Stock Saudi Riyadh skyline
A view shows buildings and houses in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia, Image Credit: AFP

I was out with my daughter recently shopping at the largest retail home furnishings store in the Kingdom. This large multinational two-storey outlet for home and kitchen furnishings and appliances has an adequate workforce of sales assistants, most of whom are Saudi youths.

While I sat in the coffee shop waiting for my daughter to go about her business and tried to enjoy my morning cup of Java, she interrupted me a short time later looking extremely perturbed. It seemed to her that the service or lack of afforded by some of these sales assistants was very annoying.

Describing her short ordeal, she told me how offended she got when in the process of waiting for a sales assistant to tend to her needs, he chose that exact moment to answer his ringing mobile phone and carry a conversation on some football player, apparently expecting her to wait while he concluded his very important call. She abruptly left.

Further down the furniture hall, after asking for directions for a specific item, another young Saudi nonchalantly waved his hand in a direction without looking up, busily engrossed in a tabloid. Apparently, he wanted to catch up on the daily news. Fed up with this callous lack of customer service she decided to cease her shopping activities and meet up with me.

Leaving her with her son, I decided to do some checking on my own. There were plenty of sales assistants, but from what I observed, assistance was the least on their mind. In one corner, I noticed four of these kids chatting away as customers wandered haplessly looking for help. Further down, two of these young men were seated on a display couch busily engrossed in some idle chatter. It didn’t faze them one bit as I paused momentarily to stare at them, ignoring my presence as they had apparently done with others.

The lack of supervision was very evident and I can honestly state that with a few exceptions, most of the service being provided was by the expatriates, with African and Asian backgrounds. Even as the place filled up with early shoppers following the evening prayers, I noticed no real attempt on the part of most of the young Saudi salesmen to be more accommodating to their customers. As a matter of fact, the opposite seemed to hold true. The more the queries that came their way from expectant customers the more they got annoyed at being disturbed.

Now I recollect when this store opened its branch in Jeddah many years ago. Primarily staffed by Eritrean, Somali, Indian, and a sprinkling of Filipinos and Sudanese sales personnel, it was the epitome of good customer service. Considering that most of their furniture came in flat-packed cartons that needed assembly once delivered to the home, those sales personnel were very patient and forthcoming with customer concerns. They were helpful in guiding their clients through the maze of this giant superstore of furnishings and often would leave their individual stations to guide their customers to their requirements.

So, what has happened since then? In the name of Saudisation, the store management has failed to make the grade and is drawing increasing complaints from customers. With new and competitive entries in this market, the store will eventually find its patrons moving somewhere else with their business.

While there is a shortage of ready-made and skilled Saudi labour force in the service industry, focus on effective selection and the proper training of their fresh Saudi workforce is severely lacking.

Are the Saudi sales assistants to blame? I don’t think so. I believe it is in the recruiting and training process that the management of this store has failed. Directors and managers in human resources and training departments of such organisations are the sources of the problem. Most new recruits have never worked anywhere else and thus possess no previously acquired professional work habits. By leaving them out on the floor to face their clients without the proper supervision and ongoing training and guidance is a sure recipe for failure in the process of Saudisation. Without periodic assessment, how are these young kids to know how they fare?

Paying lip service to nationalise trades is a crime. Nationalisation comes with a price. A price that calls for more dedication and support from the upper echelons of management.

— Tariq A. Al Maeena is a Saudi socio-political commentator. He lives in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia. Twitter: @talmaeena.