I have been in touch with customer service quite a lot these days. That is always a frightening thing, although I have had my fair share of better and worse experiences. However, in this case it was Chinese customer service, because I needed to arrange some things for my phone number.
There is something amazing about the way everything is so interconnected in China. When you have an issue, there is always a way to address it. You can chat with customer service or give them a call, basically 24/7. At the same time, it never ceases me to amaze me how complicated they can make things at the same time.
When I still lived in China, I moved to Shanghai and got a new phone. I needed a new simcard, a nano one instead of the mini I had. after calling my provider’s customer service, which is totally separate in Shanghai from Beijing and provides no way to be redirected, they told me that I needed to come back to Beijing for a new simcard. So just to get something with a little bit less plastic, I needed to travel more than 1.000 kilometers. Which I did and found ridiculous.
Now that I am in the Netherlands but still using my Chinese phone number for certain occasions, it’s a different issue. I had freezed my number, but was unable to easily recover it again due to forgetting my password. I again chatted with different officers at different times in the Chinese night but in the end I was only able to finalize the process by contacting a friend in Beijing and having her directly call them.
I am not sure if this is arranged in this way for a specific reason. Is it to ensure that the physical staff still has a role to play? Is it because they want take customer service difficulty to the next level? Is it because they are available 24/7 that all staff is so tired they cannot think of any customer-friendly alternatives? To be honest, I think it is just another way for us to remain grounded. That we remember we can do great things, and also make simple things impossible.
Service in China is a double-edged sword. On the one hand, things are possible here that are totally unacceptable in the Netherlands. On the other hand, things are impossible here that are generally accepted in the Netherlands.
- Calling a waiter or waitress – Admittedly, this is not as common anymore as before. The rise of Western-style restaurants also brings with it the usual struggles to attract someone’s attention. But there are still plenty of establishments where you will hear a “FUWUYUANR” regularly in between all the other conversations. I highly prefer it to side-eyeing, cheerleader-waving or raising-your-hand-up-as-if-you-know the answer motions.
- Making a mess – Whether it is yourself or the table, it is almost always accepted without any comments. Bones, fish grates, shells are all nasty and troublesome, but at least you can easily get them out of your sight by just dispensing them on the floor. Provided your hand-eye coordination is reasonable and you do not accidentally hit yourself.
- Free refills – I remember that there was still a discussion in the Netherlands if you could get free tap water. Also, if you order a cup of tea in most restaurants or coffee tents, you will have to pay the full price again for a second cup of steaming water in which you will use your first teabag. Not so in China. In most places you can refill water and tea endlessly until you feel uncomfortable about having had more free than paid drinks throughout your stay.
- Your living room from home – Unless it is really crowded, you can generally lounge the entire afternoon in one spot. Order one drink and refer to the point above to make sure you are hydrated throughout your stay. Most waiters will only approach you to refill your glass, or ignore you. They are also very skilled in doing that.
- Service without a smile – Some jobs can be very boring or mind-numbing. And you can see it right of their faces. People will serve you with as less interest in you or their job as possible. Not looking at you, doing only the bare minimum and certainly without a smile. In that way, many Chinese do look alike.
- Working is optional – I remember that for most of my jobs in the Netherlands, there are quite strict rules about when to use your phone. Not so much in China. Whether there are any clients or not, whether chatting or watching a drama, everyone is certainly not focusing on you.
- Inefficiency – I already mentioned that there are often a lot of people working anywhere and a large part of them are doing nothing. It is a bit similar to my instructions for working at a Chinese Japanese restaurant. Also, when a question is asked, they will be sure to not do anything directly but for example inquire if you are sure that you want what you asked for.
- Passivity – The customer is king is still sometimes the case in China. But that also means that any (illegal) smokers, irritating children, drunken men or screeching women will be accepted and not reprimanded. Jumping in front of you in the line? Pushing you in or out the subway? Being polite or not? It is all accepted as part of life.