Great service in China. With or without the smile.

Author: Robin Tabbers

Many years ago, when I returned to Shanghai from a rather long business trip, I found that the gas supply to my apartment was cut off. And although there was no way I could have the hot shower I had been dreaming about, I realised – and not for the first time since I came to Shanghai – that the Chinese are wonderfully service-minded. Service ‘Chinese-style’, with or without a smile.

Obviously, being cut off from gas supply itself did not make me happy. It was the way the utility company resolved the matter. Clearly, I must have forgotten to pay the bill. At some point in time, after numerous attempts to contact me about the unpaid bill while I was abroad, the company had to act.

After exchanging details with the call centre operator, she asked if I would be home to receive the gas company’s mechanic. Within an hour, the doorbell rang. Not long after that, I took my shower smilingly.  

Stay in touch with customers
Even though there is no competition, China’s utility companies go to great lengths to stay in touch with their customers, to iron out any inconvenience. When you report a technical problem, they will most likely send a mechanic within an hour, free of charge. As long as you are happy!

If you have forgotten to pay, they will phone you and they will send you a friendly mail or message - or two. While I was away, company employees had been to my doorstep to remind me about my bill. They left friendly sticker notes on my door, which is a common practice. If I had been home on one of these occasions, I would have been able to pay to the employee, in cash.

True customer service
Speaking of bills: the great array of payment choice is true customer service. There are mobile apps you can use – including WeChat – and most bills can be paid online. As many older people distrust paying online, the most common way to pay for them is to go to a convenience store like 7-Eleven, which has branches at almost every street corner. Bring your bills, have them scanned by the cashier, pay cash or with a card and you’ll be on your way within a minute. Alternatively, you can go to the utility company or to your bank. That is service in China: having options.

Let’s define service. One can have different opinions on what a customer expects and truly appreciates. Smiling, friendliness? In China, getting things done, exceeding expectations is what it is about. Companies do that by offering flexibility as a rule, even bending the rules from time to time. Going the extra mile is equally important. I have many examples of how that works well in China. When I stand in the wrong line at a subway ticket office, it doesn’t mean the clerk will send me to the next line per se; I have experienced that he or she may still make an effort to help you out. This is a service mindset that I particularly like. It is a matter of finding solutions, the quickest and most efficient way. Service in the European text book most often means ‘personal touch’, ‘attentiveness’, ‘friendliness with a smile’. Service in China may be less personal, but the end result is also that customers are happy.

How a restaurant manager treats you
You can see the same thing in how a restaurant manager will typically treat you when you come for dinner. He will make sure you will be seated, hand you the menu, take your order and get your food, all at an amazingly high pace, but not necessarily in the friendly (fake?) manner we are used to in Europe.

Did you make the dinner reservation for four and are you showing up with eight people? Wait a minute and he’ll fix and extra table and chairs for you. That is how China’s consumers like to get served. This is service, not with the chitchat and overdone politeness that you get in some other countries. This guy won’t keep you waiting. It’s business! And in his efficient way, he is doing everything to keep you happy and make sure you will return. That includes removing charges from your bill for dishes that you disliked or that were under- or overcooked or burnt. No discussion – it’s just how customer service in restaurants works.

A smile from taxi drivers
You won’t get much of a smile from some taxi drivers either. In Shanghai, people jump in and out of taxis all the time – taxis offer a simple commodity. Often I hear people in Amsterdam or other European cities complain about drivers not opening the door for them or helping to get their baggage on board. Welcome to Shanghai, where taxi drivers will just take you from A to B in their most efficient manner. Period.

Service in China also means you will find several people at the bank office counter to help you solve your problem, cutting wait time short. In China, the customer is king. Both retailers and e-tailers will work hard for their money, as the customer is demanding and wants the best deal. That is why e-stores will need to have his call-center well prepared, as many Chinese are not gullible. They want to know what they buy!

Live and thrive on good service
Another example is the category of internet, cable and pay tv companies. These companies live and thrive on good service. Most service representative centres are available 24/7, you can call them or chat with them anytime. They are proud to solve any technical problem instantly. Resetting your system, solving a hardware problem, I am often amazed by the targeted and service-minded way they operate.

All this service and flexibility is possible because of wages being relatively low, but that is only part of the story. Making customers happy, getting or retaining their business is part of many companies’ motto in China. And if you as a customer don't come to him, he’ll come to you, because he wants your business. This is why sales people come and go at most offices. They will sell you anything from business cards to car lease. They will take care of all paperwork and come back if needed. Annoying? I tend to think it is convenient. I don’t even have to leave the office and go out into town to get what I need. Great service is defined by what the customers wants!

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