SINGAPORE: It is a job he loves and has done all his life. But there is one part of it that saddens him a bit – every day when he says the words “Thank you, see you again. Have a nice day”.
Most diners ignore him and his cheery goodbye as they leave after their meal. “They just walk away. They don’t give us any response,” said food and beverage manager Saravanan Arasan, 46.
Despite this non-reaction, he keeps his smile. After all, his workplace of four years – the restaurant he has managed – is where this quiet man at home transforms, out of real passion for his work, into the chatty person his customers see. Or don’t see.
Channel NewsAsia spent months filming him and four others for the documentary Don’t Make Us Invisible, about those who do jobs that are crucial but thankless.
They include a 77-year-old petrol pump attendant, a 23-year-old bus driver, a 75-year-old cleaner and a 38-year-old construction worker – just some of the people who keep Singapore going. (Watch the series here.)
In the case of Mr Saravanan, despite how busy his work gets and the stress it brings, it at least helps him to forget some of his worries at home, where he lives with his ailing mother.
MORE DEMANDING CUSTOMERS
He was only 17 when he took his first step towards a career in F&B, starting as a part-time employee in a fast food chain while in school. It paid him S$1.90 an hour.
Every three months, if he passed an on-the-job test, he would get a 10-cent increment, until he was earning S$3.50 an hour – a far cry from the approximate S$8 an hour service staff get now.
Mr Saravanan climbed the ladder, becoming a full-time employee, a crew leader and then a supervisor, before reaching the managerial level. He joined the restaurant franchise PastaMania and was made the branch manager of its Jem outlet.
He shared that when he first started out, he was “too shy to talk” to customers. “I didn’t know how to react when (they) talked to me,” he said. He's not looked back since, having won awards for service excellence. “I love working in customer service … (and) talking to customers."
This is in spite of how customers, also, have changed. “Singaporean customers are a bit demanding, I can say that,” he laughed.
“They do make complaints about food quality if the food isn’t right for them,” said Mr Saravanan, who remembers that complaints were rare when he was younger.
With the higher living standards and educational levels now, he believes that customer service has become very important, and more difficult – to the point that even a little unhappiness can lead to customers complaining.
(And) they don’t talk to the managers, or to any person in the outlet – they’d straightaway write an email to the company, or maybe they … would Facebook.
"They like to do that,” he said with another laugh.
Even so, he does not treat such reactions as complaints, but rather as feedback “because it is for us to learn … (and) improve from there”. He added: “We must have patience with customers … a lot of patience.”
WATCH: His personal story (3:24)
Maybe once every few months, however, his company sends him emails of another kind: Compliments, such as for being efficient and alert to customers’ needs. “In the service line, we need this kind of motivation from customers,” he said.
And that appreciation can more than make up for the disappointment when customers walk off without giving service staff a second look.
WHEN IT COMES TO CRUNCH TIME
The kind of challenges faced by Mr Saravanan were in full view as the cameras followed him at work, where he was on duty six days a week.
One Sunday, the busiest day of the week – so busy that he could not take a break – a customer returned to look for a lost wallet.
Amid taking orders and serving food, Mr Saravanan began checking with his staff and the diners at the table where the man had been seated. And over the next hour, he searched relentlessly for the elusive wallet.
Though he had taken down the customer’s name and contact number, the man returned twice more, each time more fretful than before.
To solve the problem, Mr Saravanan promised to get the restaurant’s CCTV footage checked in the company’s main office the next morning. This was done, and it showed that the wallet was most likely misplaced elsewhere.
Having to keep calm is a key part of his job, even at crunch time. Take another busy weekend when the dinner shift was in full swing and one of his waiters had not arrived.
With Mr Saravanan already helping to man the cash register and depending on a lean team of five – including two young trainees – to manage the dinner crowd, a manpower crisis looked set to unfold.
But then the latecomer arrived, having mistakenly thought he was scheduled to start at 6.30pm instead of 6pm. Mr Saravanan managed to laugh about it later, saying: “He was blur, but he felt very sorry for that.”
AT HOME, A DIFFERENT STORY
While Mr Saravanan’s colleagues know him for this jovial personality, it masks a pressing worry at home.
Last year, his mother’s health took a turn for the worse, and the 70-year-old had to get a colostomy bag attached to her stomach. “We were very worried, and I cried (in the hospital),” he recalled.
“My mum was also worried that she was going to leave us. She … held my hand, started to cry and told me to take care of myself. That kind of stuff made me more emotional.”
Her digestive waste is now drained into the bag, which must be replaced as needed and presents "a bit of a financial problem", he said.
Doctors then found that her heart rate was low. To investigate this, an imaging test known as an angiography would be required. Though it is minimally invasive, just the idea of subjecting her to another procedure worried the family.
Mr Saravanan, who is “very close” to his mother and spends his time off with her at home, says her mood has changed. “I think she’s a bit frustrated because she can’t move around much.“
But these problems disappear temporarily from his thoughts when he is busy working. And he is grateful for that. “(My) mind is on the customers, to serve them."
AN UNEXPECTED FAREWELL
Even at work, however, it is now a time of change and adaptation for him. His company recently promoted and transferred him to its catering operations, where it needed someone urgently.
He is getting a pay raise and a five-day working week. But it also means a different job scope and less face-to-face interaction with customers, as he will be taking orders mostly by phone and email, in an office.
“I’m happy with my new job but …” he said, his voice trailing off. Having enjoyed being on the ground for so long, his hesitancy showed.
And it is not just his customers he will miss. Over the past four years, some of his colleagues at the restaurant have also become his close friends.
Shift manager Nur Baizura Othman said: “To me, he’s a good manager because he cares about his staff … And as a friend, I’ve never met someone whom I can click with that fast.”
At Mr Saravanan’s final lunch shift at the restaurant, he tried to be optimistic. “Now (that) I’m going to another department, maybe (I’ll gain) some experience from there,” he said.
The move could even revive a dream he first had when he was 30, which is to have his own F&B business. He said hopefully: “If I get enough money … who knows, maybe (I will) open a small cafe.”
Watch the Channel NewsAsia programme Don't Make Us Invisible here. New episodes every Monday at 8pm.