A SMALL tour operator is not the most obvious candidate for a year-long customer service programme but Giamso International Tours knew it had to stand out from the pack.

The company - it is based at People's Park Centre with a headcount of about 40 - spent last year training and upgrading its service quality.

'The travel agent industry is so competitive. We are providing a service, so it is important to do well in this area to stand out,' says managing director Michael Giam.

The competition is literally on its doorstep: People's Park Centre alone houses 40 travel agents, and there are about 100 agents in the Chinatown area altogether.

As more people turn to the Internet for their travel arrangements, the differentiating factor for the bricks and mortar firms has come down to customer service and travel product knowledge, adds Mr Giam.

That was why he was keen to have first-mover advantage when it came to the customer service programme.

Giamso, founded in 1979 by his father Giam Hee Mioh, tapped the Government's Customer-Centric Initiative to fund its $120,000 programme.

With the help of a consultant, it mapped out a plan containing a vision and mission statement, as well as spelling out core values.

The entire staff then attended training sessions, learning how to serve customers more effectively and handle their complaints.

They also learnt about the need for grooming, says Mr Giam.

The extensive training meant inconveniences and disruption, including having to operate at half-strength sometimes.

But he says it was worth the effort: 'After they came back from the course, you could see the difference in the way they served customers.'

Keeping customers happy means they will return and that can only help the business - crucial in an industry where complaints are a dime a dozen.

A tour agency acts as a coordinator, partnering tour operators and airlines.

But when an overseas operator or airline falls short, the tour agency gets the blame and has to handle the complaints, says Mr Giam.

One of the key changes Giamso introduced after the training was to get customers to put their complaints in writing.

This then allows it to pass the complaint to the operations department, where one person will handle it and make sure the issues are resolved.

In the past, a complaint could be communicated to a few staff members, which slowed the resolution process.

Giamso also developed a booking system which ensures that customers are kept up to date on the status of their bookings.

Any communication with customers on their bookings is recorded and follow-up service is prompt, standardised and transparent.

The system allows any counter staff to step in at any stage to serve the same customer, notes Mr Giam.

Giamso also designed a customer feedback form.

'When the staff are aware that management is seriously considering customer feedback on their performance, they are more on their toes,' adds Mr Giam.

'We reward our staff who collect the most positive feedback forms with gift vouchers.'

Giamso also made service performance a key part of staff appraisal.

Furthermore, the feedback forms allow Giamso to better understand customer needs and expectations. Information gleaned from the forms is also passed to the marketing department if it can help improve the quality of the firm's tours, for instance.

'We are thinking of doing a phase two of the (Customer-Centric Initiative) project, which will look into IT initiatives and a customer relationship management system,' says Mr Giam.

'We want to focus on building a good database of customers so that we can blast out our promotions to them for instance.'

He believes the investment in improving service quality will be worth it because it will translate into better business.

'We will get more repeat business and people can recommend their friends to take up our tours,' he says.