I just returned from a two-week trip to Asia, taking my sister to visit five countries (or three, depending on how you define China — there were some interesting signs at PVG). What struck me was just how widely customer service can vary. And that led me to consider what standards I ought to use when judging customer service.
Most people would consider it acceptable to adjust your expectations based on the type of service you purchase, whether directly (choosing a more or less expensive option) or in the form of continued loyalty to a company (even if you choose the cheaper option, you may have paid more over time). I certainly don’t expect the same service at a Hyatt Place as I do at a Park Hyatt, but I do expect an upgrade at both, within my rights as a Gold Passport Diamond member.
What happens when we control these factors but change the geography? Must we again adjust our expectations, or does a common yardstick apply?
I stayed at two Grand Hyatt properties in Hong Kong and Shanghai and left with very different impressions. We also flew Dragonair (based in Hong Kong) and China Eastern (based in Shanghai), both in economy class and taking taxis to and from those flights. Again we had very different experiences. None of these experiences matched what I’d expect in the U.S. as they were generally superior in Hong Kong and inferior in Shanghai.
Hong Kong Is the Epitome of Customer Service
Let’s start with the positive. We began our journey in Hong Kong and the Grand Hyatt was excellent as always. There’s another Scott at the Grand Club who seems to remember everyone, always kept our glasses full, and noticed when my sister showed up without me (as soon as I arrived, he was there in a flash to escort me to her table). Reception downstairs was less personal, but there were no fewer than six people who assisted us with our departure.
The taxi driver offered us a discounted fare if he took us all the way to the airport instead of the Airport Express. I gave him a 30% tip because I thought his offer was too low, and the total was still less than the meter.
On our Dragonair flight to Chiang Mai, we were in the back of the cabin for a flight just over two hours and yet we still received a hot meal (not bad) and were encouraged to fill out an extensive survey on their service. Everyone was smiling and professional. It was almost preferable to flying domestic first back home.
“Welcome to China”
Shanghai was a different matter. I loved visiting this city for the first time and hope to return soon. Unfortunately, I got the distinct feeling that my presence was unwelcome. To start, the cabbie ripped us off by a factor of six. I’ll accept the blame for that, but it was extreme. Usually I’m scammed on the order of 20-50%, not 500%.
Then at the Grand Hyatt, we were generally ignored at the Grand Club and two of their restaurants. We eventually flagged someone down for coffee after 15 minutes at the Club. My waiter at The Patio picked up the menu after I set it down but never took my order. And at the fairly empty Piano Bar I had to walk up to the bar to request a cocktail, where it later sat for 10 minutes getting warm before being served (the bartender indicated he would bring it to me).
But the experience didn’t truly sour for me until we tried to leave. Our China Eastern flight was delayed an hour at the gate, which changed two times with no announcement. Finally we boarded only to sit for another hour with no announcement. Flight attendants even started meal service because they didn’t know what was going on. The posted departure time was never updated.
When in Rome…
Our excellent visit to Hong Kong was par for the course. Sadly, everyone I’ve spoken to about Shanghai — including a couple of expats we chatted with in the departure lounge — suggested our experience was also typical.
I described three different services above: taxis, hotels, and airlines. To get taxis off the table, I’ll say right up that it’s the consumer’s obligation to make sure he or she isn’t getting cheated. It creates a bad impression for foreigners if the local taxis take advantage of them, but taxis cheat people almost everywhere.
Airlines, too, I’m inclined to permit some flexibility. China Eastern operates flights in China for Chinese customers. They do stuff differently there. The fact that they’ll sell a ticket to a white guy doesn’t mean they have to treat me they way I expect. I can grumble about it and recommend Americans spend their money elsewhere, but I don’t expect them to change. And if some like Dragonair exceed my expectations, I don’t expect American carriers to match that, either.
Hotels are where I draw the line. I chose a Western brand on purpose, not just for the points and elite recognition but because I was expecting a minimum level of service. I will go out and adventure for 12 hours a day and eat the local cuisine for lunch and dinner, shake off the touts, and stand out like a sore thumb. But I want my soft Western bed, someone to greet me in English when I walk in the door, and proper scrambled eggs and bacon for breakfast during the other 12 hours I spend at the hotel.
And in theory these are reasons companies like Hyatt and others open locations worldwide. They are exporting their brand and the level of service that comes with it at the same time they try to bring in more revenue from new markets.
It’s Not an Easy Problem to Solve
We could end the conversation there, except I had an interesting discussion with an employee across the river at Hyatt on the Bund. (We racked up a pretty big bar tab there after giving up on the bar at our own hotel. Poor service has consequences.)
He reminded us that Hyatt doesn’t just have Western customers. They also have Asian customers with entirely different expectations, and Hyatt can’t very well expect to survive on foreign tourists and business travelers alone. So how do you run a bar when the Chinese person wants to be left alone at the table and the American wants someone to check in every 15 minutes? How do you run a kitchen when the Chinese person wants everything delivered at once (even dessert) and the American wants items served in courses?
I suppose you could train employees to intuit the desires of each customer and adapt, but that’s easier said than done. So do I give them a break? Do I search for a new hotel?
This employee didn’t have answers. He only pointed out the complexity of the issue after going out of his way to apologize for the service at the Grand Hyatt. He made a couple calls, and things did shape up there on our last day. But I’m interested to hear your thoughts on this matter. I may take them into account when I revise the final draft of my trip report.