Sometimes it is just a few helpful words or a smile but it can make the difference between an irate shopper and a loyal customer - and more importantly, between profits and losses. From luxury boutiques to corner fruit markets to seven-star hotels, customer service is a key component of a person's experience in the UAE. And as people become more wary about spending, businesses should be polishing their people skills to edge out the competition, says TB McClelland, the president and chief executive of The Luxury Marketing Council in the Middle East.
"The companies that go on the offensive and get their people trained, and use this opportunity to spruce up stores or hotels, will position themselves better when the economy comes back," he says. Unfortunately, the quality of customer dealings with store and hotel staff, including in the UAE, is getting worse, according to a recent survey by the UK-based training and development consultants Joshua Group.
When rating different aspects of customer service, such as taking complaints seriously, the ratings were roughly at the same mediocre levels as last year - about average - or had dropped, says Ruth Field, the vice president of Joshua Group. "Nobody really wants to see that decline," she says. "Given the marketplace as it is, really, everybody should be working hard." According to the 583 active customers surveyed between December last year and last month, the biggest shortfalls were in the quality of staff behaviour, such as politeness and knowledge, and consistency of service and information between different staff members, she says.
"Customers are quite astute. Dubai is quite expensive for everything, such as eating out. And along with that, Dubai has to provide an increased level of service, not decreased." Part of the problem is that growth has outpaced the available staff resources, says Majid al Ghurair, the chairman of the Dubai Shopping Malls Group and president of BurJuman shopping centre. For example, for a new shopping centre the size of Dubai Mall, with 800 stores and another 400 scheduled to open, it is difficult to recruit enough staff, let alone those who have extensive customer service experience, Mr al Ghurair says.
But for luxury brands, the quality of staff can affect the brand. "We are always in a debate with our retailers that you cannot bring a high-end brand and put a salesperson who doesn't understand the brand itself," he says. "How are you going to convince that client to buy that US$2,000 (Dh7,346) or $3,000 suit if you don't have the knowledge about the product itself?" People need to be trained and given time to understand the business, but that can take a year or two, Mr al Ghurair says. "Because the growth was so high, a lot of companies didn't have enough time to train and catch up with the growth they had. But now they have the time, and I think they have to focus very much on that area because this is what is going to make the difference."
Keith Flanagan, the general manager of Al Ghurair Retail, which manages brands such as Springfield and Triumph, says his company is taking this approach. "I'm spending more money on training than I ever have," he says. On the whole, however, that is not the strategy adopted by many companies in the UAE. "It's a transient workforce and, by and large, companies here don't want to train their people," says Mr McClelland.
It is a misguided philosophy, he says, because studies have shown that exceptional customer service can increase a bottom line significantly. According to research by the US consulting firm Bain and Company, the average company loses between 10 per cent and 15 per cent of its customers each year, with 84 per cent of those citing shoddy service. But training can only help so much to prepare a person when dealing with the diverse nationalities and their varying languages and expectations, says Mr Flanagan.
"There are 70 or 80 different nationalities here," he says. "How could you possibly comprehend what each of those people need?" A further difficulty is that as economies improve in countries where English is commonly spoken, such as India and the Philippines, more people are staying to work at home rather than take jobs in the Gulf, says Mr McClelland. This further shrinks the pool of job candidates who can speak English fluently.
Despite all these factors, some retailers, hotels and restaurants, such as the Ritz-Carlton, deliver a superb experience to their customers and guests, Mr McClelland says. Many have become accustomed to mediocre service, he says, but that presents an opportunity for retailers to step up their game. "If a brand can excel at customer service, that almost shocks people. And in this environment, it's important that when the customer walks through the door, you gain their loyalty and keep it."