Personnel who service customers or interact with the public are called frontliners. They are expected to play the role of ambassador as they represent the face or voice of their organisation.
In the tourism industry, government officers may even be more important. For example, it can be nerve-wrecking for a traveller waiting anxiously for an immigration officer taking a longer time checking a passport or visa.
Relief comes as soon as the passport is returned, and most people prefer to forget unpleasant experiences. However, immigration officers can create the greatest first impression of a country, more than any other tourism frontliner.
If your passport is returned by an immigration officer with a smile saying “Welcome to my country” in a sincere and friendly manner, the moment will be unforgettable. You would reciprocate the kind gesture of the host with your best visitor behaviour throughout your stay.
Malaysians are naturally friendly but can be rude without knowing. This is because courtesy is grossly lacking at all levels of society due to lack of personal development in our educational system, in schools right up to universities.
As such, training is necessary for tourism frontliners in both public and private sectors, especially when we are expecting an influx of visitors during Visit Malaysia 2020. The target is to attract 30 million foreign tourists and RM100 billion in tourism receipts.
This would mean our immigration officers processing an average of 57 foreigners entering our country every minute, 3,420 an hour or 82,080 a day to reach 30,041,280 in a year. Are existing facilities at all our entry points adequate?
Customer service begins at the organisational level and amenities, processes and procedures are determined by the top management. While in-house training programmes are crucial, they must be supplemented by public courses to gather the perspective of others.
The Ministry of Tourism, Arts and Culture can conduct courses effectively by training tourism frontliners from both public and private sectors together. It would be less effective if large numbers in one class come from a single government agency or a large corporation.
Spreading them out would allow participants to learn from others as different sectors offer a variety of experiences, perceptions and misconceptions that need to be corrected.
Key performance indicators should not be based on numbers alone, which could easily be achieved by briefing large numbers in one hall, but many of these attendees would be looking at their phones most of the time.
While skill training workshops are limited to 25 participants, it can be higher for training frontliners. Registration for each class can be capped at 50 and allowing for a few absentees, more than 40 can be trained at a time.
Training of trainers can be conducted at 10 major tourist destinations at Langkawi, Penang, Ipoh, Kuala Lumpur, Shah Alam, Melaka, Johor Bahru, Kuala Terengganu, Kuching and Kota Kinabalu.
If each certified trainer conducts two courses a month, an average of 1,000 frontliners could be trained in a year. If on average there are 10 certified trainers at each of the 10 destinations, 100,000 participants could attend training over 12 months.
To make training more effective, the course should not be another briefing session loaded with facts and figures, with a long list of dos and don’ts. Such information could easily be forwarded for them to read at leisure.
Training must induce participants to think through brainstorming and discussions, comments and sharing of experiences. But if the trainer keeps telling information or feeding them with answers, critical thinking will be replaced by rote learning without application.
Apart from capacity building by improving the attitude, skills, knowledge and other resources needed by frontliners to perform competently, the authorities should be mindful of sustainable tourism by identifying the carrying capacity of popular tourism sites.
Overcrowding produces a host of problems leading to lowering of service standards, exploitation of visitors, degradation of environment, desecration of sites, and compromising the safety and security of tourists and frontliners.
The best prevention and cure is to set up contingency plans and activating them when disaster strikes. A minor incident could escalate into a catastrophe if allowed to fester or unthinking response ballooned into a public relations nightmare, resulting in number of visitors plunged.
Tourism authorities and frontliners ought to learn cross-cultural communication and be aware of foreign visitors’ expectations such as adequate security, safety, comfort and convenience, and given immediate assistance in the event of accidents or incidents.
Tourists are highly sensitive to people they meet, and service received. They are quick to sing praises or easily upset when not getting what they want. Those satisfied will recommend to others and come back for return visits if they feel welcomed.
How do I make tourists feel welcomed? If this question is planted in the minds of our tourism frontliners, then Malaysia is ready to play host to 2.5 million foreigners monthly come 2020. After all, people are the greatest asset of any country, more so if they are well trained.
The views expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of the New Sarawak Tribune.