Customer service, more than just a smile
Updated : 12/05/2011 08:54 GMT + 7
Living in London for 4 years, I became used to what I then considered to be, terrible customer service. Buying a pint of milk complete with a frosty glare or two was just part of the shopping experience; in fact if I was buying my weekly shopping and was greeted with a smile I probably would have lowered my eyes, questioned the store assistant’s sanity and walked in the opposite direction. I came to expect this dispassionate approach to customer service, and it very quickly became perfectly acceptable. It wasn’t until I came to Vietnam two years ago that I realized why.
Just after I landed in Ho Chi Minh City and had found my hotel, I dumped my bag and went in search of a bottle of water, which I eventually found at a 24/7 shop. Still in England mode, I picked what I needed, put it on the counter and waited for the gruff response that was sure to come. Instead I received my change with a smile and a thank you. Before coming to Vietnam I had heard from many people that Asian hospitality differed somewhat to the UK, but the warmth of the smile, in spite of the late hour and the banality of my purchase was quite a shock.
I soon was used to service with a smile, and I even started smiling back, it was all quite surreal. After settling in, I quickly became a consumer and inevitably ended up having more contact with the service industry. I gradually became aware that, smiling aside, Vietnamese people sometimes approach their customers in very different ways compared to those in the UK.
A bit of retail therapy can be great for the soul if you’ve had a bad week. The beauty of shopping on your own is that no matter how indecisive or slow you are being, the only person to get annoyed is you, and then you know it’s time to put the t-shirt down and go home. I take ages browsing aimlessly through malls, it’s a pastime that needs very little work. But setting foot in a store in Ho Chi Minh City earns you your very own store assistant who is tied to you by seemingly invisible cord until you buy something or go home. It was such a shock to have a store assistant following me around the racks, watching my every move, taking clothes out of my hands as soon as I showed a vague interest. These clothes would then be marched off to the changing room, while I try not to look like an outraged goldfish, mouth agape. Suddenly the experience is all about the quick decision and the purchase.
Checking with friends, they confirmed my suspicions that this might be common practice in Vietnam. I didn’t have enough Vietnamese at the time to explain that I wanted to shop alone, so of course I resorted to polite mimes. This worked for some people, but I’m pretty sure for others I just managed to look like I was having some sort of attack. My last ditch attempt was to run, yet the store assistant only viewed this as a further test to prove their customer service prowess. Luckily in shops that I often frequent, they know I like to be indecisive in peace, and there are obviously good intentions at the heart of this issue, but I couldn’t help but think at the time ‘can’t he/she tell that I want to be left alone?!’.
The problem here may be a long list of rules and guidelines service staff have to follow, ones that are obviously are not very flexible depending on the customer. In the UK, this sort of behavior would instantly inform the customer that the store manager thinks you are about to steal something, so they have sent their staff to ‘monitor’ you.
Food plays an incredibly important part in the culture of Vietnam, and for me, it’s a great excuse to find some great food, invite some friends and make a night of it. During my many gastronomic exploits in the city, I have eaten at both amazing and terrible places, and have the waistline to prove it. It is here again where I have found that the service differs enormously to where I am from. This is where the service with a smile can sometimes be misleading. Unlike the shopping experience, this is less about privacy and more about confrontation, or the fear of. Waiting for food when all your friends are already eating is a painful experience, but the food tastes even better when it eventually gets there. Although not a frequent incident, it is one that has happened to quite a few friends. You are waiting for the food, but it isn’t coming, because the restaurant has sold out, but the waiter doesn’t want to tell you. Personally, there is nothing that makes me more irritable than waiting for food that never comes. I certainly wouldn’t get angry if I was told quickly that the meal was sold out, but I do get furious if I wait an hour and the waiter knows the entire time that it isn’t coming. As the waiter smiles, trying to disarm the situation, I can’t help but wonder why he/she didn’t just tell me in the first place.
Like the clothes store, it might be a question of misreading the customer, or not trying to in the first place. What is more likely is that it is a simple case of culture clash, it does seem that in Vietnam, a smile can compensate for any kind of incident, even those as serious as a bike crash, the same cannot be said for where I’m from. But if a waiter leaves me hungry for an hour then smiles when I get angry, It just adds insult to injury. I’ve learned that when it comes to surviving a baffling customer service experience in Vietnam, it pays to leave your expectations at the door, be as direct as possible and take every smile with a pinch of salt.