Brand and business reputations take a hit when there is an extended streak of bad customer service. Customers may not be always right, and businesses are not forever wrong. Alvin Thomas listens to the tales of smiles and disgust, from the kings and the courtiers.
The late business mogul, Steve Jobs, was definitely onto something when he set the tone for the customer service department for his global company Apple Inc.
Going by his words, “Get closer than ever to your customers. So close, in fact, that you tell them what they need well before they realise it themselves,” you learn that there’s more to customer service than what meets the eye.
These words have since laid the groundwork not only for Apple Inc. employees but also several customer service agents across the globe; some even from Oman!
So, has it worked for consumers here in the Sultanate? To an extent, “yes”. But, it’s not all a walk in the park for consumers. The experience, as one consumer puts it, is “far from perfect”.
Today, several companies claim that consumers are their number one priority. This teaches us that businesses are ready and willing to go the extra mile for each of their customers.
But, as we learn, consumers are captivated by the good and bad side of customer service. They even like to take the experience of others and apply it in their daily lives. Hence, they visit restaurants with higher ratings, opt for products with quality after-sales scores and even purchase cars or flight tickets based on the earlier experiences cited by consumers.
To understand customer service and satisfaction levels in Oman, we speak to numerous customers who have availed services or purchased goods from local vendors, recently. Furthermore, we also talk to business owners in an effort to comprehend what is being done to further improve the sector.
Since 2010, there has been a change in the customer service of Oman, says Muneera al Balushi, a bank manager.
“Oman Air has come by leaps and bounds in service – both on and off the ground,” she explains.
“It’s a matter of pride for us Omanis.
“I happened to take an Oman Air flight to Paris, from Muscat. It was on the newer Boeing 787 flight; it was simply superb. The air hostesses were very kind and professional, and the food that was served on-board was simply fantastic,” she exclaims.
“There was a time when we used to dread flying, mostly because of the way we were treated in the flight. Back in 2007, I remember getting scolded at by an attendant on the flight for not turning off my mobile phone.
“It was an embarrassing moment for me that still makes me cringe. I would have put away my phone even if the attendant peacefully asked me to do so.
“Since then I had vowed not to take Oman Air. But now it’s all different; they’ve changed so much and it means we can now travel with a certainty that we will all be treated equally.
“If they notice any offences, the attendants come and instruct us in a very calm manner; it’s a better approach than scolding or shouting at passengers.”
Before ending our chat, Muneera points out that Oman Air’s investment in in-flight entertainment, which includes Wi-Fi and even touchscreens for every passenger, is a welcome addition that will keep the flyers happy and occupied.
But not everyone is singing laurels about the aviation sector in Oman.
Riyadh Mohammed, an Indian expatriate working in Oman, seems to think that local airlines have (figuratively speaking) miles to go, before attaining international standards.
“I flew with a local airline based in Oman, recently. And I must point out that I was flabbergasted with how my pregnant wife, my three-year-old daughter and I were treated.
“Things went smooth at the airport as preference is given to families while checking in. It was all too easy for us, but after boarding the flight, my wife was separated from me because of some mix-up while issuing the boarding passes.
“This is a frequent occurrence, so I didn’t bother much.
“However, trying to push my luck, I enquired with the flight purser if my daughter and I could be seated with my wife. Immediately (in an agitated tone), he asked us to settle into our seats and not bother other passengers.
“I raised my voice to explain that I was not in the wrong asking to be seated next to my wife.
“Upon doing so, he simply walked away,” Riyadh adds.
“This is not the type of service we want to see when we’re travelling. Because of this I will never opt for the flight again. I have also lodged a complaint with them online, and noticed that several other travellers had complained of poor services, too,” he adds.
We narrate this incident with Shweta, an air hostess, working with the airline company. She stands by her company’s policies: “There are strict processes one has to go through to become a flight attendant, today.
“So, if someone has encountered a bad incident, the attendant will most likely be questioned and an action will be taken.
“Every flight attendant must keep a track of the passengers and whether they have encountered any problem. We’re so meticulous in our work, and that’s our duty to the passengers flying with us.
“We are the face of the flight,” she chuckles.
To get to grips with the customer satisfaction levels in the hospitality sector, we interview several individuals. They all chime together that the service in the hospitality sector is up to the mark in the country.
Hammond, a British expatriate working as an engineer in the oil field for the last 12 years, says: “If there is one thing I have learned over my time in Oman, it is that food and beverages are, more often than not, served wholeheartedly.
“Till date, I have never really been dissatisfied with the service. And I can vouch for that, because I tend to travel a lot. And if there are restaurants that do offer below par services, then they will end up paying for it with a poor review.
“Oman is cruel that way: word of mouth travels fast. It’s also a small market, so a competitor is always ready and geared up to take an unhappy customer and turn that frown upside down.
“Comparing with restaurants in the United Arab Emirates, we see that the service here in Oman is of a much higher class. The attendants work for the satisfaction of the customers and not tips,” he jokes.
“Because of this very reason, I love tipping them,” he adds.
Ahmed al Batashi, an Omani businessman who frequently travels across the GCC, says: “It’s funny how much we have improved in the hospitality sector over the years.
“We’ve gone from two- and three-star hotels to five-star rated luxury hotels. We also have several resorts and hotel apartments within the country. They’re all top-notch, and never have I ever come across any issues, here.
“All of us are humans, so there will be the odd glitch here and there. But that’s just the way the world works.
“In the UAE, most cost-effective hotels come with their own baggage: some are noisy at night due to its proximity to the nightclubs, and others skimp on amenities due to the low rates.
“Oman is a hospitable country with people who welcome you with arms wide open. It’s our culture and tradition, and we will incorporate it in our businesses, too.
“During a recent stay at the Shangri-La Barr Al Jissah Resort and Spa, I encountered some of the best services possible. I cannot lie: the service sector in hotels and restaurants have always been good; so, we cannot better what was always good.”
Ahmed and Hammond are right in their words, too. Oman is currently witnessing development in the hospitality sector. As per a report published by the investment banking advisory firm, Alpen Capital, the compounded annual growth rate (CAGR) stands at 6.2 per cent (from 2015) to reach USD1 billion (RO385,005,000), in 2020.
This growth is attributed to a 5.3 per cent annual rise in hotels and serviced apartment room inventory and a 6.3 per cent increase in international tourist arrivals.
The report also said Omani government’s tourism plan to double tourist arrivals by 2040 by developing tourist spots and encouraging private investments is likely to boost demand.
The telecom sector in Oman has witnessed its ups and downs with regards to customer satisfaction in recent years.
The upgradation of internet lines from copper to fibre optics means several residents (in select areas) are now able to browse and stream at higher speeds.
But as the number of subscribers have gone up, so has the number of complaints and cases of repairs. All of this has resulted in a “red tape” of cases that the companies fail to address at pace.
Little wonder then that several consumers are now unhappy with the service that is offered by the telecom providers in Oman.
At the time of going to press, one of our readers Ravi Shanker complained that he had not been able to connect to the internet for more than 25 days.
“I have been calling up the service department for weeks. They keep giving me different claim numbers and that makes me even more angry.
“It’s almost like they are not doing anything about my complaint. Every time I call them, they tell me that the request is under process and that the technicians will be at my place soon.
“But, till date, I have not received even one call from a technician. I have given up hope and I am now planning on shifting from my current provider. It’s pathetic, the after-sales service that this company offers.
But there’s another side to the story. We interview a telecom engineer working with a sub-contracting company for a telecom company in Oman. He reveals that he attends more than 30 cases of repairs on a daily basis (!)
“We definitely require more personnel,” the engineer says.
“The faults and complaints are all logged by the telecom service centre team, and is forwarded to us. But you will be surprised by the number of calls that we have to take, daily.
“Some of these cases require us to go through the lines underneath the roads; and that can be a hassle. We need to be a little more systematic. I think the companies need to begin recruiting more technicians and engineers to keep up with the demand of the people,” he adds.
Despite all of Oman’s recent laurels in the transportation sector, earning the title of owning the most advanced and young fleet in the GCC and for operating with the minimum number of mechanical incidents (courtesy Mwasalat) as well as launching the all-new Marhaba taxi, there is still a “long way to go”.
For instance, Elena Jacobson says private and airport taxis continue to overcharge passengers.
“Did you know that it costs RO7 to take a taxi from the airport to Azaiba,” she asks.
“Most private taxis drivers are well-mannered, but there are times they make use of your ignorance of the location to earn a bit more money.
“This happened to me recently when I took a private taxi from Al Mouj to Azaiba. It was 7pm, and the driver – who was speeding and also using his mobile phone excessively – overshot my destination.
“He had to drive another 3km in order to drop me to my apartments. He decided to charge me an extra RO4, because of his mistake. When I questioned him, he was angered; he started shouting at me in Arabic.
“I paid him and ran home,” she exclaims. The London-born expat, however, takes time to appreciate Oman’s efforts to bring things under control.
“Marhaba is a blessing in disguise,” she smiles.
“I have been using the services frequently. The smartphone application is easy to use and is similar to Uber in the United Kingdom; it’s better in every way.
“The prices are monitored, although they do fluctuate sometimes. It’s still a step, and a good one at that,” she tells us.
Meanwhile, Shashidaran, a carpenter working in Ruwi, says: “The Mwasalat buses have reduced my travelling time and my costs by at least RO9 a month. The prices are apt and I feel they’re really hitting putting the private taxis drivers at a limbo.
“These buses are relatively punctual and the air conditioner inside works well. The only time I really use sharing cabs or vans is if I am running late and if there is no bus.
Charith*, a student of Indian School Muscat, takes time out from listening to music to share his thoughts on the services offered by Mwasalat. He tells: “I am very happy with Mwasalat. There’s Wi-Fi on the buses and I think that’s a win for us students.
“I can now browse YouTube or simply stream music on-the-go. The only downside is that the buses can be a bit late, sometimes.”
When it comes to the automotive sector, we notice a contrast in the services consumers receive.
Several interviewees echo that sales agents from leading car showrooms in Oman are professional and well-informed when pitching for a sale but are unhappy with after-sales services.
“My sales agent was incredibly formal, and sold me the car only with his words,” says Mukesh V, the owner of a new American SUV.
“He made sure I was ready to drop the cheques the next time I walked into the showroom. His confidence in the vehicle further helped me make my decision; and I was indeed happy with the services and the incentives they were offering me,” he tells Y.
He took delivery of his SUV earlier this year. But, as luck may have it, Mukesh was involved in a hit and run, and his car was in dire need of body work.
After settling the details of the cost with the insurance agents, he drops his car off at the body shop, in June.
However, to his surprise, the body shop had still not completed the work after six weeks.
“I didn’t have a replacement car, and getting to and fro work was a hassle. It was a nightmare. I also kept chasing up with the service manager but he began avoiding my calls. I was frustrated.
“Finally, I decided to visit the body shop and threaten that I was going to file a case with the Public Authority of Consumer Protection (PACP).
“It worked. In less than a week, I had my car in my hands. I really detest taking drastic actions such as this, but it really had to be done,” he tells.
Suleiman al Ghawi, a business owner based in Muttrah, tells us that he has stopped servicing his cars at the dealership after the paintwork on his RO45,000 luxury sedan was damaged during service: “I had dropped of my car for routine service; oil change and so on.
“But, when I came back to collect my car, I noticed a deep scratch on the car’s hood. My heart started pounding harder; it was my dream car and I thought that the dealer would take care of it like their own.
“I quickly called for the manager and enquired with him. Upon doing so, I was told that the scratch was present before the service.
“He lied to my face,” Suleiman exclaims.
“I called up the Royal Oman Police (ROP) immediately and told them the situation. They came down to the showroom; the manager didn’t expect that.
Soon an investigation was launched and Suleiman was presented with footage of his car in the service centre. In the video, a service man is seen accidentally scratching the surface the hood with a heavy tool.
“That was enough proof for me. I took it to the manager, and soon the case was escalated to the PACP. I was granted a free repair from the service centre, and also an extended warranty and service period –at no added cost!”
“But I am never going there again. I would rather give the car to the Shell service at the petroleum station,” he tells.
On the positive side of things, the PACP now takes strict action against service errors and other losses caused by the automotive manufacturer or the dealer. It is known that a total of 121,408 cars were recalled in Oman over a six-month period (January to June) in 2016.
Her Highness Sayyida Mayya al Said, life coach, motivational speaker, blogger and social media influencer, voices her opinion on the sales and customer service sector in Oman
The customer service sector is slowly developing over time, but I think we’re not doing enough. Business owners have started to realise that. However, there is no real transfer of training or knowledge on this particular subject to the lower level staff members.
I firmly believe that higher officials must go to their employees or staff members and teach them how to approach, and maybe even show them how one must interact with the customers.
At the end of the day, the customer is always right. And for us consumers, a smile will go a long way. We understand the limitations that the sales and service staff have, so sometimes honesty is the best way forwards.
If the service agent is having a bad day –whatever the reason may be –he or she must not take it out on the customer. At the end of the day, they are giving your company the money.
I, myself, had recently gone through a frustrating incident with the customer service department of a company. The person in charge did not allow me to speak and kept interrupting me.
This was insulting. Would I ever go back to the company to avail of the services? No.
And that’s what must be kept in mind. Customer service is a very important part of running a company. A sales man –or a member of another department –should not be handed over this task; it requires trained and skilled personnel that can calmly and efficiently sort out the troubles of the customer.