From the December 2010 issue of Research Magazine • Subscribe!

December 1, 2010

Lessons from a Service-Oriented Culture

What your correspondent learned from a trip to Asia has ready application in your firm.

Every once in a while, one is fortunate enough to experience something that if not life-changing, certainly provides new perspectives, generates original thinking and creates refreshing variations on presumed and comfortable old themes. When one further exploits these opportunities, one can extract, mine and quarry those experiences, distill them, learn from them and apply them to our lives, both professional and personal. I have just emerged from such an experience and will share some of the applications that I have distilled from those experiences with you.

Observations

I was recently contracted to provide intensive training and coaching for advanced negotiation techniques to business and government leaders in China and Indonesia. This was my very first trip to Asia and I was determined to go with a very open and curious mind.

Upon arriving at the Cathay Pacific check-in line at LAX, I noticed that things were being done differently to what had become my accepted norm. There was no check-in attendant shouting “next please” to indicate they were ready to process the next passenger. Instead, the attendant stepped out from behind his check-in station to come forward to greet me and escort me to the counter. All this was done with a gentle demeanor and softness of speech. He attended to me with great courtesy and impressive efficiency. Once my check-in was complete, my travel documents were returned to me with both his hands in a deliberate and respectful manner, (a practice that occurred consistently throughout my travels in China and Southeast Asia). I understood this to mean “Your passport represents you and as such I will treat it and you with respect!”

Once seated in the Cathay Pacific waiting area, I noticed another contrast to my usual and all-too-common domestic travel. I suddenly realized that my auditory senses were not being subjected to the constant and unrelenting assault of commands being barked at me over the public address system, whether or not those commands pertained to my flight. Instead, there was a Cathay Pacific attendant quietly walking around the waiting area with a placard informing us that rows 50-70 were now boarding. I could actually have an uninterrupted conversation over my mobile phone. With this low technological boarding procedure, they were able to board a B777-300ER inside of 20 minutes!

Upon arriving in Beijing after a flight of impeccable service, conspicuous by its absence was again no bombardment of airline capos issuing merciless orders over the loudspeakers. Instead, the most beautiful classical music was being piped in across all the airport concourses. At the gate, an attractive young Chinese woman was waiting for me who had just the right connections to rush me through passport control, customs and baggage claim. She was no government agent or high official, but merely a representative of the limousine service contracted by the hotel. She then escorted me into a VIP tunnel under the airport to a waiting black Mercedes Benz SL500, engine running and driver waiting to load my baggage into the trunk. From the time the airplane stopped at the gate until I was safely in the waiting car having cleared passport control, baggage retrieval and customs was 17.5 minutes.

I could continue with example after example, but suffice it to say, for the purposes of this column, that this level of attention to service, courtesy and efficiency continued in a consistent manner throughout my trip to China and Southeast Asia. Attention was continuously given to even the minutest detail, such as refolding my napkin and replacing my setting at my dining place any time I arose to visit the incredible array of delicacies set out on the buffet tables.

Distillation
There appears to be a vast and important difference between Western capitalism today and Eastern capitalism. This difference may also underscore why the East is a more formidable competitor than we would wish to believe. In the West, we have, unfortunately, over the last 20 years or so become accustomed to our dignity and self-respect being invaded and assaulted by (the Western concept of) capitalism. We will tolerate an unimaginable amount of abuse and exploitation in the name of “free market economy.” For example, we allow ourselves to be treated as prisoners by the airlines to whom we are paying prime fees. We calmly accept when they double-dip by adding a surcharge for baggage which has already been more than paid for in our initial airfare. We will drink colored dishwater served to us by hotels — quite willing to accept it as a cup of robust coffee without any protest so that the hotel chain can charge us for it and fluff up their margins without actually providing decent service. They will urge us to agree to not have our towels and linen changed in order to do our part to “make the world a better place” and make them more profitable. Western capitalism has come to mean “profit as much as we can at the expense of the customer or consumer as long as they don’t realize and push back” — to charge as much as possible while providing as little as possible.

Eastern capitalism appears to be on the opposite side of the continuum. Besides providing excellent service and attention for the price paid, they actually go far beyond their call of duty. This is because human respect, dignity and service are an essential part of their culture and national character, and which they have not allowed capitalism to erode. (In China, interestingly, this national spirit and character has thrived even under years of a communist regime). It may well be that the competition between East and West is not only economic, but also cultural as my distinct impression is that these values of human dignity, service and respect are not for sale from the Eastern standpoint. This contrast between East and West was so apparent that it was hard to believe that they are two hemispheres of the same world!

Application

As a beneficiary of this culture, I realized that there are two aspects to good business practice. The first and most obvious is providing our customers and clients with a consistently high quality of goods and services. The second and less obvious is providing our clients with a consistently high quality and positive experience of doing business with us. Although an intangible, it is of significant added value to our clients. It addresses an important and uniquely human need to be treated with respect and dignity as opposed to being perceived as an economic opportunity.

As financial advisors, our clients are putting an enormous amount of trust in us. The client-advisor relationship is a very human one at its core. From the moment that potential clients walk into our office, they should feel that they have crossed the threshold from West to East so to speak. They should feel like royalty as their every personal need is attended to. Search for small details that could differentiate you in making clients feel special and train your staff to do the same. It could be as small as how they are greeted or the attractive folders in which forms and documents are presented. It might be the receptionist going over to offer a menu of reading material to waiting clients or walking them to the elevator upon leaving. There are infinite ways to add that special touch and enhance the client experience of doing business with you, independently of the quality of financial services you provide. I know of one office that serves warm face towels and a glass of juice presented on an elegant silver-plated tray to anyone who walks into the reception area. Not surprisingly, the principal of that firm is from Korea! 

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