The State of Customer Service in China
The day my best friend first arrived in China, I took him to the best Lanzhou lāmiàn restaurant in Jing'an, the kind run by actual Lanzhounese, declaring that while the noodle shack might seem unhygienic, it was a Muslim establishment, so they had to aspire to Halal standards. Naturally, Murphy's Law dictated that his third bite net him half a cockroach. When the staff was presented the surprise morsel, they only laughed, offering no apology or attempt to comp the meal, a common reaction for customer service in China.
While customer service in China is notoriously bad, that was to be expected; it's a hole-in-the-wall. Had it been anywhere else, I would probably have spoken up. Cultural relativists may have you believe that you are merely experiencing culture shock, but, with regard to customer service, the disconnect between your expected treatment and reality can sometimes be one of the more frustrating aspects of life here to adjust to. Haggling and how you deal with customer service is a good metric to gauge how much BS you are willing to put up with.
Backpacking China Noob
For the newly-arrived expat (see Exhibit A), haggling is an exciting entrance into the local consumer culture, giving them an opportunity to demonstrate their language ability as well as business acumen. The back-and-forth battle is amusing, like a dance. A very ugly dance. Most will be unable to even express their dissatisfaction, or will be too embarrassed to attempt to do so.
Bitter Old China Hand
The seasoned laowai (Exhibit B) either avoids the whole process by buying online, or they know ahead-of-time how much an item should be and walks away from any price that offends him or her. They don't have time to deal with a shop owner shaming them for being "cheap" because they don't want to spend more than they reasonably should, guilting them for even looking at a product they may not buy. For some companies, each interaction reinforces the idea that to them you are still just a number—one in 1.34 billion potential sales.
Locals will remain the silent majority, either unwilling to make someone lose face or offering cries of "méibànfǎ!" or "tài máfan!" as an excuse. This isn't about shoving your "Western ideals" down a waitress' throat. This is about ordering an oak desk that's actually particle board, picking out a brand new CPU and finding out it's refurbished and D.O.A., expecting pulled noodles and receiving pulled cockroach. This is about getting what you feel your money is worth. In an ideal world, informing a company or service that your expectations were not met would mean your problem will be dealt with and the service will be improved for all future transactions.
Hǎo Píng Power
The Internet and pervasive technology like Weibo changes this. On Taobao, a seller's rating is taken very seriously; especially considering there are usually 20 other stores all offering the same product. If you leave a poor review on an item, you will receive the opposite treatment you would offline; they cannot wait to contact you to find out what they can do to get you to alter your rating to a hǎo píng. For example, here's the refund page for my Taobao account, a hefty list of items like shoes, cheap phones, candy, etc., that weren't as advertised.
They have offered to give me an item for free without needing to ship it back if I spoke to them about it beforehand, or I have to take it to the next level and leave a negative rating. Your ability in Chinese will of course help, but it's not necessarily the comment they care about; it's their rating.
Just the other day I took to Weibo to "voice my concerns" (complain) to DianWoBa, formerly 717.com, a Chinese food delivery service that offers cheap, local options. At the time it was the only service I knew that would deliver Saizeriya and Coco Curry right to my door. This time, they only managed to deliver my order correctly about three hours and five minutes after their office had closed. Consequently, Weibo was my last vestige. The initial comment simply explains the ordeal:
"The service I received today sucked, it took an hour and a half to receive it; I ordered two, but only one arrived. I called customer service and they told me it will come immediately or it's free. Result was another one and a half hour wait and you still expected money! The rest of the restaurants were all closed by then, so I had no choice but to order McDonald's! I didn't get to eat until 10:05 PM. These are fundamental service issues and you still couldn't figure it out."
If you'll notice, the initial message has been forwarded (转发'd) six times mostly by people I don't know, with a total number of 712 views. (Update: 2,504 views) Considering my fame level on Weibo (non-existent), that is perhaps why they were quick to respond. Or they too had suffered the fate of having to order McDonald's to survive another day.
Here's the full conversation if you're bored. There are a lot of perfunctory hěn bàoqiàn's (very sorry), as well as the constant need to reference me as qīn (dear) that every customer service girl can't seem to resist:
The power of Weibo lies in its potential reach and directly communicate with someone who should, ideally, care about the reputation of their company—something you'd think is important in a country where the ubiquitous concept of "face" permeates every interaction. Allegedly, some celebrities are even getting paid to complain about products (hopefully this won't mean legitimate issues will be ignored because the public discourse has been flooded by orchestrated mob tactics) and here I am, just giving away my Apple bashing.
Will my experience with DianWoBa ultimately change their service level for the better? Who knows. I do know I'll be using another company out of spite, for a little while at least. While I applaud their willingness to own up to their mistake, I wonder how many other companies whose success doesn't rely on repeat business would do the same. Remember, nothing changes for the better if you join the silent majority.