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Why Customer Service In China Is Different Than You’d Expect

An analysis of navigating the seas of customer service in China. It’s complex and not how it initially seems.

I was just walking to the bus stop to get back home after some Sunday afternoon shopping, when a large billboard caught my eye. A Symphonic Orchestra from Holland, coming to my small Chinese city? I didn’t hesitate long, and decided to get myself a ticket at the cultural center, only a few minutes’ walk away.

It was the first time I actually went inside the massive hall, and there wasn’t a single soul in there. I walked around, and eventually met some lady who made a phone call after I explained to her what I wanted. A security guard came and then led me through some unlit hallways and the backstage area (with a bunch of workers just chilling) before dropping me at some third floor office.

I smiled and shook my head, amazed by how much trouble one must get through just to buy a ticket for that concert. But little did I know, I was far from being done yet.

The man in the office cordially told me to sit down, told me to wait a few minutes and even offered me tea, that I politely declined, thinking I would, you know, get out of there soon and move on with my day? But no. We made small talk, and his few minutes went by, replaced by a solid half hour of nothingness, as I still didn’t have my ticket. The lady was on the way, he said. Or maybe. OR MAYBE?! I know pussy-footing around issues and giving evasive answers is the Chinese way, but as I’m reminded all the time, I am not, never was, and never will be Chinese, so unceremoniously I told him to call her again, and tell her to hurry the fuck up. You guys sell tickets, no? So sell me my goddamn ticket so I can get out of that place. How hard is that?

The lady eventually showed up, opened a drawer, gave me the ticket and off I was without a goodbye or a thanks. Total time: 50 minutes.

Talk about service…

But now, this essay is not meant at all to be a rant about customer service in China. This would be useless, tedious, and there are already tens of thousands of those all over the internet. Instead, I aim to rationalize the whole incident.

It wasn’t even the first time a similar thing happened to me, actually. A few months back, I saw a poster advertising a kickboxing event, with Thai boxers pitted against Chinese boxers. I went to the hotel that was supposed to sell tickets, and after asking about 285 people (each and every one of them just blindly bumping me to the next person in their chain of command), no one had the slightest idea. I then called the number from the poster, and the guy that answered also did not know where to get tickets. I couldn’t believe how disorganized they were, and wondered how the hell they would break even if they can’t even sell a single ticket. Only later did I realize, they don’t care. They literally don’t give a shit.

Individual tickets are REALLY not what those events and exhibitions are about.

To summarize, by walking in there wanting to get a single ticket for myself I was a middle-class customer, expecting some no-frills middle-class service. But those tickets are rich-class goods; middle-class people, and to a much bigger extent poor people in China don’t care about classical music. They are not the target audience for those tickets, otherwise there would be an easier way to reach them, something that doesn’t entail having to find a guy and sit in his office forever.

Rich Chinese people also couldn’t care less about classical music, but they do care about the image and relations they can get by buying large bundles of tickets to give around like cigarettes, boxes of designer socks or gift cards. Everything about my little misadventure was about rich-class service: sitting on a couch, being offered tea and a cigarette, having a manager on stand-by to mindlessly chat and exchange business cards with, before a beautiful girl comes to deliver the actual product and conclude the final sale. But me, being neither a rich-class person nor willing to spend ridiculous rich-class money, I was way out of my element.

I’d say that based on my experience, customer service in China is far from being bad. Sure, there are some very laowai-specific incidents, such as confusion when splitting bills, inability to deliver certain products (that is commonly seen with mixed cocktails in bars; but goddamn it, if the barman has never heard of your hipster drink, don’t let him guess… stick to bottled beer) or lack of English spoken, the most retarded thing to EVER bitch about and a total deal-breaker when deciding if a fellow foreigner is worth interacting with. But those aside, anyone with right expectations and enough China street smarts has to acknowledge that customer service is satisfying. Week after week, I am used to waitstaff promptly bringing my food and taking empty plates away, salesladies answering my questions and pointing me to the right aisles, repairmen providing excellent services at extremely low prices, and bus ticket booths manned by uniformed, competent employees who print my tickets and take my money without any messing around.

No frills, no bullshit, no problems, just simple, professional, polite (if sometimes very informal) service. But that’s because I am a middle-class guy, purchasing middle-class and low-class goods and services. I stay within my social spheres.

Actually, I’d dare to say that most of the bad experiences I’ve had in China regarding customer service were for rich-class goods and services. It might sound paradoxical, but it’s because most rich-class goods and services are not about the intrinsic value, but about the experience and the image. Rich folks don’t care about how soft the fabric of their $450 Italian designer shirt is, or the improved drivability of their luxury car, or in the aforementioned case, the quality of the concert. They care about how awesome they will look, and the relationships with other rich people they can foster through buying all that.

That ain’t to say that rich-class service has to be slow and disorganized: far from that. Many people I know have horrible memories of going to an expensive restaurant, thinking about getting an unforgettable culinary and cultural experience, and ending up thoroughly disappointed after hours of sitting around waiting for the food while the big spenders have all the attention and focus. But that’s because they go there with a middle-class mindset of “I splurge an unusual amount, you give me exceptional food” rather than a rich-class mindset of “I spend huge amounts as usual, you give me some attention and face”.

And that is not exclusive to China. It can be observed everywhere while traveling, but if you’ll excuse me, I prefer grassroots, no-bullshit, person-to-person interactions and transactions. And when I stick to that, I expect, and way more often than not, get good service.


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Filed under: China, Culture and Society

About the Author:

Felix likes extreme music, cooking spicy food, riding bicycles, drawing comics and going to weird places. He is currently on a never-ending quest to find the best 麻婆豆腐 in all of China. has written 11 posts on Vagabond Journey. Contact the author.

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  • VagabondJourney May 27, 2013, 10:31 am

    This is so incredibly right on that I’m having difficulty adding something other than “yup, yup, yup, that’s for sure” here.

    Basically, if us laowai come here and do things how we do them or expect things to be done our way we are in for some surprises. This is truly a different culture and things are just done differently and there is a contrasting value system. The problem is that we often think our ways are best or the standard, and don’t consider the fact that we are the ones who are strange and out of line in the context of China. Doing things our way — which is inevitable — often means doing them differently than the Chinese. Do something differently here and you are bound to confuse people and end up with something other than what you’d expect.

    Thanks for this “armchair analysis,” it truly opens some doorways to understanding.

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    • Félix Gervais May 27, 2013, 12:56 pm

      Well I actually DO think there are ways to do things that are objectively right or wrong, regardless of culture (and that’s gonna be my next “armchair analysis”, haha). But there are things that indeed won’t change no matter how much one bitches about it, so better try to exchange ideas and educate each other so that at least we get the right expectations and develop a correct frame of analysis.

      That ain’t to say we have to blindly accept anything like sheep, though. I still think the whole waiting around was face-palmingly retarded (even though in hindsight they were kinda nice to me, and now I have the ticket so it’s all that matters) but instead of going OMG CHINA SUX!!!!11111!!!11 I just blame it on the different sphere of service.

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  • mitchblatt May 28, 2013, 7:01 am

    On the other hand, if you don’t want to buy something, you will have hordes of peddlers getting all up in your face…

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