It took moving half way around the world for me to realize how utterly dependent I had become on good customer service. We westerners often react with fear and aggression when suddenly deprived of service in the language and style we are accustomed to.
We may feel lost, scared and alone, just as if we had dropped our iPhone in the toilet.
If nothing else, experiencing customer service in a language and culture foreign to us will bring into relief cultural idiosyncrasies, and maybe even reveal our true nature.
Westerners in China, for example, may be surprised or even offended by the type of service they receive at times. While ordering at a small town KFC, I had the following interchange with a cashier:
Me: "Hi, I would like to order item A."
Cashier: "We are out of A. We do have B, and C."
Me: "Ok, I'll have B."
Cashier: "It would be more convenient if you ordered C."
Me: "Come on, really? Ok, what is item C? I can't understand the description."
Cashier: "It doesn't matter. Do you want to order it?"
Me: "Ok, fine."
While eating my menu item C (which turned out to be a New Orleans style chicken sandwich), I thought about the customer service I had just received.
On one hand, I had reason to be annoyed. In the middle of the day, a popular menu item wasn't available, and the second most popular was mysteriously "inconvenient". The cashier couldn't be bothered to answer a simple question about a new menu item. On top of this, I wasn't even offered a choice of drink, I was just handed a Cola.
On the other hand, service was lightning fast. The place was mobbed, but the line moved remarkably quickly. Yes, I wasn't given much of a choice of sandwich, or any choice at all of drink (all KFC meals in our town are served with Pepsi unless you firmly resist), but there was also zero attitude.
I was told it didn't matter what variation chicken sandwich I ended up getting, and as I ate my food, I realized my cashier had been absolutely correct.
Customer service in China is a product of its environment, by necessity. Huge volumes of people are being served, and no one has time for you to be picky, or throw a tantrum. If you hesitate for a moment the next person in line will invariably place their order over your shoulder, and the cashier will calmly, and instantly accept it. At times I've seen a crowd of people all shoving money at one cashier, and was impressed to see the cashier accept people's money in perfect sequence of their arrival, without a hint of frustration!
The problem of getting useful help from local store employees stumped me for some time. I find that people in customer service roles here are full of information, but completely unprepared to answer specific questions.
When faced with a choice between saying "I don't know" or giving misinformation, they will usually chose the latter.
In a supermarket, I was told, "we don't carry milk", when I later found it in the next isle. (In my defense, there were two isles full of yogurt drinks in milk carton containers, and I couldn't read Chinese).
In a home improvement store I was told "we don't carry trash bags," when they were in fact right behind the woman.
Over time, I realized that most Chinese customers just don't ask these questions, they use their own brain to find what they need. Most would be embarrassed to admit that they couldn't find the milk.
When I ask store employees for help, they often give me a baffled look because they can't believe any self-respecting person would ask such a question.
Yes, there are often hordes of young service people standing in the isles of large stores, but their role is to follow you, and talk in an unbroken stream of words describing in minutia every item you show interest in, in an effort to increase sales. This method is apparently very effective with Chinese shoppers.
In the end, experiencing customer service Chinese-style has forced me to become more Chinese myself: Self-reliant, gracious under pressure, and fully ready to make the best of any situation.
- Chris Zaic, expat in China
Unicultural team and trainers, sharing our views and experiences on everything cultural.