Wednesday, September 29, 2010

Excellent service on Ms Eurodam? Not in our case

Now that I have more or less recovered from my jetlag, I guess I should relate some of the high and low points of our travelling group's experience with service providers in our three-week holiday that included a 10-day cruise on board the Ms Eurodam (pictured)

Our group of 10 took the ship, one of many operated by the Holland America Line, from New York to Quebec. At the end of it, most of us rated it the worst of all the cruises that we have taken.

One of the reasons perhaps was that many of the places that we stopped at were not particularly unique, historical or spectacularly scenic. Unlike those many of us had experienced along the Mediterranean, Alaskan and Baltic coasts.

I guess our timing had a part to play, too. We got there much too early to catch the Fall colours which would have made a difference to city folks like us.

And what certainly didn't help in making this holiday a memorable one was the service standards that we encountered on board the Eurodam.

It started off badly when some members of our group had to wait a long time to check in. The luck of the draw saw them being attended to by inexperienced staff who were apparently still learning on the job.

After the check-in, what created a worse impression was having to wait for our cabins as they were not ready for occupation. I was surprised that the management could not get this basic thing right after being so long in the cruise business and whose promotion tagline is "A Tradition of Excellence".

Another surprise was the discovery that we had to pay for bottles of water in our cabins. I don't remember having to do so in all our previous cruises with other companies.

If the reason was to cut costs, the management could have easily included the expense in the price of the cruise. To us, it was a matter of convenience. Obviously, it was something that did not cross the minds of those in charge.

Those bottles of water consumed during our cruise did not amount to much, but by charging for them, it certainly did not earn them any goodwill.

As the cruise went on, it became apparent to us that the management was not paying sufficient attention to detail. A good example was the confusion we experienced over dinner bookings at its various restaurants.

On several occasions, our group had to unravel booking schedules because of failure to co-ordinate among staff members of the food outlets.

Although the service personnel were generally friendly and helpful, their inability to focus on "the little things" could sometimes prove embarassing to the point of being irritating.

Another example of poor service: My friend EC sent a pair of his favourite pants for laundry with very specific instruction that it should be dry cleaned. When it came back, he found to his horror that it had shrunk. The reason? It was given the normal wash.

When EC complained, the cruise office denied any wrongdoing. However, after some haggling, it offered to compensate him US$50 but with a catch: he had to hand over his pants.

EC was flabbergasted to say the least. His pair of trousers had cost him a few hundred dollars and here he was being insulted with an offer of miserly compensation --- plus the possibility of losing his pants

He decided he needed to speak to someone with authority. So he left word with the cruise office that he would like to speak to the "Hotel Manager".

Those were magic words indeed. The next thing he knew, word came back that he would be allowed to keep his pants, have his US$50 and be compensated further after he has sent the pants for alteration.

Well, the bitter taste in EC's mouth was somewhat soothed. But the question is, why must the management wait for EC's attempt to escalate the matter before it decided to do the right thing?

Our experience with poor service did not end with the "Case of the Shrunken Pants". On our last night on board, we dined at the Tamarind, the Asian restaurant where we had to pay for our meals.

When it came time to settle our bills at the cruise office, two couples in our group discovered that they were double-charged by the restaurant.

But what took the cake was when our friend Bob pointed out the mistake, he was told by the office staff to go upstairs to the restaurant to sort it out. He rightly refused to do so.

Holland America Line management should not be surprised when they read our answers to the most critical question in its feedback survey ---whether we would be cruising with the company again.


* WE FOUND the service staff at restaurants generally helpful, friendly and knowledgeable, and we had some good meals in New York, Boston, Bar Harbour in Halifax, Quebec City and Montreal.

While we appreciated the service that was rendered, somehow at the back of our minds we could not help wondering whether they were doing it just for the money.

Quite often, it was difficult to tell how geniune these people were. After all, tipping is part of the culture at these places and it is understandable why they sometimes have to put up a show.

For me, I much prefer the Singapore system of taking off 10 per cent for service. It removes my predicament of how much to tip and whether I have tipped these service people sufficiently.

* THERE are tour guides and tour guides. In our land tours, we came across three versions -- the Good, the Bad and the Witty.

The Good was in Boston. Steve is probably in his late 50s or early 60s but he was clearly enjoying his job as a guide. Apart from bringing us to the place where we had the best lobsters, he also knew his history and could easily trot out all the significant dates and the backgrounds of the places and events.

What really impressed us was when we stopped at a statue of Paul Revere on his horse and he started reciting The Midnight Ride by the poet Longfellow. When he ended 10 minutes later, he was greeted with loud applause from his listeners.

THE Bad was a woman in Halifax. She went through her routine of showing us the town without showing any spark. It led to "Lullaby in Halifax" as many of us dozed off along the way. However, we were awakened not long after when the bus stopped for us to take a stroll in a garden that did not impress at all.

THEN came the Witty in beautiful Quebec City. Not only did she have a sense of humour, she also had a mind of her own -- and was not afraid to show it.

She was a natural entertainer. We enjoyed what she told us about the history and the social trends of the place, and had no trouble mixing it all up with just the right dose of wit.

* I SHOULD not end without mentioning a concierge named Kelly at Millennium Broadway Hotel in the Big Apple. To me, he was a model worker. He was helpful, engaging and was able to strike up a rapport with his customers without any effort.

It was only later that I realised why he had such a personality. He told me that he had his own band playing in a club and he was the leader. He had also played minor roles on TV.

Monday, September 27, 2010

Sloppy work from DBS Bank

DBS Bank has been sending out new DBS/POSB Credit/Debit Cards which are embedded with an EMV Smart Chip that is supposed to enhance security and protection.

Customers are being told to start using these EMV Chip Cards and cut up their existing ones to prevent unauthorised usage. DBS said the existing cards will be closed within 40 calendar days from the issuance of the chip cards.

Anne Wong Holloway, who uses one of these cards as a spare, was intrigued by the letter that accompanied the arrival of her new card. She noticed that there was no date on it.

She said: "Why set a deadline of 40 days to utilise the card (which is what it amounted to when I called the number provided to activate my card)when the customer has no idea of the start date?

"DBS senior executives should check before they sign off on proofs bearing their signatures, names and designations."

The undated letter from the senior vice president and head of Cards and Unsecured Loans, Consumer Banking, reminded her of the recent incident when the YOG certificates of appreciation for volunteers was printed with specimen rather than the proper signatures of Jacques Rogge and Ng Ser Miang.

Fortunately, in this case, less harm was done and no reprinting was required. However, it was still sloppy work.

Tuesday, September 21, 2010

Car number fees: LTA to consider feedback in review

Sorry for not posting anything for the past three weeks. I was away on holiday.

When I opened my email today, I was pleasantly surprised to read a reply from Mr Lim Bok Ngam of the Land Authority of Singapore. It was on the issue of car number retention fees which I had written in my previous postings.

I had expressed my unhappiness over my having to pay $1,300 for retaining my car number and using it on another used car that I had purchased. I thought it was illogical and unfair when compared to the $100 fee which is charged on someone who retains his number and uses it on a new car.

In his reply, Mr Lim did not concede his position (see earlier posting), but what I found comforting was his assurance that LTA would take into consideration my feedback in its future review of car number retention fees.

In trying to read between the lines of Mr Lim's email, I thought my argument about the huge disparity between the two fees might have struck a chord with the powers that be in LTA.

If I am right, there is hope that action will be taken to close the gap.

The following is Mr Lim's reply to me...

"I refer to your email dated 1 Sep 2010.

"I am glad you understood that the processes involved for using a vehicle number on an existing vehicle vis-a-vis a brand new vehicle are different.

"Thank you for your feedback on the retention fee. I would like to reiterate that whilst LTA provides the service to give the vehicle owner the opportunity to use a retained number of his choice on either a new or used vehicle, we leave it to the owner to decide whether or not he wishes to make use of the service and pay the relevant fees.

"With regard to the fee to use a retained number on an existing vehicle, LTA has pegged it to the minimum fee payable by an owner to use a bid number on his existing car to make the 2 fees comparable, as the processes are somewhat similar.

"Nonetheless, we have noted your feedback, and will take them into consideration in our future review of the retention fees."

Wednesday, September 1, 2010

LTA sticks to its stand on huge fee difference for car number retention

I am happy to report that the Acting Chief Executive of the Land Authority of Singapore, Mr Lim Bok Ngam, has replied to me regarding an issue that I have been pursuing for more than two months now.

It concerns a fee, which I consider unreasonably high, imposed on owners who retain their car numbers for use on second-hand cars.

I wanted to know why LTA is levying a $1,300 fee on such owners when it is charging just $100 for those who retain their numbers for a brand new car.

I accept part of Mr Lim's explanation for the difference in fees, but I am still at a loss over how it could possibly charge such a huge difference.

I have responded to Mr Lim's email and urged the LTA to take remedial action as I believe the huge fee is illogical, unfair and exploitative.

LTA's Acting CEO, Mr Lim Bok Ngam's explanation to me on August 31:

"I refer to your email dated 27 Aug 2010 and the earlier replies by my staff to you.

"I have looked into your feedback on the fees payable to use a retained
registration number on an existing car vis-a-vis a new one.

"I wish to explain that different fees are charged for the use of a retained number on a brand new car and an existing car as the processes involved are different.

"Unlike a brand new vehicle that has no past records in our vehicle registry, an existing vehicle would have its historical records since the day it was registered and these historical records must be updated accurately.

"At the same time, we are also aware that some owners do choose to use new registration numbers to replace the numbers on existing cars. As the
processes for replacing the number on an existing vehicle with either a new number or a retained number are similar, the fee structure to retain an existing number for use on another existing vehicle is comparable to the use of a new registration number on an existing vehicle.

"Retention of numbers is one of the services provided by the Land Transport Authority to give motorists the opportunity to use a number of his/her choice on a new or existing vehicle upon payment of relevant fees. Those who do not wish to change the registration number on their existing vehicle will not need to pay any fee."

My response to Mr Lim:

"Thank you for your explanation. If I may, I would like to make the following comments:

"1. I accept your argument that a different fee has to be charged for using a retained number on an existing car as against a retained number on a brand new car because the processes are different. Yes, an existing car has a record and it takes more time to process whereas a new car does not have a record and therefore is easier to process.

"My question is: Is the process for the former so much more difficult that LTA has to charge 12 times more compared to the process for a new car? I hope you can justify that.

"In my case, the existing car that I bought was not even one year old and there was hardly any historical record to process. When I was first told about the payment of $1,300, I was flabbergasted because the difference is beyond the imagination of any ordinary person.

"2. You said the fee paid by some owners to use new registration numbers to replace the numbers on existing cars is comparable to that paid by an owner who retains his number on an existing car because the process is similar.

"With due respect, Mr Lim, you are not comparing apples with apples.
I am not referring to the use of new registration numbers and therefore it should not be used to argue your case.

"I am just puzzled over the LTA's logic for charging $1,300 to retain a number for an existing car as against $100 for number retention to be used on a new car.

"As I said, I accept your argument that there is a different administrative process used to retain a number for an existing car against one for a new car.

"But I cannot believe that there should be such a huge difference in fee imposed on the owner who retains his number for an existing car. It is simply illogical, unfair and exploitative.

"I must declare here that I have no self-interest in this as I have already paid the $1,300 to retain the number for my used car.

"However, I am pursuing this because, as a citizen, when I see an injustice staring me in the face, it is my duty to point it out.

"I humbly urge the LTA to recognise the discriminatory policy and take the necessary remedial action.

"Thank you again for taking the time to engage me."

I am not hopeful that the LTA will agree with my point of view as it would be difficult to make a turnaround which might seem like a "loss of face".