I had been sitting at my table for 15 minutes, with neither a menu nor a glass of water. For the fifth time I put up my hand and waved at the waitress who pretended she didn’t see me. When our eyes finally met, I gave her a big smile and mouthed the word carte. She gritted her teeth and said: “Monsieur, je n’ai que deux mains.” It meant she only has two hands.
|He is always "beezie"|
To many frequent travelers to Europe, my rather unpleasant dinner at the Parisian restaurant is an all too familiar scene. From store clerks in Rome to bus drivers in Geneva and airport security in London, customer-facing personnel in Europe is trained to be rude. The situation is particularly egregious in France because you are expected to speak their language and they are protected by labor law and unions. And bad service always goes hand-in-hand with inefficiency. Whether you are checking into a hotel or getting a tax refund at the airport, everything takes twice as long and is ten times harder. If you don’t believe me, try opening a bank account in Europe and you’ll get an idea. When the European debt crisis first hit two years ago, as Germany and France scrambled to bail out Greece and Portugal while Spain and Italy teetered on the brink of a recession, I wondered whether their reckoning was a long time coming.
These are broad generalizations of course. On my last trip to Spain, for instance, I ran into some of the friendliest and most helpful service people. In Madrid, the hotel concierge Marianna phoned her mother to get me a list of top paella restaurants in town. But Marianna is the exception rather than the rule. For all its rich culture, high fashion and breathtaking landscapes, Europe is decades behind the rest of the industrialized world in customer service. My European friends, especially those who have lived in Asia for a number of years, would be the first to agree with my assessment. One of the main reasons is perhaps the very thing that makes Europe a great place: equality. In Europe, the server demands as much respect as the one being served, which explains why the waiter has no qualms telling you to “please wait” and the cashier sees nothing wrong in saying “can’t you see I’m busy!” And because service people treat you like an equal, they expect you to know that they really do only have two hands.
|Good luck getting his attention|
On the other side of the Atlantic is a very different scene. In America, as the cliché goes, the customer is always right. At any given restaurant, a bubbly waitress will usher you to your table, get on one knee to take your order and check on you throughout the meal with a smiley “how’s everything today?” And yes, her name is Katie and you can just holler if you need another refill on that soda. Change your mind about those GAP jeans? Bring them back within 90 days for a full refund. You don’t even need a receipt. Unhappy with the service? Ask to speak to the supervisor and receive a coupon in appreciation of your valuable feedback. Try doing the same in Italy and all you would get is a dry laugh and an obscene gesture.
But nothing is actually free in the Land of the Free. Tipping is a big part of the service industry and how much to tip and when you need to do it are questions that can trip up even the most seasoned of travelers. In New York, for instance, a 15% gratuity is just a starting point, a bare minimum. When you check into a hotel, the going rate for taking your luggage to the room is US$5 per piece. I’ve had a bellboy standing in my room with his hand outstretched asking, “where is my tip?” Then there are the taxi drivers, the doormen, the coat check ladies and the restroom attendants. Leave Katie a 10% tip and she will run after you to the door and ask you what she did wrong. In a country that doesn’t believe in free lunches, being always right carries a hefty price.
|She'd better have a few dollar bills ready|
When it comes to customer service, there is no place like Asia. Asian airlines, hotels and airports are consistently rated the best in the world. Service staff in this part of the world, especially those in Japan and Thailand, bend over backwards to accommodate the customer. They rarely expect a tip and never ask for it. But surely there are exceptions. A weekend in Shanghai, the wealthiest city in China, will provide ample evidence that customer service is a state of mind that takes years to develop. It doesn’t happen overnight no matter how much money you throw at it. The waitresses at the über-chic Park Hyatt Shanghai are all smiles and ready to please. But ask for a vegetarian menu and they get all confused and recommend the chicken salad.
While the level of service in Asia can be uneven, service people are almost always friendly and obliging. The tendency to oblige means that persistence and a bit of attitude can often get you more than you are first told. Taking advantage of the cultural differences, some expats living in Asia have grown accustomed to raising their voices just to see how far they can push. An American friend living in Jakarta once gave me a piece of advice: “Just scream at the locals and they’ll do anything for you. They don’t like confrontations.” It upsets me because I know he is right.
|Service with a smile|
In Hong Kong, the service industry has seen remarkable progress since the city came of age in the 70s. It wasn’t too long ago when store clerks still gave shoppers dirty looks for “just browsing” and bank tellers yelled at customers for not filling out a deposit form. But since the government’s famous advertising campaign starring celebrity Andy Lau (劉德華) to promote quality customer service, the hospitality industry as a whole has undergone a cultural revolution. One of the first things that hit me when I repatriated to Hong Kong seven years ago was how far the city’s service industry has come. When the cashier at 7-Eleven handed me my change and said, “Thank you, please come again,” I got a little misty-eyed.
In Hong Kong, progress often comes with a few quirks. It is not unusual to see store managers discipline their staff in front of customers. It is a misguided way to demonstrate vigorous training and strict quality control. It is a Hong Kong thing. Another bizarre development is the universal mispronunciation of the simple phrase “may I help you?” Pronounced as “may I help choo,” this greeting echoes through hotel lobbies and customer service hotlines. And because Southeast Asian countries often look to Hong Kong for best practices, I’ve noticed that hotel staff in Bangkok and Hanoi are starting to make the same mistakes. What these countries need to realize is that Hong Kong may be a lot of things, but an English teacher it is not.
|One of the several tourism board commercials |
featuring a much younger Andy Lau
Every time I travel outside of Asia, I am reminded how lucky and spoiled I am to live in this part of the world. For all the things I complain about in Hong Kong, it only takes a trip abroad to realize how good I have it here. Whether I am making a dinner reservation, asking for directions at the MTR or even disputing my tax bill with the government, service people in Hong Kong are courteous, efficient and responsible. I went to high school in Europe and travel back at least once a year. I simply can’t imagine living there again and having to deal with the je m’en fiche (I don’t care) mentality on a daily basis. And to all those expats living in Asia who bark unreasonable demands at locals, try to remember what things are like back home.
|Customers in Asia are spoiled rotten|
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