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Service is a bad word!

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On a radio programme some months ago the issue of the service industry as a key player in the growth and development of the Vincentian and Caribbean economy was mentioned by one caller. Another took strong exception to this for in his view services carried connotations of subservience. The gentleman was first of all equating the service industry with tourism but even then he was off mark because tourism does not have to lead to subservience although it is something about which we have always to be on guard.

Since starting this article I have tried to get some data to show the size and value of the services sector in the Caribbean but was unsuccessful. There is, however, no doubt that the services sector is now a dominant part of the economy of the region. In fact since 1992 the West Indian Commission had highlighted its importance. Having said that and bearing in mind the earlier point I made, it must be stated that tourism is the major component of the services sector. {{more}}But when we speak about the service industry or the service sector, what precisely are we talking about? ‘Services’ is something that is difficult to define. I would, however, share here a recent definition that I came across. It states as follows, “…services are a diverse group of economic activities not directly associated with the manufacture of goods, mining or agriculture. They typically involve the provision of human value added in the form of labour, advice, managerial skill, entertainment, training, intermediation and the like. They differ from other types of economic activities in a number of ways. Many, for example, cannot be inventoried and must be consumed at the point of production. This would include trips to the doctor, enjoying a meal at a restaurant, flying from Tokyo to Paris, or attending a concert” The author went on to make the point that services can be contrasted with manufactured products which involved tangible things that could be stored and consumed without ‘direct interaction with the entity that produced the good’

In looking at the characteristics of services industries the same author made another significant point suggesting that the differences between services and other economic activities are being narrowed. He/she explains “While it has not reached the point where someone can enjoy the ambience of a good restaurant without physically going to one, information and communication technology now enables people to participate in a growing number of service-related activities in real, or deferred, time, without having to be physically present.” The simple fact, anyhow, is that this is a global growth industry. In our case with manufacturing at a very low level and agriculture still suffering from the shocks generated by the WTO we have to seize whatever opportunities lie in the area of services. But here is where the problem lies. We are not serious about service. We just have to look around us and face up to the truth. In our society moreover the consumer is no king. He/she is trod upon.

Often we criticise the public service for the kind of service it provides. In fact we wonder why it is referred to as the ‘public service.’ To many of us a lot of what goes on in the public service would not be tolerated in the private sector, but I have news for those who think so. With minor exceptions our private sector is not ready to meet the challenges and demands of this age.

One of my favourite examples is the banking sector and I must admit that I might be sweeping my brush too widely. This is a regular occurrence and I am sure others would have experienced it. Let us take a Friday. This is a day when the banks are full. You take your lunch break or steal some time to go to the bank. There is a long line stretching to the door. You decide to hedge your bets and stay because all of the banks are likely to be full. You wait and wait and wait and sometimes wonder what is really going on. Admittedly part of the problem is with the customer and has to do with an element of semi-literacy so the teller ends up doing more than she bargained for. Let us accept all of this. You are gradually inching to the tellers. I should have indicated to you before that despite the fact that the line is almost moving out onto the street there are only three cashiers. You wonder about this. You wonder if anyone is monitoring the situation and has the responsibility for making certain decisions pertaining to this. You endure all of this and eventually get near to the counter. You are counting the number of persons ahead of you and beginning to force a smile. But then you are suddenly confronted with a sign marked ‘closed’. One of the cashiers disappears. You don’t know for what. You tend to think that if it was for lunch break there will be a replacement, but no one seems to bother. Even many of the persons waiting for ages in the line accept it as part of the way we do business. And so it goes on.

But this is not all. I have another experience. Some of the banks have signs marked foreign exchange or foreign currency or some thing of that sort. So you need to get a bank draft and some foreign money, most likely US$. And this is my actual experience. It is not fabricated stuff. I am trying to get a bank draft and cash. I spend sometime in the line and then I get to the foreign exchange cashier who begins to work on my draft. After fifteen or twenty minutes I am told that I will get my draft soon but that the particular cashier has no cash. I am therefore asked to go to the back of the line and wait to get to one of the regular tellers. This is after fifteen to twenty minutes and after the line has lengthened. I protest and I must say that the cashier understood that it was sheer nonsense so I was told to sit and wait while he/she worked things out. It meant waiting for another fifteen minutes but then I was sitting not standing at the back of the line. I am not blaming the cashier but making the point that something is wrong with the system and how it is managed. Really if you intend to go to the bank on any day you have to be prepared to give up at least an hour of your time. So you say we are serious about service and this is one of our growth areas!

I singled out the banks but throughout our society one can see signs that we don’t understand what service is all about. It is as if your time is not important. The person providing the service is king and if you don’t like it then you leave it. You will, it is believed, have to come back again regardless of how you feel about them or their service. Our hotels are overpriced for the kind of service we get. The mini-van drivers and conductors have no regard for you. They pack you like a tin of sardines. Our entertainers act in their own time. You come to listen to them or to see them perform so you have to wait. That is their time and to hell with you. We expect the service industry to be a large contributor to the growth in employment but what we are selling is terribly poor. We not only have to deal with the matter of quality but also to prepare ourselves for the liberalisation of services. God help us. Really we take services too much for granted and our people allow those who provide services to get away with too much sloppiness and nonsense.

Will the CSME make a difference by increasing competition? Let us hope so.

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