we were caring, we responded intuitively with empathy and the needs of our customers always came first.
Back then, we lived, worked and played from the heart.
Today, we seem to need a manual, a script and a specific job designation to “serve our customers better” and judging from the number of complaints you see on social media as well as requests from companies for customer training workshops, proving we haven’t quite grasped what it means to serve.
Where did we go wrong?