Saturday, 11 November 2017

How Is Customer Service In Taiwan? - My Thoughts Before And After Living In Taiwan

Before I went to Taiwan I had a lot of expectations regarding customer service there, mainly for two reasons.

First of all, I hated customer service in Europe. Having lived in Italy and Germany for several years and having spent time in Greece, the UK and other European countries, I noticed that across the continent a lot of shop assistants are indifferent or rude to customers. Of course, that is based on my experience and on that of my friends, and it refers only to episodes I witnessed or heard about. 

Let me tell you just a few examples. Once my internet provider in Germany changed my contract without my consent. When I went to their shop, I was yelled at and threatened with a lawsuit right away. Later I quit that company, but the point is, whether I made a mistake or not (and I think I did not), they should have cleared up the matter in a nice way instead of being so aggressive. 

One day I was in my university cafeteria, and I saw a student leave his trey with food on a table and go to get something to drink. One of the women who worked in the cafeteria immediately took the trey and threw away the food without asking. The guy went up to the woman and complained. She was extremely rude to him and said he shouldn't have left his trey unattended. So he basically wasted his money, because he had already paid. No one would apologize to him, and he had no choice but to buy another meal.




Another incident I saw happened in a supermarket  in Berlin. A girl accidentally knocked a product off a shelf with her bulky backpack. She was immediately berated by a shop assistant, although she apologized. The shop assistant went on a rant that lasted for a few minutes.  

The worst cases I saw happened in Italy. I remember vividly a young man working in a bookstore, who would insult people on a daily basis. Once he made an Italian gesture to an old man meaning "go f*** yourself".

I could mention many more examples. I don't know if other people have had negative experiences with customer service in Europe, but I certainly had the impression that rude behaviour is too frequent. 

The second reason why I thought Taiwanese customer service must be great is that a lot of Taiwanese people I knew praised it over and over again. Many of them agreed and reinforced my feeling that service in Europe was bad, and they'd say that in Taiwan "the customer is king", and "people are very friendly." Some added that Taiwanese were especially friendly to foreigners, so if I went to Taiwan, I would be treated well everywhere. 

Obviously I thought that it was true and believed that customer service in Taiwan was based on moral principles of friendliness and helpfulness. But is that true?

Myths And Reality About Customer Service In Taiwan


My initial experiences when I arrived at Taoyuan International Airport were a bit odd. The first thing I did was to buy a sim card. Two girls wearing surgical masks were at the counter. I was very nice to them because I thought that's how people should behave in Taiwan. However, they were quite cold and business-like. When I said "thank you", they didn't even reply. 

Then I went to take a bus to the city centre. While I was waiting on the platform, a man began shouting "Qu nali?", "Qu nali?", which means "Where are you going?". That's a typical scene you will see at Taiwanese airports, when staff of bus operators want to make sure every passenger is waiting for the right bus and receives the correct sticker (before you board a bus they will put stickers on the belongings you place in the luggage compartment). That old man shouting at me was not exactly the friendliest thing I'd ever experienced.



During my first week I noticed that the staff at 7-11 and most other big chains didn't care much about me and just performed their duty with a stiff expression on their faces.  

On the other hand, in some shops the staff were extremely polite, but in a way that surprised me. In most restaurants, cafes and stores it is common for staff to smile, bow and speak in a high-pitch, sweet voice, something I wasn't used to. 

After a while I began to wonder what Taiwanese customer service was all about. 

If I had to sum up my overall impressions in one sentence I would say: customer service in Taiwan is on average better than in Europe, but staff are fake. Let me explain.

In Taiwan staff will never argue with you. I can remember only one exception to this rule. Generally speaking, shop assistants are either indifferent or polite. 

However, in most cases they are not polite because they care about you. They have to do their job, and they're told by their bosses that being polite is a way to attract customers. In the end, it's all about money and social pressure. 

As I have explained, Taiwan is a very ritualistic society. People are often simply performing for society and their performance says nothing about their feelings. 

As a matter of fact, I have friends who work in the service industry. In private they complain a lot about customers. Indeed, people will say bad things about customers behind their backs, but they'll be very ceremonious and polite to their face. 

When a waitress in a restaurant smiles and says in a high-pitch voice "Welcome!"; when staff in a department store smile and behave politely while explaining why a product is good and you should buy it; when a girl working in a coffee shop comes to you and tells you with a smile and in a soft tone "Hen tang oh!" ("It's hot oh!") before putting the cup on your table; when the shop assistant in a shoe store goes out of his way to serve you, answering your questions patiently with the same stiff polite face all along; etc. etc. - they're not doing so because you mean much to them, or because they wake up in the morning thinking how great their job is. They do so because they have to survive and get their paycheck, they have to go through that daily routine because if they're not as polite as customers expect, they'll get fired or they'll get less customers.

As a matter of fact, one day I went to a famous restaurant and the staff was really rude. They kept shouting, didn't smile and didn't thank customers. I asked my friend why they were behaving like that, and she said the restaurant was so famous they could get away with it. They'd never lose customers even if they weren't polite. This shows that there is an economical rationale behind politeness, and I think you can find that customer service will depend on the type of customers and market segment a shop is targeting.  




The main thing to understand is that in Taiwan emotions and actions are detached from each other. If you like politeness and courtesy for their own sake, regardless of what the person in front of you is thinking. While you may encounter someone who is genuinely nice, politeness doesn't necessarily mean people care or are really friendly.   

What I noticed in Europe is that staff have no incentive to be particularly polite because usually they don't get tipped like in the US, and they don't face social pressure like in Taiwan. You will find some people who are really nice and try to help you, and people who are very rude and want to show you that they hate to deal with you. It's a pretty straightforward thing. 

Before ending this post, I would like to say a few words about the actual efficiency of service. 

In Europe service can sometimes be excruciatingly slow because working hours are shorter than in Taiwan and bosses must pay extra when employees work overtime. In Taiwan, working hours are long and traditionally labour standards laws have not been generous and often have not been enforced. The current government is trying to change this mindset. I would say that service, generally speaking, is quite fast, but it's not always efficient. I guess (but I'm not sure) that's because companies don't like to invest money on their staff, so they're not well-trained and job turnover is extremely frequent.   

In some cases, service can be quite puzzling. For instance, it is not rare to see staff cleaning up a restaurant while you're still sitting and eating your food, basically showing you that it's time to leave. They won't tell you directly that you have to go until the last moment, but they will do everything they can to make it clear. Once I was sitting at a 7-11 store and the staff surrounded my table with boxes until I couldn't stand it anymore. The second I left, they put a huge box on my table and started unpacking things. Obviously they needed that space. Many cafes and restaurants also have a minimum charge, some even have restrictions on the amount of time you can sit. This shows that one has to differentiate between the facade of politeness and substance. 

Maybe my impressions sound too negative. If you have a different opinion, please share your views in the comment section.


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2 comments:

  1. I agree with your comments about the Taiwanese customer service (I'm commenting from a perspective of a tourist in who frequently visits Taiwan, that is, a not a long term resident). Some are on robotic mode (711 staffs) to very customer oriented Starbucks.

    Just one thing that stands out, when Taiwanese staff have problems in communicating they appear abrupt and not very communicative. My assumptions are they are shy and fearing public embarrassment in being seen "failing" to deliver a good customer service (Losing face?)after all this is a very group oriented society, no one wants to be labeled with negatively.

    While is the west abruptness and not wanting to communicate in most instances could mean one is fuming with anger (being assumptious here). Overall I do rate the Taiwanese take greater responsibility in delivering a good customer service comparably, and not sure if aboard they hold the same ethics or picks up the local norms.


    Cheers

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    Replies
    1. Hi Namco7,

      thanks for your comment. I agree with your point, when Taiwanese have to deal with English-speaking foreign customers the dynamic changes quite a bit. I feel they tend to avoid the situation altogether. Maybe I should edit the post to address this point, too.

      Have a good day :)

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