By Digoy Fernandez THE news that a leading international bank -- OK, its Citi -- will knock off more than 50,000 jobs did not excite the markets, but it raises the specter of diminishing service in a service-oriented industry. I remember all too vividly arguing with a very rude Citi rep a few years ago -- probably one from their call center -- and recounting this to one of my classmates who was a former high ranking executive of the bank. He agreed that the service of the bank had gone down tremendously. The net effect of all this is that, after I mentioned the incident to my family and friends, they all resolved to bring their banking business elsewhere. We talk about outsourcing here in the country as if it will be a panacea for all our economic woes. True, employment in this sector is expected to be more stable than most as international companies shed staff and outsource certain functions to firms like those found in this country. But outsourcing can only go so far. The news today about additional woes in Quantas -- an airline that had once been proud of its service history -- as yet another plane suffered from a failure in one of its systems. The sudden increase in incidents in this airline are said to be traceable to its having outsourced the maintenance function. This is not a wrong move, per se, but an airline certainly cannot take chances that something will go terribly wrong with one of its airplanes as it coasts at 30,000 feet above sea level. The TV program Air Crash Investigation has highlighted the danger to a plane if one little part gives way, or if a plane passes cursory inspection only to fall from the sky because of something the mechanic forgot to do. One airline that they featured had taken shortcuts in their maintenance schedule by maximizing the length of time between mandatory service schedules, and an air crash was the result. That is why I look apprehensively at any airline that publishes many flights on any given day, and, after considering the number of aircraft that they have available for flight, come to the conclusion that someone is short-circuiting maintenance schedules. Last week, a funny thing happened to me when I sat down to eat in one restaurant (initials GG) in an upscale mall in Alabang. I sat for fully 10 to 15 minutes and saw many waiters pass by and practically ignored me. And this was at 2 PM after the usual noon rush hour! I stood up and crossed over to another restaurant that had long been a favorite of my son (initials NP). The service staff in NP also studiously ignored me as I sat there waiting for anyone to acknowledge my presence. After another 15 minutes of waiting, I decided to test restaurant GG to see if the first incident was a fluke. I waited at the entrance to be shown in, and even sat down on one of the chairs provided there for that purpose. Alas, the staff had mastered the art of avoiding eye contact as they kept on bantering and moving around and ignoring me. Again??? I stood up once again and decided to also give NP another try. To make a long story short, one of the staff promptly noticed me, showed me to a seat, put one of their paper table runners that also serves as a menu, and then left me to my devices for the next quarter hour. Hay Naku!! Convinced that the food gods were conspiring against me, I went to another section of the mall and decided that I wanted some food with couscous, and settled on the Café Mediterranean (I mention their name because their service was excellent, as usual). Not only were the staff hovering over me, they practically were anticipating my every need. That is why it remains a favorite of mine and my son to this day. What could be the main cause behind the lack of attention by service staff? Well, maybe they were dog tired after the noon rush hour. Or, possibly, relying on a depleted number of staff -- compared to full strength -- as some may have been taking their break. But I believe that, in the case of GG at least, the restaurant really sucks when it comes to service. They really take long to serve and have no sense of professionalism or pride in their work, which means that it will be a cold day in hell before I dare eat there again, even if my family begs me to bring them there!
November 2008 Archives
By Digoy Fernandez IN the typical Western corporate setting, the initial reflex action in severe downturns like what we are beginning to go through is to lay off staff, close down plants, and cut both expenses and benefits in an effort to pare down costs. Of course, if one multiplies this action thousands of times over as companies across the international spectrum tighten their collective belts, the more pernicious effects of a severe recession become like a self-fulfilling prophecy. The more people lain off and plants closed result in lower spending power all over the world’s markets, making the downward spiral not only inevitable but also longer lasting. There was a trigger, to be sure, and this was the debacle in the sub-prime housing loans and the discovery of crappy credit swap default loans in the portfolio of many an otherwise respectable financial institution. But the period of fault finding is over. Now is the time to think positive to get ourselves going, even if the economy is headed the opposite direction. With the loss of jobs coming along like a tidal wave, it boggles one to attempt to visualize the effect this will have on consumer spending, the subsequent decline in production, the ejection of families from their homes, and a general sense of malaise. What is one to do then, when faced with an unpalatable situation such as this one? In our country where the family system remains alive, it is easy to think of a dispossessed family moving back into the parents’ household, or being given the use of an underutilized asset. Not so in many Western countries where homeless or church shelters often provide the only possible fallback for a family that hits bottom. At the very least, in the more socialized economies, there will always be welfare to lean on…but even this is not a bottomless fund and many governments may prove reluctant to support an army of dispossessed people who will not be able to find work. At the risk of going against the grain -- something I have always had the habit of doing all my life -- I would suggest that companies try to hold on to their people for as long as possible. In this case, I am sure -- or at least, hope -- that the shareholders will understand that the people who make up the organization are important stakeholders, people who spill blood and guts each day for the companies they work for. Will it hurt for companies to go into emergency mode and try to figure out a course of action for survival of the company and its most important assets, its people? Maybe, as another form of corporate CSR, companies can extend some form of microfinance assistance to help fund projects that their employees could undertake in order to maintain some semblance of self-respect as they earn a bit more in the process. Why not do CSR right in one’s own backyard, and, in the process, help put the brakes on the worst effects of the downward economy on the corporation’s employees? A corporate pipe dream? So were many other wild schemes proposed by many people in the past, now hailed as visionaries. It just needs a bit of guts and some determination on the part of corporate leaders, instead of their acting like ostriches and hiding their heads in holes on the ground.