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Can All Nationalities Provide Great Service?

Can All Nationalities Provide Great Service?

Nicolai Tillisch addresses a taboo in the region and reflects on how to deal with the underlying misconceptions.


There is no doubt about the answer to the rhetorical question of whether all nationalities can provide great service. However, the scary thing is that many residents of the Gulf get the answer wrong when they are asked to think on their feet.

Yet, there is a reason for the confusion. I stepped into a decent French café in Dubai and kindly asked the Filipino waiter who slowly approached me for a double espresso and something quick to eat. He said: “Sir. We have sandwich.” I was forced to confess that my diet does not allow me to eat bread. The waiter promptly responded: “Sir. We also have cake.” There was neither any sign of irony nor the slightest pride, even though he had just elegantly tweaked a historically famous quote ascribed to Queen Marie Antoinette.

Another situation occurred during my Christmas shopping trip to a high-end mall, where I was on the lookout for a present for my beloved wife. A pair of high-heeled sandals caught my eye, as I could not recall having seen anything like them. To avoid any missteps, I asked the shop assistant what they should be used for. With a similar complete absence of humour, I got the answer: “You put your foot inside,” while he demonstratively inserted his hand into one of the sandals.

However, the way you experience people like this in the region is not how they all really are. The wide occurrence of misunderstood service and reluctant salesmanship means that this is statistically impossible. Most of them have received insufficient training about how to interact with customers or simply leave their brain somewhere else during work hours.

I fully understand that such encounters can frustrate you but you could also use them as invitations to self-reflect. What are you doing to avoid your own customers or clients getting similar treatment? Do you emphasise the need for regular training and provide constructive feedback and appraisal frequently?

Good etiquette in culture can be bad manners in another. For example, here in the Gulf, I have to curb continuously the unemotional directness that I brought with me from ice-cold Scandinavia.

Likewise, many Asian sales people could sell much more to European gentlemen by answering our questions in a straightforward manner and not taxing our patience by asking what appear to be random sequences of close-ended questions. There is a big distinction between: “Sir. Do you like this shirt? What about this one? Doesn’t this one look smart?” and the open-ended question: “Do you know which kind of shirt you are looking for?”

But it is not all about culture. For instance, the shop assistant with the sandal on his hand was also European. People are not motivated when they know that they are hired due to their low price tag, receive limited or half-hearted training, or are managed by superiors whose actions appear very unfair. The combination of all three is not uncommon in the region’s workplaces.

When you stand in front of somebody who is hired to help you but instead gets on your nerves, you could ask yourself what you can do to make people working for you less demotivated. Even if you are not a line manager, you can ask the latter question with regard to your maid at home or other people who help you on a daily basis.

Whether you are an executive or a middle manager, you should ask yourself what you could do to bring a greater purpose into people’s jobs. Do they know what difference they make for others? Do they know what good and less good looks like? Are they stimulated and helped to become better all the time? Are the high performers able to achieve more than others?

This exercise is worthwhile. Extensive research confirms a strong three-way correlation between business performance, customer satisfaction and employee motivation.

Nicolai Tillisch is the author of ‘Effective Business in The Gulf: Mastering Leadership Skills for Greater Success’ and the founder of Dual Impact, a Dubai-based consulting and coaching company. (Twitter: @nicolaitillisch)


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