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Service with too few smiles

Poor consumer service is a persistent source of complaint throughout the country, according to a National on Saturday survey.

Customers with complaints about service are rarely able to get their problems successfully resolved, according to a survey carried out for The National. More than two-thirds of people in the Emirates have had a serious customer-service issue in the last six months, and nearly a third of those who complained were unable to resolve their problem, the poll found.

The wide-ranging survey, conducted across the UAE on August 29 by the international research organisation YouGov, also found that 44 per cent of those who did receive a satisfactory resolution said the process took considerable effort and time. Private businesses, such as retailers, generally fared better at offering good customer service than public-sector organisations and bodies, the poll indicated. Eight hundred people, aged from under 21 to over 40, were asked about their experiences of customer service in the UAE, ranging from police to banks to restaurants. Overall, the UAE was rated as having "much better" customer service than other GCC countries and the Levant, but the standard in the Emirates was worse than that in Europe and North America.

When asked which emirate offered the best service in the country, 78 per cent of respondents cited Dubai. Only 19 per cent named Abu Dhabi. Sharjah, Ras al Khaimah and Fujairah were each one per cent. Benjamin Brodrick, a client relationship manager at the Dubai-based customer service consultancy firm Ethos Consultancy, said the quality of consumer assistance in the Emirates had vastly improved since the economic downturn set in but still had a way to go. "I think that previously the UAE relied on money in the region," he said. "It was a place of order-takers. So, for example, if you were going to buy a car from Ford or Porsche, there were people lining up to buy cars because people had money. You didn't even have to give them a test drive or tell them about the car. You basically said, 'Get in line, give me your money and I'll give you the keys.'"

Hotels in the Emirates came out on top, with 92 per cent of respondents rating their service as very good or good. Airlines (85 per cent) and restaurants (83 per cent) were not far behind. Real estate agencies received the lowest customer-service rating, with 56 per cent describing them as poor or very poor. Taxis (47 per cent) were only slightly better. Insurance companies (41 per cent) and municipality counters (39 per cent) also received low ratings.

However, Fahed Bizzari of Sharjah, the chief executive of the web consultancy Online Associates, said the Roads and Transport Authority had been extremely helpful. "With everything in the country, improvements are taking place and we're starting to see the results," he said. Siobhan Mullins, 26, a UK expatriate, believes taxis provide the worst service of any business in the country. "I have lived in Abu Dhabi for just over one year and still have difficulty getting a cab," she said.

Not treating customers well can have a big impact. Eighty-three per cent of respondents said they considered service "extremely important". In addition, the average organisation loses 10-15 per cent of its customers each year, with 84 per cent of those vanishing customers citing poor service, according to research by the US consultancy Bain and Company. "These complaints are more valuable than compliments from customers," said Mr Brodrick. "If someone is coming into any sort of company and they have a complaint, it's an issue that is costing you money. "Whether it's a rental car company or telecommunications, these complaints are gold. This issue is probably affecting this person and hundreds of others." The biggest headaches cited by consumers are long waits before being served, unknowledgeable staff, and poor complaint-handling systems. While 70 per cent of respondents said they had a serious issue or specific incident with the quality of customer service in the last six months, just 40 per cent filed a formal complaint, the survey showed. They had little success. Sixty-six per cent said their complaint was handled poorly or very poorly. In the end, 28 per cent said their complaints were never resolved. Topping the complaints list at 52 per cent were problems with bank accounts or credit cards. Internet (42 per cent) service was second. Twenty-six per cent of the respondents said they were unhappy with their mobile phone service. Hospitals were cited by 21 per cent. Robert Ziegler, the vice president of the management consultancy AT Kearney in Dubai, said one factor was the enormous economic growth in the UAE over the last few years: "Customer service fell on the back burner. More companies need to start focusing on this more." Mr Brodrick said his clients, which range from the RTA to Abu Dhabi Police, had been increasing customer-service training. There have been government initiatives as well. Dubai launched the Dubai Service Excellence scheme in 2002 to raise customer service standards and recognise organisations that excel at it. Businesses sign up voluntarily and agree to adhere to a code of ethics that includes training and developing employees to ensure they are knowledgeable about the products and services on offer. The code also calls for clear policies on refunds, replacements, or repairing damaged goods. Undercover shoppers are also sent in to rate the stores. In Abu Dhabi, the Government is launching a series of workshops this month to boost the level of customer service in hotels and tourist attractions. If complaints are not resolved with the retailers directly, consumers can take their complaints to the consumer protection department at the Ministry of Economy, either online or by phone. Specialised arbitration courts are planned by the end of the year, adjudicated by specialists in consumer protection law. aligaya@thenational.ae * The National, with additional reporting by Anealla Safdar

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