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Commentary: Could the remnants of slavery, our cultural mindset be hurting our tourism industry?
Published on May 8, 2014 Email To Friend    Print Version

By Mutryce A. Williams

We have reclaimed our throne. We are once more the proud descendants of the kings and queens of Africa, and this means no more “Yes Massa” or “No Massa.” This means I am no longer in servitude to you. I am free and I am going to let you know that I am free. My job may mean that I may have to provide you with service, but when I provide this service to you, you will know that I am the one in charge, not you. You will know that there are no longer shackles on my feet. I will take my time when rendering service to you. I will respect you if I so choose to, and not because I think that as another human being that you deserve it. I will make a point of letting you know, that you are not ‘My Massa.’ And for you, my fellow ‘coloured’ folk, who choose to patronize my place of employ, I will let you know that you are no better than me. I will not wear a smile. I will work, yes I will, but I will do the minimum, just enough not to get fired. I will take my time in rendering service to you because I am no house slave.

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Mutryce A. Williams is a native St Kitts and Nevis whose writings embrace and mirror the West Indian life. She holds a Masters of Politics degree and is a doctoral candidate pursuing studies in Public Policy Administration with a double concentration in Terrorism, Mediation and Peace, and Homeland Security Policy and Coordination. She may be contacted at mutrycewilliams@gmail.com
How many times have you gone out to eat and the wait staff is dressed highly inappropriately? How many times have you gone out to eat and the front end staff is being loud and boisterous? How many times have you gone out to eat and had bubble gum popped in your face, been given attitude, had to listen to the day’s drama or gossip about another member on the staff? How many times have you had the front end staff pull out his or her cell phone and carry on a lengthy conversation while you stand waiting to be seated? How many times have you had a wait staff pull out his or her cell phone mid service and responded to a text? How many times have you heard the staff suck his or her teeth, roll his or her eyes or even tapped his or her feet impatiently whilst taking your order?

A common problem and what I consider the Achilles heel of our tourism or service industry is poor or sub-standard customer service. Every time I see an advertisement or hear talk of some grand new tourism initiative that is bound to bring the ‘dollars’ our way, I simply shake my head.

It is “one thing to advertise and bring tourists to our shores, but… if when they arrive here, they meet sub-standard customer service, what is the use?” Do you think that they will return to our shores? Do you think that they will provide a glowing recommendation to family and friends or do you think that they will advise them to take their tourist dollars elsewhere?

The one thing that chagrins me most is horrible customer service, not only because “I deserve superb service because I am spending my money,” or “because when I held several waitressing jobs to help pay for school I did each with the utmost pride and professionalism” but because I view it as the quickest and surest way to kill someone’s business, and cripple our tourism industry.

I am often flabbergasted, when I dine out and I see the staff “skylarking” or not taking their jobs seriously. I can’t help but wonder if they have any idea that they are not just the “staff” but rather representatives for their place of employ and by extension ambassadors for the country. Do they know that their role is essential even vital to the economy? They are the gatekeepers.

Things are “tight” all over as we like to say, and the downturn in the world’s economy is blame for the decline in the tourist dollar but it is much more than this. Sub-standard customer service is a key factor that keeps the tourist away from our shores. This has to be addressed.

A change in the cultural mindset is necessary because those service providers who interact directly with our guests or visitors are in fact our tourism product. They are, their friendliness, their hospitality, their professionalism, their knowledge of history and our culture this is our tourism product.

They need to know this; they need to know that they are not just some replaceable cogs in the wheel but rather the pulse of what we hope to be a thriving tourism economy. This must be impressed upon them.

And for the life of me, at times I often wonder why some establishments continue to employ people who refuse to provide excellent customer service to their patrons. I also often wonder why businesses don’t spend extra in hiring individuals who are bound to provide exceptional customer service. I think that this is a no brainer.

Huge investments go into the business plan, marketing, and other operating factors of the tourism related business, but the actual people who are going to be the face of the business, the contact, are just hired because they are “looking a work and can’t find anything else to do.” They are provided with limited if any training and sent to the floor. The only contact that they have with the owner or manager is when they clock in for work or collect their paychecks, and the best way to keep them in line is the threat of losing their livelihood, does this make any sense?

Business 101 would tell you that your front end staff are your cash cows so you need to pay keen attention in hiring, training, and retaining them. You cannot invest enough in customer service. This is where the real investment needs to take place. You need people who are courteous, friendly, and reliable.

The staff needs to know that when one goes out to eat or is the guest at a hotel he or she doesn’t want to be accosted with, “Don’t I know you. You used to be dere with so and so… no that’s not where I know you from…oh..oh..now I know.” One doesn’t want to be served by someone whose tattoos are exposed, (I have nothing against tattoos. I have two.) One doesn’t want to be served by someone who has several pairs of earrings in her ears or a nose ring. One doesn’t want to be served by someone wearing exceptionally long or outlandish nails or multi-coloured hair. One doesn’t want to be served by someone whose hairdo speaks, “I am going clubbing.” One doesn’t want to be served by someone whose perfume or aftershave would be ‘enough to lick down a ninja.’ One doesn’t want his or her wait staff eating off the plate in plain view. One does not want his or her wait staff digging his or her nose, licking his or her fingers or even adjusting one’s clothes in plain view. One doesn’t want his or her wait staff answering calls, responding to a text, or engaging in loose conversation while providing service. One doesn’t want attitude if he or she is not pleased with an order or the service. One wants superior and impeccable service.

In discussion with a friend Janice, she mentioned that this sub-standard service comes from the fact that people are just ‘plain rude’ and ‘down-right disrespectful.’ I concurred but I also thought that it was much more than that. I think that it has more to do with the way in which we view the tourism industry and tourism related jobs. We view these jobs as being at the bottom tier of the social ladder, and because they are “service” related, we view these jobs as a rebirth of slavery.

The mentality is that in colonial times we considered ourselves to be physically enchained, but now with emphasis being placed on tourism our view is that we are going into an era where we are now mentally chained, forced to depend on the ‘white man’ or ‘rich man’ for our bread and butter.

We rebel by not providing premiere service because this would mean that we are sell-outs. It would mean that we are compliant and that we enjoy ‘playing’ the house slave, and if there is another worker who seems to be taking pride in his or her job, who is liked by management, tourists or guests he or she is heckled and accused of ‘playing white’ or as I heard a lady refer to a colleague, he is “dem white people glad happy monkey, always a grin a grin.”

We don’t realize that in essence we are creating a situation where we are cutting our nose, and it will eventually spoil our face. The aforementioned attitude and our failure to provide premiere customer service are in fact the very factors that are killing our tourist industry.

All of this only dawned on me when I was having a conversation with another friend who was disgusted at the government, saying that the government “was always talking about providing tourism related jobs, and that these jobs don’t pay,” and would not do anything for the economy. I smiled, and told her to ask any exceptional bartender, hostess or waitress that she knew, and I reiterate ‘exceptional’ how much they made in tips in a night, or how many tourists sent tickets for them to visit London, Canada or as we say “America” or better yet how many tourists came back year after year with family and friends bearing gifts and asking ‘specifically’ for them, then come back and tell me that tourism doesn’t pay or that it doesn’t have its perks. Because as someone who worked as a waitress I can tell you that it does pay.

We have heard the complaints over the years of the various hotels bringing in their own people or sourcing staff from nearby islands, and we argue and say that the hotels and the immigrants are taking bread out of our mouths. We argue and demand that the government take action as it is not fair but in all seriousness, the businesses, although they may have a social obligation to the countries that they are in, they are not the welfare. They are not there to grant anyone any favours. They are in business to make a profit, and if the local staff isn’t providing the service that they expect, of course they will source staff from neighbouring islands. They will hire people who will take pride in their jobs, provide impeccable service and give them a return on their investment.

In a debate with my friend who mentioned that some tourism jobs lead nowhere, I told her once again that she ought to ask any ‘exceptional’ person who has worked in the tourism industry how fast he or she has been promoted or rewarded based on his or her impeccable service or record. This is one of those industries where mobility is in fact possible but this all depends on the attitude, productivity and performance of the worker.

I can also tell you from experience that this industry is one that lends itself to success in any other chosen field as it provides you with a plethora of skills. Where else can you develop such great interpersonal skills? You learn to deal with what may appear to be difficult people, and you develop problem solving skills so it can be viewed as a start.

I met a lady a few years ago who noted that her son had studied hospitality management and could not find a job as a manager in a hotel in his own country and my response was, “Well how much experience does he really have in the tourism industry? Has he worked as a waiter, bell hop, bus boy, gardener or any other service related job? Did intern at any of the hotels on his break from school? Was he interested in trying his hand at bartending or taking an entry level position in a hotel or restaurant until his dream position came along?” She replied in the negative. She turned up her face, saying that he did not go to college for that, he wanted an air conditioned office work.

I was bewildered because I am certain if you ask any executive or manager of hotels they will tell you that they started working in the kitchen as a dishwasher or bus boy. They will tell you that they mopped floors and moved their way through several departments or fields within the industry. This was in addition to getting formal training at some point in their career.

This is an industry where every person has a vital role to play and I mean vital. This is not one of those industries where you start at the top, because it requires the executive or management to roll up his or her sleeves and get to work when the going gets tough.

Parents if your children have an interest in the field make sure they get summer or weekend jobs or internships at a restaurant, hotel; golf course or at a business entity that is service oriented. This is where it starts. You may be a dishwasher today, manager or executive tomorrow.

We need to brush the cobwebs from our minds. We need to remove those mental shackles, and as citizens of our land take charge of the many opportunities that comes to our shores. You are providing a service. You are providing a product. You are an ambassador. This is a respectable and an honest way to earn a living. You are nobody’s slave or minion. Prove yourself empowered. Provide impeccable service. Be that person who puts your country on the map with the broadest smile and the most professional and courteous disposition. Do not let the remnants of slavery cripple your tourism industry.
 
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