AS is my habit, I stopped at the neighborhood Alfamart on my way to work this morning. As I entered the store, after first dodging the security guard whose graceless attempt to hold the door open for me just resulted in his getting in my way, I was greeted with shouts of “Welcome to Alfamart, sir!”
“Shouts,” because the music in the store was playing at ear-splitting volume. And not just any music, but a song that’s a favorite of young and old alike, “Dumb ways to die.”
Most customers, already hardened by growing up in a society that avoids silence at all costs, probably don’t notice the too-loud music in the store, but for one who understands that it is supposed to serve a specific purpose, the noise is more than a little off-putting.
Decades ago, the Muzak Company (later Muzak Holdings LLC, and since 2011, a subsidiary of the entertainment industry holding company Mood Media) developed an extensive library of what is commonly referred to as “elevator music,” “canned music,” or the eponymous “muzak” for a variety of applications—playing over a store’s sound system, in the elevator, or when a phone is put on hold. The composition of the music and the format of the programs for various uses were the result of careful study, and designed to enhance whatever customer or visitor experience was involved.
For example, the music played in a grocery store was designed to pace a shopper’s movement through the store, and would subtly shift throughout the day—slower in times the store was not busy, to encourage shoppers to take a little more time (and thus likely buy more), faster during busy periods in order to make customers move more quickly.
It is an axiom of business management, and a significant point in Dr. Paddy Miller’s book “Innovation as Usual,” that any activity in the business must have a purpose. It follows, then, that customer-related activities must have a customer service-related purpose.
This is a lesson most Filipino businesses have yet to learn. From music that is the personal entertainment for the underpaid twenty-somethings manning the counter, to making “do you have a smaller bill, sir?” a standard question in any cash transaction, to the bored security guard inadvertently blocking the entrance, to call center agents answering any query with a scripted “we’re sorry for the inconvenience” response, substantial customer service takes a backseat to basic operations in most businesses.
There are two basic reasons why that is so. Part of it is cultural; Filipinos are naturally deferential, and tend to be more tolerant of what in the western world would be considered service so poor it’s insulting. Part of it is a lack of a competitive environment. For example, Alfamart, which is an SM brand, has developed according to a saturation model, seeking to overwhelm any competition by sheer strength in numbers. Alfamart doesn’t need to work very hard to add customer service value to the goods it sells, because there are few, if any, alternatives for its customers.
The natural conclusion that can be drawn from all this is that if a business appears in the Philippines and presents a superior customer service experience, it would have an overwhelming competitive advantage, but that does not seem to be the case in practice.
Most businesses, even foreign brands, tend to adjust to the local lowest common denominator. Call centers are not staffed with people who have a service mindset, but who can simply speak passable English and follow basic instructions; jobs in retail outlets are not filled by people who understand (or can be taught) the service-sales connection or the basic features of the product, but who occupy a volume of three-dimensional space and are capable of acknowledging a customer’s presence.
Because the local market is so tolerant, there is no real need for any business to pursue higher customer service standards. That presents a problem for policymakers, because it turns out the solution to limited options, poor quality, and high prices for consumers in the Philippines is not to “attract more foreign investment” or attract or create new businesses, but rather to attract or create new and better customers. Any business and its workers are only as good as what their market demands of them; to improve business, a more demanding market must be created. The Philippines needs to find more customers who will say “stop the music;” with greater opportunities in export markets this year, that may begin to happen.