I was reading my favorite U.A.E. daily today and I came across this headline: “Hands-on Response to Bad Service.”

What? Turns out there’s a week-long seminar going on in Abu Dhabi on delivering customer service. I’ve no doubt the conversation will be scintillating. But I could’ve saved the attendees a bit of money with my advice: Take care of the employees.

It really does make sense. After all, these are the people who are interacting with your customers. In a super-competitive environment, they can make or break a sale, cause scorned customers to mobilize social media against or for your business.

My experience with customer service in the U.A.E. has left much to be desired. From what I’ve seen in the last three years, customer service is often surly and clueless, sometimes incompetent. It makes you a little crazy. Perhaps that is the consequence of such a mobile expat-oriented society. After all, most expats who live here either return to their homes (or go on to the next stop) after 3 to 5 years. Even longtime expats frequently have other “homes” that they visit, places that mentally hold an outsized place in the psyche even though a home has been established here.

Add to that the fact that the workforce here – 95 percent of whom are workers brought in from somewhere else – also turn over at a great rate. And let’s face it, many of them face conditions you and I would be hard-pressed to accept: Working weeks of 6 days, 12-hour shifts, pay that doesn’t even add up to minimum wage and living in a dorm-like atmosphere with the rest of your work colleagues in the horribly named “labor camps” that are located far out in the bleak desert away from town. Relationships between customer and employee rarely go beyond a one-off encounter. And given what I just wrote, maybe I can’t blame them.

So it’s been interesting to find myself an unintended observer of an experiment in customer service lately. … Let me backtrack a bit. Trying to find a place to get my nails done in Dubai was more difficult than it should have been. Before you scoff, allow me to point out why these businesses would be a excellent indicator of customer service. The product is very personal – the technicians use sharp and scrape-y objects on your fingers and toes – and it’s the kind of service that would be required regularly. So a lot of personal contact for which money is exchanged.

Dubai has a number of home-grown salons that provide your usual menu of hair, facial and nail services. I tried them and each of them sucked, to put it bluntly. The technicians were indifferent at best, doing sloppy work, and, with their facial expressions, daring me to say anything about it. Frequently, it was painful, with the techs seizing my foot in a torture-like death grip or plucking at cuticles with so much force as to cause bleeding.

(For another person’s view on U.A.E. “customer service,” read this hilarious blog entry by my friend, Paul Oberjurge, on his first – and last – mani-pedi adventure in Abu Dhabi.)

Recently, I’ve had reason to revisit one of these businesses. Let’s just say I’ve been privy to some changes taking place at the corporate level. Workers who had not been paid in 18 months were finally seeing paychecks. Accrued vacations were being honored. An unresponsive – even insultingly condescending – management began to at least inquire at workers’ concerns and desires for professional development. It wasn’t that the workers were being given anything “extra.” Management was now honoring their contracts. I was asked to be a secret shopper, see how things were playing out on the retail level.

I’ll admit I wasn’t optimistic. But on that first trip back about three months ago, something was different. The general demeanor of the techs seemed brighter. The scrubbing and polishing was actually done well and lasted more than a day or two. Nah, I told myself, I’m just seeing what I want to see. But yesterday, I went back. I asked for a color that I knew they had but wasn’t on the display for some reason.

The tech tracked it down – no backtalk, no denying that color existed. I, as I always do with new techs, let them know about my horribly dry cuticles, that they should probably let them soak a bit in the water. She took a look at my hands, agreed and then admonished me for not applying cuticle oil often enough. (Guilty.)

Then what I noticed was how carefully she went about pushing back and cutting my cuticles. There was not one painful moment; not one drop of blood was spilled. No more death grip of my foot. I am very happy with my service and, for the first time in Dubai, I will actually ask for someone by name.

Again, maybe she’s new. But I’m increasingly persuaded that the changes that have happened on the corporate level – and more importantly the signal that gives employees that they are at least being listened to and respected – have caused the shift.

Happy, respected employees have a stake in the business. So to the conventioneers at the Sheraton Abu Dhabi, I would just say: Take care of your employees. It matters.

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