Chinese customer service at its best

Thursday Night Insight - Matt Harrison

Setting up the B2B International office in Beijing in January 2007, director Matt Harrison spent a year in China. Here, in his first Thursday Night Insight, he reflects on customer service, Chinese style.

It is fair to say that customer service in China is variable. The time I spent living in this rapidly evolving country exposed me to service that ranged from ‘not so hot’ to excellent on a daily basis. Trips to the bank, for example, were challenging and – to put it mildly – time-consuming. The rare occasions on which I went shopping for clothes were usually cut short, as I quickly became furious with the shop assistants who insisted on following me around the store, recommending items I’d just walked past and trying to bargain with me on things I wouldn’t have bought at gun-point.

Positive experiences of customer service are becoming more common, however, and an increasing emphasis on monitoring and achieving customer satisfaction is ever more apparent. When you pass through passport control at Beijing Airport, for example, an electronic device at the passport desk asks you to rate the way you have been dealt with on your entry to the Chinese capital. And as you leave the airport, an impossibly huge line of taxis is waiting to immediately take you into the city.

Chinese customer service at its best, however, is seen in the thousands of restaurants that Beijing has to offer, and eating out would be my top tip for visitors to Beijing.

Upon entering a Chinese restaurant, you are typically immediately welcomed by 3 or 4 brightly attired women, who welcome you loudly (in unison), before one of them takes you to your table and provides you with a menu. Strangely, there is only one menu provided, no matter how many people are eating with you, meaning that all of the food is often chosen by the ‘head’ of the group. Many menus are bilingual, although some entrepreneurial restaurant managers provide a separate English menu, containing less choice of food and higher prices!

As you choose your meal, the service is excellent, maybe excessively so, as the waiter or waitress stands right next to you, eager to answer any questions you might have. To a reserved Englishman used to having a drink the minute he sits down and choosing the meal on his own, this can be off-putting! Look around the restaurant though, and you will see waiters and waitresses sharing their knowledge of the huge menus for 10 or 15 minutes at a time, ensuring that the customer gets exactly what he or she wants.

The food arrives quickly, and in no particular order. Don’t expect a starter and a main course here! The duck’s lower jaw, pigs’ knees and other delicacies may well arrive quicker than the soup, with the rice usually arriving last as a ‘filler’. And by the way, don’t expect ‘real’ Chinese food to resemble European or American Chinese food too closely – I will be boasting until the day I die about some of the things I ate, which include deer’s brain on egg custard, diced ram’s testicles, duck’s feet and chicken’s head. But the range of food is staggering, and the numerous service staff are always at hand to help. Much of the food is prepared next to you at the table, avoiding any suspicion that it is pre-prepared.

All-in-all, the average Chinese restaurant is a lesson in how to provide top-class customer service, not to mention a high quality product. The only exception is perhaps as you leave, if you need an official business receipt. This process can involve 10 minutes of your time, 3 members of staff, and a bizarre mixture of printed and handwritten paperwork. Proof that even the best suppliers have room for improvement!

The next blog from Matt reveals the fun of taking a rickshaw.

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