Companies should be treating their customers with the best care and experience, regardless of if you’ve got the budget the size of Nordstrom or REI. It will pay off in the short and long term for all parties involved. We’ll be your biggest advocate or your worst enemy. Need proof? Check out the lesson learned from FTD Flowers, Time Warner Cable, Blog Hosting Company, and Ryanir. Over the course of the month, you’ll read posts from fellow guest bloggers from around the world sharing their good, bad, or ugly customer service experiences…all of them very real. 
Photo Credit: Sandra Boedecker

The trendiest multi-tasker I know.

Today’s post comes from China (and the U.S.). Sandra is a dear friend, amazing editor/word-smith, and quite possibly more of my twin than my own sister.  Interests, fears, passions, pet-peeves, need for order and planning, you-name-it we’re pretty much identical. Even our husbands are alike in so many ways! But that’s a completely different blog post.  Read on about Sandra and her husband’s adventures while living abroad. How would you respond if you were in their shoes?  

As Americans it’s easy to forget that not every country has the same standards of customer service that we’ve come to expect as a constitutional right.

As a traveler, it’s good to remind yourself of that fact before you start banging your head on a brick wall … or the Great Wall, as the case may be.

Photo Credit: Sandra Boedecker

“The Great Wall of China.” Photo Credit: Sandra Boedecker

My husband has spent quite a bit of time in China for work over the past few years and I’ve been able to join him for some of it, thanks to a stellar boss and work team, the wonders of Skype and Dropbox, and the not-insignificant-advantage of working ahead several time zones. And while it goes without saying that success in navigating everyday life in China is dramatically affected by the quality of your Mandarin skills, we’ve had two experiences that offer lessons about customer service that hold true anywhere in the world—regardless of what language you speak.

Case study #1: China Southern Airlines

A couple of years ago we were flying from Shenzhen (near Hong Kong) to London via Beijing for a highly anticipated vacation. My unease began when we pushed away from the gate … and sat there for two hours.

I should explain that in China the plane will always push back even if the pilot knows with 100 percent certainty that he won’t be taking off anytime soon. After all, someone else needs the gate—there’s a billion other people waiting, right?

My worst fears were realized when we arrived in Beijing well after our connecting flight was scheduled to leave. As it transpired, that flight had been cancelled along with 400 others that day; we could immediately see that the “bad weather” being blamed for our delay was nothing more than stupendously bad pollution—as in, hazardous-to-your-health, looks-like-a-nuclear-winter, keep-the-elderly-and-babies-inside. We were going to have to stay the night.

Were there organized, efficient airline employees to meet us, take us to transportation that would whisk us to comfortable accommodations, and greet us the next morning to guide us to our rescheduled flight? Like how it worked for Todd when a Northwest Airlines flight arrived late in Japan due to a mechanical?

Um … no. No, there were not.

There were plenty of airline employees around. It was just that none of them seemed capable or desirous of offering any type of assistance. With every staff person we asked, we were repeatedly directed (vaguely) elsewhere, eventually joining ourselves to a frenzied, milling crowd at a ticketing counter and finally rushing to join a group of people who were getting on a bus to a hotel (feeling fairly certain that had we not, we would have been sleeping on the floor of the airport).

You could just see in the employees’ faces that they didn’t give a rat’s left butt cheek.

Fortunately things changed the next day when we returned to the airport and found the right person. After the requisite “strategic positioning” in line (fail to assert yourself and you will get NOWHERE in China), my unfailingly polite husband differentiated himself from the crowds of shouting Chinese by speaking calmly to the ticketing agent, expressing his appreciation for her efforts, and commiserating with her situation. Voila—a coveted spot on the standby list.

Of course, we almost missed our chance at that day’s flight because we weren’t warned more than two minutes in advance that we needed to run for the tram or the plane was going to leave without us. But that’s China for you.

 Moral: Be nice, and you might move ahead of the hordes.

Case study #2: Specialized Bicycles

Being something of a mountain biking fanatic, Todd decided to buy a bike in China to keep at least some of his sanity and physical conditioning.

 

Photo Credit: Sandra Boedecker

A ‘clean’ Todd. Photo Credit: Sandra Boedecker

 

While he is far from the local Specialized shop’s biggest-spending customer, their service is nothing short of jaw-dropping. The easygoing proprietor, Shark (note: Chinese people choose their own English names, sometimes with humorous results) will gladly:

  • Completely clean and detail a mud-splattered bike for next to nothing—even when it’s a different bike that Todd later brought from home (fanatics must have options …).

    Photo Credit: Sandra Boedecker

    A ‘muddy’ Todd. Photo Credit: Sandra Boedecker

  • Store the bike securely while Todd is out of the country and have it prepped, tuned, and ready to roll upon his return.
  • Add air to the tires, check brakes, and make small adjustments for free any time a customer stops by the shop.
  • Take a van to pick up a rider with a mechanical problem if they call from anywhere in the nearby region, at no cost.
  • Reassure a foreigner whose folding bike was just stolen from outside a local mall, and who calls him for advice, that she should not bother with the police, who will simply waste her time by collecting information that they will do nothing with. (That was me. Yes, it happened. Yes, I’m still sad.)
  • Give said foreigner a discount on a new bike to replace the stolen one. (Well, I guess I was a repeat customer … but still, a sympathy discount? Pretty nice.)
Photo Credit: Sandra Boedecker

The replacement. Photo Credit: Sandra Boedecker

Moral: Find good people to do business with, and stick with them.

Experiences with customer service in China have alternately made us smile in amazement and shake our heads (if not our fists) in disbelief. And they’ve given us some great stories—and lessons—about how to get what you need, whether you’re a local or a laowai.*

*mzungu, gringo, foreigner

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There’s no exchange of moolah behind these blog pages, pro-deals, or freebies with this series. What you see is what you get; real stories from real people who are sharing their experiences to challenge the status quo, inspire companies to take action, and ultimately build a life long customer. Be sure to check back this week!

July 15: I have renamed my WiFi network “TimeWarnerisHorrible” by Chris Miller

July 13: Our love affair with the world’s most hated airline by Kayla Robertson

July 12: Treat others how you would want to be treated. by Kristin

July 10: Where’s the Line? by Kristin McGunnigle

July 8: Do customers dream of electric sheep? by Stephen Ellis

July 5: Nike earns an A+ by Jackie Ostlie

July 3: How to Please the Queen by Katrina Taylor

July 1: Are you kidding me? by Evelyn Wolf