Sunday, December 02, 2007

Finishing The Race

My last marathon run was some 30 years ago, I was then 15 competing in the 3rd quarter marathon race and the distance was more than 30 kms then. I have never liked very long distance, prefer to cover shorter than 5 kms at best.

We were encouraged to participate by our young & demure CEO and to compete as a corporate team, if at all . However, we fell short of the minimum requirements of 25, only 21 staff including yours truly enrolled in the run. For the first time since my last, I participated this year Standard Chartered Marathon but only opted 10 kms (the shortest distance), the other being 20 kms and the full marathon @ 42 kms. Never been exercising for more than 10 years, I started some form of training in the early part of this year. Even on the treadmill, I have never covered more than 3 km each time as I really dread long distance run.

I woke up early for the run this morning, @ 0530 hrs to be exact. Putting on my running gears, I was already @ Aljunied MRT station by 0600 hrs for the 1st train to take me to Raffles Station. Saw some runners in the same blue attire with their number tags on the train, I simply followed them to the reporting station.

Told myself to bring bare minimum, I did not bring my handphone, only house keys, S$10, MRT card & my I/C and therefore, I could not contact any of my colleagues to meet @ one designated place.

The 10 km race was slotted @ 0715 hours, I made my way to as front as possible (kiasu, I suppose). The announcer was cheerful throughout, giving encouragements to us before the start of the race. Finally, we were flagged off. I was running my pace and surprising to myself, I can still maintain the same pace for more than 5 kms. I found I was among the frontrunners, overtaking quite many runners along the way. My pace slowed after some 7 kms, my mind kept telling to walk but I managed to overcome that. I kept running at albeit slower pace coz walking only disrupts one's momentum and it will be difficult to resume the pace I wanted. My mind kept telling me not to stop, complete the race is key.

The last km was tough though, I was not too far away from Padang, the ending point. I had wanted to open up my strides in the last leg but I couldn't. Finally, I was very near the ending point and when I dashed past, I raise my hands in victory. I had covered under 1 hours 3 mins, not bad for an old man for I had beaten many younger men in the process. My target was under 1 hour though but this timing was good enough for me. There's always next year to come under 1 hour but I should be better prepared the next time around.

Sunday, November 04, 2007

A Friend Forever

“John is adamant to go ahead with the divorce and it is no turning back for us now”, Mary called me to pour out her sorrows. Their marriage had started to go downhill when Mary found out by chance that John was seeing someone on the sly some years back. This had really traumatised Mary so much that she needed medication to control her emotions. I was not close to her then but overtime; I became one of her confidants whenever she yearned for a listening ear.

My relationship with John went back many years ago. Both John and I were secondary school classmates and his frivolous way of life is no surprise to me at all. At a young age of 18, he signed up for the Navy as a diver. The rigorous training in the Navy had transformed him into one tough young bloke. Coupled with his height and suave look, getting hitched with girls seemed like a routine for him then. He still looks dashing despite in his 40s now.

She hailed from Penang who came to work in Singapore as a trainee nurse in the mid 80s. The hospital’s hostel which she shared with the other trainee nurses was a favourite haunt for the Navy boys to find blind dates – John was intrigued to know more. When the two met, cupid struck immediately and before long, they were already going steady.

Their courtship days were never smooth sailing either. They broke off once but later patched up. They finally wedded in the early 90s, gave birth to a beautiful daughter and by then, Mary had left her nursing job for a sales vocation. She did superbly well in her new job and very soon, she had carved a niche as a career woman.

John continued to flirt with his string of girl friends and Mary had never suspected anything amiss all the while. She was supportive of him throughout and had worked hard to give her family a comfortable living.

Sometime in year 2001, it was then dawned on her that she learnt John had been cheating behind her. She could not concentrate working and she began to miss her monthly sales target. Quarrels subsequently became a regular affair for the two of them and finally, Mary decided to file for divorce.

Tried as much as I could to talk her out of taking this drastic step but she remained steadfast in her decision. She was drawing better salary whilst John who had ventured on own in his pest management business was struggling in his business. The financial impact would affect John more and the thought of losing custody of his only daughter was real, he knew it was lose-lose for him.

Their strained relationship then turned for the better when Mary came down with a bad flu one day and John was always there and attending to her every need. This had somewhat softened Mary’s heart and it created a chance for them to re-address their martial issues with each other. John finally made a pact to stop all contacts with all his girlfriends and Mary was convinced enough to forgive him this one time.

With their rekindled relationship on the mend, Mary and I had lesser contacts with each other gradually. Sometime in early 2006 and much to my dismay, Mary confided to me that John did not break off with his girlfriends despite the pact he had made. She had the hunch all the while that he did not make good his pact but by then, she had already grown to accept the situation. However, this time, it was John who initiated the divorce which saddened her greatly.

When she called me one day, she sounded very troubled for she very much wanted to salvage their battered marriage despite all her well-intended efforts but John remained steadfast.

Not long later, I received a text message from John informing that his wife had been diagnosed with lymphoma cancer. The news shocked me. Despite her illness, she still put up a brave front when I visited her. She talked about the future plans after her recovery and she remained positive throughout.

The treatment required her to undergo a chemotherapy session and John was always around which was what Mary needed most during this crucial period. The chemotherapy took some 3 months and she was already making plan to return back to work after the session. But her health took an abrupt turn for the worse and she had to be re-admitted to hospital. Her doctor informed John that some cancer cells had already spread to her brain.

By then, she had grown weaker and weaker. The pain she had to endure was beyond one’s description and it pained us to see her in such sorry stage particularly for John. Her condition did not improve despite new treatment recommended by her doctor. Some of her close friends organized a prayer session and the strong faith in her religion had kept her going and so too for John.

John and her family members stayed close to her throughout her ordeal. Recovery for her seemed remote, only a miracle could help. But John remained positive. Though she was physically weak, her mind was still clear and she could still talk.

I managed to see her in her last days but by then, she could not recognize anyone of us. Tried she did but words just could not come out from her mouth and the feared stare on her face did suggest that she knew her time was up. She finally slipped into comatose and never woke up. Rest in peace, my dear friend and you will live forever in my memory.

Sunday, October 21, 2007

The Fateful Inaugural Cruise

It was her maiden voyage from the state-of-the-art Singapore Cruise Centre; the talk of the town then. The 13,000-tonner Royal Pacific, a luxurious passenger vessel was scheduled for 2 nights cruise to high sea voyage along the Straits of Malacca on 21 August 1992.

Port clearance was finally granted at about 2000 hrs and she was ready to leave port. As the company’s operation manager, I was among the 535 passengers and crew onboard and many including some hotel crew were cruising for the first time; excitement of sorts can be felt all over.

It had been a long hard day for me and I decided to make my way to the restaurant for dinner. As I walked in, a long queue was already snaking around the buffet table. Food was not replenished fast, used cutlery was still left on empty tables and I can see the sullen face of restaurant manager, Amba who apparently, was not happy with the pandemonium of sorts.

After dinner at the Starlite Showroom, cruise director, Dick Carpentier and his cruise team more than made up for the earlier disappointment, they were wowing the audience with their array of performance which I enjoyed it thoroughly. It was already past midnight, I then decided to retire to my cabin; it was a peaceful first night.

It was a different scenario that greeted me in the restaurant the following morning. Service had vastly improved; empty food tray was quickly replenished, used cutlery was cleared promptly and this time around, Amba was seen grinning away.

A host of full-filled day activities were awaiting passengers and very soon, the day passed on. It was our last evening before reaching port the following morning and during supper, I was chatting with some old friends at the restaurant. Our conversation went on past midnight. Without any warning, we heard a loud bang and felt a violent jerk. In one fell swoop, the plates and glasses on the table were sent tumbling down. I saw a flash of light on the port side but it disappeared quickly. I rushed out to the open deck; I could not see anything in the darkness but my instinct told me we were hit by a big vessel. I then strained my neck out of the railing and peered down; lo and behold there was a big gap on the port side. Looking at my watch, it was around 2 am.

Back at the reception, I heard an announcement made in Greek by our captain. Moment later, I saw our safety officer and few others were rushing down to the lower deck. He came back up, saw me and told me to get ready for evacuation. I cannot believe my own eyes that our ship was going down but it was for real.

The jerk and commotion sent many passengers and crew rushing out with life jackets donned and everyone was heading to the nearest lifeboat stations.

I rushed back to my cabin which I shared with provision master, Gerard to retrieve my life-jacket. Gerard was already soundly asleep but he was rudely woken up by my loud banging on the door. His sleepy eyes were prised wide when I told him the sinking news.

With my life-jacket donned, I positioned near the reception to give directions to people. Water was gushing in fast and I can feel the ship was listing on her port side. I saw purser staff, Judy who stayed in one of the lower deck cabins and she had to rush out fast because her cabin was already flooded. She then helped to take some of the passports from the purser office and headed to the exit.

When the jackpot machines started to tumble down like dominos and I could not stand steady, I told myself that I should leave now before it was too late. I then made my way to the nearest exit and once out, I saw Staff Captain who was about to lower a lifeboat filled with people. He signalled to me to hop in and I heaved a big relief thinking most people had been evacuated but I was very wrong.

We were fortunate that the sea was calm. I was shocked when I realized that there were still many people stuck at the stern. While our rescue boat was maneuvering away, I saw the ship almost submerged in water. The lights suddenly went off and a while later, the ship sank with a loud bang. We heard crying from afar. There were still many people onboard and I feared the worst. It took just under one hour for the ship to be brought down.

We were quickly rescued by a passing cargo vessel and brought back to Singapore. Despite the ill preparation and lack of proper announcements onboard, the casualty count was low – 3 dead and 6 missing. The incident did cause a big damper to the cruise industry in our region then but very soon, not many will remember it and cruising remains one of favoured vacations today.

My Form Teacher

Mr Samuel was our form teacher in our secondary school days in 1977 and it was only in a recent gathering with some old classmates that I learnt the only one who has been maintaining contact with him all these years is Ragu.

Single and living mostly a reclusive life, he was soon swindled by a long time friend after getting a lump sum payout for his pension some 7 years ago. Since he retired from his only known profession – teaching and English language to be precise, he has been struggling to keep ends meet. His only kin is a sister is in Kuala Lumpur and she is already 85-year old.

After some effort, Ragu managed to arrange a meeting with him and I was eagerly looking forward to that day for I have not seen him for more than 20 years already. When I saw him, he is still as obese as before but the unkempt long white hair makes him look older than his 67 years. Due to his weight and coupled with poor health, walking a short distance is akin to running a marathon and it is really a pain to watch.

He still reads vividly and his only prized possession is the collections of books that can fill up the entire room. While his physical condition is waning, his mind is still sharp and active. I am flattered he can still remember my name and I have promised a retreat with him and some of us to a resort soon.

Sunday, August 12, 2007

5 Ps of Good Service

IN the school of marketing, we have always been indoctrinated to apply the 4 Ps which are fundamentally important, namely Product, Place, Price and Promotion and missing one of the Ps could well spell trouble of sorts for any business. In any best scenario one could have hoped for; our product has to appeal to the larger audience in the right market source for its quality, brand and price affordability emerging from a series of successful promotion blitz assuming the 4 Ps in the marketing mix are taken into context.

By the same measure, for a successful venture in any industry to remain sustainable for a long while, haven’t we also overlooked something very important here? Yes, it is about service to our customers and it has to be one heck of a good customer service to begin with. Without further ado, no one industry can afford to do without is offering a good and personalized service for their customers to remember a long time to come and it is probably one important marketing mix of sorts that comes between a successful organisation that never stops winning accolades and praises, the world over and at the opposing end, one that fails to do anything to improve their badly battered service despite recognising their own shortcoming – no prize for guessing which company will emerge stronger each day and regrettably, which one will be sent packing very soon!

Just like the 4 fundamental Ps that form the marketing mix and taking it in depth, some marketing gurus have identified the 5 Ps that attribute to good customer service and they are as follows:

More often than not, it has always been proven right if one has a strong passion to complete a task, however arduous it may set out to be, for he or she is more than not to overcome all odds and achieve some success in the end. With passion, perseverance comes automatically. Passion comes from within, one cannot act or fake to be passionate to people if one simply lacks it. More importantly, passion is not a subject that can be taught in school for it can only be nurtured in a person’s character that comes truly from the heart.

Borrowing a phrase from Confucius: “If you love your job, you’ll never have to work a day in your life.” Perhaps it is more fitting to say it is not about getting the best paid job one has always yearned for but dreading it every day when one’s passion is gone. You will continue to suffer in the job, your colleagues who work with you will too but your business will suffer most when you find all your customers are patronising your competitors.

Some people are friendly by nature; they go out of their way to make other people happy. They may not necessarily be trained to be friendly, they simply love making other people happy and that passion is second nature to them. It is therefore not wrong to say the least that successful people are those who are always passionate with everything they have set upon to achieve and success will soon come a knocking.

Have pride in the product you are promoting and be confident too, always be ready with answers when a difficult customer throws you some tricky or out-of-the ordinary questions in bid to downplay your product.

How does a company expect their staff to have pride in their job if there is a clear lack of communication between superior and subordinate from onset? A manager in a hotel instructs her sales personnel, “Call Mr Siva to settle his payment as soon as possible!” without giving any specific details, thereby assuming that staff to read her vague instructions and act upon it right away. Any untoward outcome as a result of miscommunication, the staff will be blamed again and his or her pride is sure to hurt. By the same token, how can pride be instilled if there is no training or proper guidance given to the staff especially the newly employed ones? Pride and training must band if we want to see fruition in business. Staff must at least be trained adequately before he or she can have pride in his or her job, in the product they are going to convince their customers to buy. Staff lacking in product knowledge due to little or no training are likely to draw a blank with their customers and that will equate to loss of business opportunity.

While pride is one fundamental requirement, mannerism and tone of one’s voice can do or break a business transaction. Imagine if a hotel sales personnel were to say this to his customer: “Mr Tan, our hotel is the best one in the whole of Batam Island and if you are hankering for ‘cheap charlie’ price, we suggest you try Harrier Hotel which offers free pizza on top of their already rock-bottom price.” Surely, that is not pride with such an uncalled for remark which is suicidal to say the least that could lead to a quicker demise of that particular hotel. Suffice to say, a different phrase like this could have made a world of difference: “Mr Tan, as our esteemed customer, we have endeavoured to accord a very good rate to you already and for that, you are given good value for your money too but most importantly, you must enjoy your stay with us.” Evidently, the hotel is not the cheapest in town and the management is not prepared to pip against their competitor for the lowest price offered to customers. They take pride in maintaining their price but enhancing their product to their customers without the need to engage in any unnecessary price war with their competitors and customers are won over with their pride still intact.

Customers are more than likely to remember an unforgettable experience with a particular store that goes all their way to check with other stores or offer alternatives if they do not carry that particular merchandise or merchandises in their own store. By going all the way out to help with an enquiry instead of saying a flat no from onset, a satisfied customer is likely to remember and patronise the same store again even though the first sale transaction may not have been realized for varied reason. It is a display of proactiveness with a personalised touch by the staff that earns customer’s satisfaction.

Service staff in a coffee house or restaurant must be trained to be sharp or vigilant, constantly watching out for their customers and if any, anticipating their needs so that they can be quick to respond. It has been noted in some restaurants service staff simply gathered at one corner chatting away despite not having many customers, oblivious to their customers’ calls for their immediate attention.

Service providers must always be positive with themselves; they have made a choice to be happy and also to make others, their customers happy with their positive behaviours in their services. Preaching this popular phrase, “Customer Is King” and we should endeavour to let our customers feel special for most of them like to be pampered in some way. If we care to take the little extra effort to remember their names, their preferences or even their birthdays, we will not get to see the last of them for they will become our repeat customers.

It is said that positive people have higher self-esteem and by their display of positive behaviour, others around them will also be motivated to perform better. Saying No is probably not in the dictionary of positive people but the domino effect can also work the reverse on people who are negative in everything and inevitably, they too influence others around for a wrong reason though.

For a staff to be proficient in his or her job, he or she must be equipped with sufficient product knowledge and skills. This requires adequate training by senior staff or qualified trainers engaged by the company. An example, a customer in a restaurant sees an interesting item in the menu and wishes to know more from the waiter. He gives you a blank look as if he is in the lost world and answers: “Err..., I don’t know, Sir. The chef did not tell us and our job is just to take order for customers only.” However much politeness the waiter may have possessed, this takes second stage now if he simply lacks the product knowledge to give a satisfactory answer to his customer.

Had the waiter taken the initiative to study the menu diligently, his manager conducted some food tasting and proper briefing with valued help from the chef, such an embarrassing encounter with customer is not likely to happen.

In another awkward situation, a guest in the hotel lobby lounge asked for his favourite cocktail drink, ‘screw driver’ and the waiter nonchalantly replies: “Sir, we don’t have a screwdriver here but if you really want one, I will have to get it from our maintenance department for you.”

This embarrassing moment had happened in real situation, the result of lack of proficiency in product knowledge while many things are simply taken for granted.

Note: The writer is not the original creator of the 5 Ps. The entire script is the original work of the writer based on his own working experiences and it is not an attempt to teach people, rather to share his insights with others.

Saturday, April 21, 2007

Staying Fit In Style

GONE were those days when working out in a typical gym per se was privy to just one confined segment of the market – the macho type and men only. I happened to be one of them in my much younger days. Since then, evolution of sorts has come a long way and it’s all thanks to an array of tried-and-tested formulas in the one decade or so that has somewhat changed general public perception of a sweaty gym of the past era to what it is today; that is the sleek and modern fitness centre one can never dream of.

While fitness centre compete among them for the slice of the growing market, notwithstanding it is certainly getting more and more congested, particularly so for new players joining the fray and in their attempt to get customers to sign-up as members, there is always a hefty discounted membership price with plenty of ‘complimentary condiments’ like spa, welcome drink, personal coaching, etc. thrown in. Bearing in mind, the one that appeals to the specified target audience is likely to stay for a longer while and possibly with the right business approach, flourish too. With this fast growing trend as can be seen in the yuppies and the retirees or what have we, keeping a regular schedule with one’s favourite fitness centre has certainly become a lifestyle of sorts for many of us.

In bustling Singapore and like many developed cities elsewhere, when people have become more affluent with good income, better lifestyle and with spare cash to spend; most people would yearn to look good. But merely looking good is not just about flaunting on a designer shirt or pants or trying to wear an elegant gown to a party, if all these can fit in just nicely – literally speaking. While we have earned enough to make us live comfortably, we too have to work hard to achieve a good physique. Mind over body, this can even dare a dainty lady who used to shun exercises to run on the treadmill smelling nothing but sweat for she dearly wants to project her physical best or an obese man overcoming his own fear of being mocked at to keep to his schedule with his trainer burning calories in the gym.

Most, if not all in the fitness centre shares one common goal, it is to shed away the excess and re-emerge lean and fit. Heart willing but sometimes mind may not be that willing, there must be some kind of commitment; an absolute resolve to see fruition after a rigorous session and coupled with these, encouragements from friends and relatives definitely play one vital role too. To some, a person’s confidence is largely boosted knowing he or she has already overcome the almost impossible task of achieving a fit physique marvels by many.

So much about changes in present day gym but what makes an ideal fitness centre? Modern time fitness centre is not just about pumping irons or running the treadmills, period. The fitness centre should offer an array of floor exercises offered conducted by trained instructors, yoga, aerobic and boxercise to name a few. Notably, different fitness centres do have their own concoction of exercise therapies which are, well almost the same type but only cleverly named by marketing guru to stimulate people’s interest for a good cause, just like a food menu in a restaurant.

More so for the ladies perhaps, there is always the in-house spa which readily offers body wraps, body scrubs, aromatherapy, massages, facials and waxing services, among many after a tiring schedule. Not wanting to overlook the male segment of the market which is one growing segment though, an innovative fitness centre should spare no effort in chunking out somewhat similar services but of the masculine types.

A state-of-the-art fitness centre should also be equipped with tastefully designed rooms for people to meet, to sip their favourite beverages or snacks or simply laze around reading one’s favourite novel or magazine. It is not only a fitness centre, it should be an integrated centre of sorts that attracts people for varied reasons but keeping fit and healthy is still the key.

Affordability is one criteria but location is just as important, if not even more. One may argue that Singapore is a small place and public transportation is very convenient to almost everywhere in the island but people are likely to choose one that is located in the heart of city which may cost slightly more than one outside the city centre. Easy accessibility prevails in most instances.

Having sleek and most modern machines, nice and cozy corner, assorted range of exercises that may attract people, affordable prices and well-toned instructors always around to guide will still come to naught if the customer service is mediocre at the reception for this is still very much the vulnerable service industry like any hotel or restaurant. If the owner or management of a fitness centre only believes in showing off the best hardware in their equipment and facilities to their customers but paying less attention to the software element in employing friendly and sociably people to handle the customer service department, people are more likely to sign up for one that has a good combination of the good hardware and software.

The combination of each criteria as indicated above should serve a good guide in choosing a choice fitness centre for those who are still pondering. I have made mine that fits my bill or rather my budget; it is Energy One Fitness & Beyond in Safra Club. One last advice before I sign off, once your mind is made up and payment already done, there is not way out now except to make the best out of it for you are doing it for yourself. Stay fit and live healthy!

Writer's Note: This is the 2nd assignment which was vetted by his tutor with this remark, 'Promising but it is an uphill task to get this message across for unknown writer'.

Sunday, March 18, 2007

Grudge Match Between The Lions & The Tigers

Traditionally, it has always been a ‘grudge’ match between Singapore, the Lions and Malaysia, the Tigers, but the prolonged rain could put paid to a full turnout at our 55,000 capacity stadium.

After a streak of winless matches, football fever was at its peak again when our Lions fought their way to the 2nd leg of the semi-final of the biennale Asean Championship. The 1st leg was played at the 80,000 capacity Shah Alam Stadium in Kuala Lumpur which ended in a one-all draw.

Tickets were completely sold-out before the match day but I was lucky to land 2 complimentary tickets; much thanks to Tino’s good connection in the Sports Council where he works and for the first time, John who had always shown scant interest in football, agreed to join me.

After more than 3 decades, the grand dame will be making way for a multi-purpose state-of-the-art stadium later this year and ending the last match played here on a winning note mattered most to all.

The match had been scheduled to kick-off at 8 pm but many die-hard fans were already streaming in early. The stadium was almost deluged in a sea of RED for many of the Lions fans were donning red - me included.

At 7 pm, it was still drizzling and like many at the largely unsheltered stadium, we were praying for the rain to stop. Miraculously, the rain stopped when the teams were about to kick-off.

Loudest cheers were reserved for the Lions the moment they stepped onto the pitch, it was euphoria of sorts. Both sides started cautiously but the Tigers seemed to have a slight edge in the early minutes of play. The crowds were roaring, “We want goal! We want goal..!” Some twenty-five minute had passed, a moment lapse of concentration in the backline of the Lions allowed the lurking striker to hit one long from outside the penalty box. “GOAL”, shouted the small partisan Malaysian crowd in yellow that silenced the fans in red.

The Lions knew they must win; some 2 years ago they lost 4 goals to nil to the same team at this very stadium and pride must be restored. The second half did witness better play by our players and the crowds were edging them on. The famous Kallang Wave (original Mexican Wave) started ringing around the stadium sending much needed inspiration to our players. Alam Shah, our prolific striker suddenly shot down the flank to retrieve the loose ball and he then flipped it beyond the reach of the keeper into goal. We drew level this time. “Hooray, hooray…hooray!”, the crowd roared in unison.

The match ended in a draw and penalty shoot-out must decide the winner. 5 players from each side were chosen to take the spot-kick. We started first and the ball went in, 1 – 0 to us. The Tigers drew level next, much to my chagrin. All 5 of our players got theirs in and the scoreline now read 5 – 4 with one last player from the Tigers yet to kick. He took the ball and calmly placed it down. Our trusted custodian, Lionel Lewis was ever ready and for that moment, the entire stadium stood still. He lamely kicked the ball to the right; Lionel read it well and dived to the right. The ball was saved, we were in the final and history has been made.

Writer's Note: This is the writer's first assignment to his tutor in U.K. where he was asked to write a recent football match that he visited and to make the readers (in this instance, his tutor) feel as if she is also soaking in the atmosphere @ the stadium. Therefore, some parts were made up by the writer in order to spice-up his story for the benefits of his tutor (to score high marks, that is) but the hard fact still remains, SINGAPORE had beaten its arch rival, MALAYSIA in the last Asean Cup Championship and subsequently went on to win the cup for the 3rd time by narrowly pipping Thailand.