Lessons from a Singapore Hotel

In early June I traveled to Singapore in Southeast Asia to speak at the 2010 International Conference of Emergency Medicine (ICEM). It wasn’t my first trip to Singapore–but it was certainly my longest. Singapore is a small island nation located at the southern tip of Malaysia. It’s a former British colony and consists of an eclectic blend of Chinese, Malays, Filipinos, Indians and a hodgepodge of western expatriates. The population is heterogeneous and friendly. Singapore is located just over a degree north of the equator, so it’s warm and muggy with frequent rain. But the city is impeccably clean, modern, safe and inviting.

The conference planners booked me at the Mandarin Oriental Singapore. I knew that this was a world-class hotel and looked forward to the stay. Over the years, my wife and I have had the good fortune of visiting some interesting places and staying in some great hotels. But, this hotel was different. My eight-day visit was an impromptu study in customer service, respect and quality. This alone made the trip worthwhile.

The Mandarin Oriental Singapore has 527 luxurious rooms and overlooks the harbor. But, the story here isn’t about the hotel, but about the employees. As my cab arrived at the hotel from the Changi airport, the bellman immediately took my bags to the registration desk while I paid the cab fare. As I was walking to the registration desk, I again ran into the bellman, who said, “Welcome to the Mandarin Oriental, Dr. Bledsoe.”

How did he know my name? When I arrived at the registration desk the clerk said, “Here is your room key, professor Bledsoe, and I’ll show you to your room.” I asked, “How did you know who I was?” He pointed to the American Airlines luggage tag on my suitcase and smiled. He showed me to the room, explained the features of the hotel and addressed me by name at least three times. I tried to tip him as he left and he bowed slightly and said, “That is not necessary. We want you to have a great stay at the Mandarin Oriental.” The room was impeccable. The curtains opened precisely. Fresh fruit was waiting. If this wasn’t Shangri-La, it was pretty damn close.

The next morning I went down for breakfast. As I walked down the hall to the elevators, every member of the staff looked at me, bowed slightly and said, “Good morning.” They asked for my room number at breakfast and then used my name many times. They carefully warned me about steps in the restaurant. A waiter came and immediately took my order. Thereafter, there was a steady stream of staff who poured water and juice, brought cutlery and constantly asked if there was anything I needed. All used the title, “professor Bledsoe,” which I later learned was how the conference registered me at the hotel. By the time I got back to my room, it had already been cleaned and fresh flowers were replaced.

The next day, I took a sojourn to Chinatown and the Muslim district of Singapore. As I walked out of the hotel, the bellman remembered and used my name. He summoned a cab from the queue and told the driver to take me to Chinatown. As the car started to pull away, the bellman whistled, the cab stopped, and he brought me an umbrella to use in Chinatown in case it rained. When I returned from Chinatown, I was welcomed back by name and was asked if I had a good trip.

That evening I ordered a light dinner through room service. The kitchen promptly took the order and assured the food would be delivered within 25 minutes. Approximately 30 minutes later, the phone rang. The female caller from room apologized for the food being late. However, the food actually arrived early, and the server had been waiting at my door for 10 minutes. It seemed I had the privacy sign out and the server wouldn’t knock on the door. I opened the door and apologized about forgetting the sign. The server then apologized to me, using my name and delivered the food–flowers and all.

One evening, I was dining in the main restaurant with an Australian colleague, and one of the light bulbs burned out. It was no big deal–no pop, no flash–it just went out. Soon, the restaurant manager went to each table and apologized for the light burning out. A maintenance crew arrived and the bulb was replaced within five minutes.

Over the course of my stay, I noticed the same elderly man who greeted arriving cars serving as the hotel bellman. He was always smiling and always wore a long, formal red coat with white gloves. He ran the taxi queue with the efficiency of a machine. I was returning from a tour of Singapore General Hospital and was sweating in the 90-degree heat complicated by 100% relative humidity. After I got out of the car, I asked him if he was hot, but he just smiled.

After the car left, he came over to me and said, “We’re on the equator. Of course I’m hot, but I do not complain. I love my job. I love Singapore. I love people.” His smile was a testament to the veracity of his statement. He took off his white glove and shook my hand and said, “The best thing about my job is that I get to meet people from around the world–like you, Dr. Bledsoe.” I smiled and walked upstairs thinking about the different approach to service in Asia. I felt nothing but respect and pride from the people in the service industry in Singapore. I wish I could say the same about the service industry in the U.S.

On the flight back to the U.S., I thought a great deal about customer service at home. Service is rushed and uncaring. Expediency and courtesy are more driven by hopes of a tip or gratuity rather than a genuine concern for the customer. Anytime you ask for something in a restaurant you hear, “No problem.” Why should it be “no problem?” It’s their job! I get so tired of hearing “no problem” or “OK, boss” in the U.S. service industry that it angers me. Then, I thought about health care in the U.S.

While I’m complaining about U.S. restaurants and hotels, the same thing could be said about health care and EMS. Health care, at its most fundamental level, is truly a service industry. Our patients–whether we are doctors or EMTs–are effectively our customers. Typically, I can’t remember the names of the patients I’m treating. I often tell patients that I’ll be right back and don’t return. I often tell a patient I’ll do something and then get distracted and forget to do what I promised. While I consider myself a good doctor, I’m not very good at customer service. EMS is often the same way. You can provide great patient care, but if your customer service is lacking, the best your system can hope for is mediocrity.

I’ve always respected the work of Mike Taigman, Thom Dick and Alan Brunacini as they promoted customer service in EMS and the fire service. But I never tried to apply their teachings to my interactions with people. I always assumed I was courteous and friendly–but was I? I think many of the problems in EMS and emergency medicine would be improved if we adopted the Asian tenets of customer service: respect, courtesy and personalization. Interestingly, my wife exhibits these traits. She always asks a person’s name and uses it often. She’s respectful, courteous and speaks with a soft voice. And, you know what? She gets things done.

I once got into a shouting match with a computer store when trying to return a defective keyboard. I came back to the car pissed off with the defective keyboard still in tow. My wife said, “Sit in the car and cool off, Bryan.” She took the keyboard and went into the store. Within 15 minutes, she came back to the car having successfully returned the keyboard and received a full refund. I guess I really didn’t need to travel to Asia to learn how best to deal with people. But, the trip was well worth it–largely because of the Mandarin Oriental Singapore staff.

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