…because not all of us have our Peking ducks in a row

China’s Customer DISservice

This post has been combined with an original post entitled, “Where do I shop?  Is the customer ever right?” dated 2005


ul·cer      Noun     /ˈəlsər/

1. An open sore on an external or internal surface of the body, caused by a break in the skin or mucous membrane that fails to heal.

2. A moral blemish or corrupting influence.

3. A festering lesion at the pit of my stomach caused by anger, frustration and disbelief at some of the service staff I’ve encountered while living in China.


If there is a God, and He is vengeful, then I am on the Super Express, no-brakes train to my Very Special Hell, populated by the service staff I have argued with, rolled my eyes, wrung my hands, stared in disbelief, shook my head and sighed repeatedly at in China.

Good customer service is a BIG DEAL in North America.  All of the cars I’ve owned in North America – well, a measly two – have been part of the Honda family of cars.

The one time my driver-side car door nearly fell off its hinges (I said their customer service was good, didn’t say anything about their quality), the Service Department had everything fixed in record time, gave my car a free Oil and Lube, plus a discount for next maintenance, and washed my car,  then INSISTED I eat some jelly donuts and badly-brewed coffee while waiting.

In China, things are a little different: some store owners treat their customers like some laborious task to be dealt with, like doing an ass load of laundry on a beautiful Sunday morning.  You go into the store, browse around, and the owners care less about you than that fly buzzing around their heads.

While on a trip to Hangzhou, a beautiful part of China where even the scenery surrounding the freeway is a worthy of a 12-month calendar, I visited a “trade mart”, which contained little storefronts representing every type of novelty and promotional gadget known to man.  These storefronts represented factories who made the items that the store sells – like a huge trading company complex under one roof.

We were looking for key ring torches (key rings with a mini torch attachment) and found a storefront that had the kind we were looking for.  However, the owners were digging into their fish rice lunch and couldn’t care less that we wanted to do business with them.  Throughout the discussion, the store owner only glanced at us from time to time, talking to her boxed lunch, whenever we asked her questions.

Then, when there was a lull in the conversation, she tried to make her toddler go potty in the wastebasket right next to me.

Just in case you’re wondering, we did not place an order with them.

Finger-flippin’ bad….

The ill effects of poor customer service are compounded when coupled with extreme hunger and low blood sugar.

10:05am on a Wednesday morning.  A workday.  I was famished and dared venture out of my office in search of food – fast, fattening and filling food of the Western variety.  KFC was close and had a different and more interesting menu than McDonald’s.  KFC caters more to the Chinese clientele, with a selection of Chinese porridge, deep fried salty donuts, sandwiches made out of Chinese breads for breakfast.  Because of this, they are the number one Western fast food joint in China.

Just take a look at their menu offerings:

One thing about restaurants in China – they do a good job of making their menus as idiot-proof as possible by providing full-colored and labeled menus at the cash register, showing which items are available and with what options and at what prices.

On this particular day, I choose the CNY10 (about  US$1.60) “B” meal by POINTING to the picture of the sandwich, as well as reading out the name of the sandwich OUT LOUD in Chinese.

Me: I want the B “French-style Bacon Egg on Chinese Shao Bread with Sesame Seeds”.  But I just want the sandwich without the drink, is that OK?

Staff: No, it’s not OK.  You can’t order it separately.  You have to order the set.

Me: Oh… okay…well that’s fine.  But I want the coffee.

Staff: (Goes to the back and checks something) Sorry, we have no coffee now.  We have only soy milk.

Me: (A little annoyed)  Well, OK… I guess. But I’ll have the COLD soy milk.

Staff: (Goes to the back and checks something else) Sorry, we only have HOT soy milk.  Cold soy milk you have to order separately, you can’t order with the menu set.

Me: (Pause) Well, what if I paid extra for the COLD soy milk with my set meal?

Staff: (Looks confused, getting ready to go to the back again)

Me: No-no-no…you know what — forget it.  I’ll have the HOT soy milk instead.  But make it fast.

Staff: (Languidly searches for a cup, goes to the back, then spends the next 4 minutes out of sight and finally returns with a minute cup of COLD soy milk.  Then proceeds to ring up the order)

Me: W-w-w-wait!  This is COLD soy milk.  I thought you said I can only have HOT soy milk with my sandwich…and-and… WHERE’S MY SANDWICH?

Staff: (Stares at me with the eyes of a water buffalo)

Me: Do you really think I came in … HERE… to wait 10 minutes for this SMALL glass of “COLD” soy milk, when there is a Starbuck’s two stores down, a fresh soy milk vendor right next door AND a supermarket upstairs?!  You gave me the menu to look at and I pointed at the MEAL!  Who comes to KFC for a-a… SOY MILK?!

Staff: Ohhh… OHHHH…..Well… you can’t order the breakfast anymore.  It’s all gone.  It is lunch now.

Me: WHAT?!  THEN WHY DID YOU SHOW ME THE BREAKFAST MENU??!! I come in here wanting a meal and you showed me this menu here, and I pointed at the item and TOLD YOU what I wanted.  Why didn’t you tell me then there’s no more breakfast.  I just wasted all this time here waiting for a SOY MILK?!

(Waving down the Supervisor, who was wearing a paper hat with a big paper chicken drumstick dangling from it).  Do you have any employees that actually got out of bed and came to work this morning?

Supervisor: What seems to be the problem here?

Staff: (To Supervisor) This lady ordered from the breakfast menu, but we don’t have breakfast anymore.

Supervisor: (Pointing to the chicken drumstick on her hat and lowering her head, so I can see it’s a drumstick) Sorry, Ma’am, we have only lunch menu now.

Me: YOUR STAFF GAVE ME a BREAKFAST menu to order from and told me I had to order a set with the beverage,THEN she got my beverage WRONG…THEN told me there’s NO more breakfast, and you’re NOW telling me I can only order lunch? I’ve basically been standing here in your KFC for 20 minutes and haven’t gotten anywhere with you people!

Supervisor: Ma’am, I’m really sorry for your inconvenience, let me see what I can do. (Scurries to the back and emerges almost immediately).  Ma’am.  Sorry for the wait.  We can accommodate you with the breakfast, but the only beverage available is the HOT COFFEE.  Is this OK with you?

It’s always better in English…

On the flip side, there is also the highly enthusiastic and completely misinformed staff member who doesn’t know anything about the products they are selling and what the customer wants to buy.

For example, in a DVD/VCD/CD store where i ask for foreign movies the store clerk shows me a most schizophrenic collection of titles:

“See this?  Have you seen THIS??”  The clerk desperately waves a VCD in front of my nose so fast I can’t even read the title.  Then I see.

It is, “The Life of Brian”.

“This is a great movie!  It is in English!”,  the clerk exclaims.  “I’ve seen it several times!”

I was skeptical: “YOU have SEEN the LIFE OF BRIAN?!  … YOU?!”

“Yes, yes!  and…this one…”.  The clerk drags out seasons 1-3 of “Sex in the City”.  It was way in the back of a shelf and covered with dust. “THIS IS SOOO GOOD… SOOO GOOD… I’VE SEEN IT SEVERAL TIMES OVER!   It’s… in … English!”

The hairiest of situations…

Every year our company exhibits in a gifts and premiums trade show in Shenzhen.  Our booth was directly across from a company that sold hair dye products.  Apparently, you just comb the stuff through your hair and VIOLA you look as you did when you were 18 (Assuming you still had all your hair and it was death black at that age).

One day, towards the end of the show, a dissatisfied customer came to the hair dye booth looking like the hair at the top of his head had been ripped out.  His scalp appeared as inflamed as his temper: “YOUR PRODUCT RUINED MY HAIR!” he declared, stomping his feet with every word.

Instead of trying to placate the customer (there were a lot of other clients around), the owner fired back, “HOW DARE YOU SAY MY PRODUCTS ARE BAD?!”

Things went from worse to worse-est at that point.  As hair seemed to be a big issue, the men started pulling at each others hair during the fistfight.  The female booth bunnies, who were at the booth to apply the hair dye to the balding, middle-aged men, started waving their combs in front of the rabid customer.

The customer took the combs to be “lethal weapons” and started yelling something about being attacked.  even the men who were getting their hair dyed got in on the action: one with a comb stuck at 45 degrees in his hair and another with a plastic bib around his shoulders.  Finally, the security guards and even the police had to be called in to handle the situation.

I’ll have ketchup with that…

When one of our company’s employees from our Taiwan office stayed with me for several weeks, her ritual was to buy a hearty breakfast from McDonald’s, which she claimed would keep her well-fed with plenty of energy for the rest of the day.

She would buy the set meal – usually the Sausage, Egg and Cheese McMuffin – with the hash brown and coffee.  To offset the incredible grease, she would always decline the cream and sugar with her coffee and ask for two packets of ketchup instead.

After our employee went back to Taiwan, I one day went into McDonald’s to carry on her breakfast tradition and declined the cream and sugar when offered, asking instead for a packet of ketchup.

The girl behind the counter — the one who had always served us breakfast — stared at me for a few moments, looked like she was going to say something several times, stopped herself, then finally leaned towards me and asked in a hushed voice:

“Ma’am… does the coffee really taste … BETTER … I mean… with… the ketchup?”

Of banks and men….

In the Chinese culture, death is considered to be the most inauspicious occurrence imaginable.  Traditionally, if you’ve attended a funeral, you have to wait for a certain amount of time to pass before you can attend a wedding.  If a close member of your family has died, you’re supposed to wear a black armband or black clothes for a certain number of days and you wouldn’t be welcomed at joyous events, such as weddings and birthdays.  Some people might not even want you to stay with them in their homes, if a close relative of yours has just died.  Children below a certain age are not encouraged to attend funerals or even go to a cemetery.

Many times, I have thought about death while waiting in line, or while performing a transaction at a bank in China.

Whether death comes in the form of a big chasm opening up and swallowing all of the bank employees, or me having a bank-induced seizure, surrounded by a tornado of deposit and withdrawal slips — I know that every time I set foot inside a bank in China I die a little inside.

What’s most frustrating for everyone who goes to a bank is that we have no choice but to visit a bank, while we do have the choice of not patronizing a McDonald’s or KFC.  In addition, all banks in China are government owned, ensuring that I will receive the same vapid service wherever I go.  Being that banks are government owned, none of the employees has any incentive to excel at his or her job – from a customer service perspective.  A job with the government is what the Chinese consider the “steel rice bowl 鐵飯碗” – something solid that will always bring in the income.

Here are some other fun facts about banks in China:

– Although banks employ many people – especially the main branches – there is almost always a wait for a teller.  The highest ratio of customers to tellers I’ve ever seen is about 50 customers to 3 tellers

-The banking system in China is computerized, just like the banks in North America – but I always take home double the paper and spend more time performing the same transaction in China than I do in North America.  This is because many basic transactions – such as wire transfers or withdraws over a certain limit – must be authorized by a Bank Supervisor first

– Customers with savings over a certain amount would be designated a VIP customer: they have a special area in which to bank and are supposed to receive faster service.  But I’ve found that VIP just means that the tellers will apologize for the long wait times and treat you nicer, whereas if you’re a regular customer, you get scolded for complaining and asked to move to the back of the line

– Actually, the VIP designation is a little iffy.  If your kid goes to school with the teller’s kid, if you’re infirmed or elderly, if you know the supervisor personally, if you make a big enough ruckus, or if you are dressed nicely, holding a well-stuffed duffel bag with money spilling out of the seams  — the Bank Manager may let you into the VIP line

The last time I was in a bank was about three months ago, when I was getting a USB key for online internet banking.  I had to obtain this key in person; I could not send an employee to do this.

After waiting stupidly for about 40 minutes (this was an off-peak time), I realized that the “Now Serving Customer #” sign was stuck at the same number, and that customers were taking advantage of the VIP line, which had its own special red carpet and teller and didn’t require a number.

Naturally, I joined the other non-VIP customers waiting in the VIP line, but this caused the Bank Manager to become suspicious, as the VIP line was starting to get longer than the regular line.

Bank Manager: Are all of you people lining up here part of our VIP program?

Elderly Man: (Wagging finger at the Bank Manager) I have been waiting in your bank for over one hour and I have a bad heart!  What kind of service is this for old folks!  People butt in line at the VIP line all the time and I’m supposed to suffer waiting?!

Young Married Man with His Very-pregnant Wife: My wife has had a very difficult pregnancy, waiting too long on her feet will exacerbate her condition and cause her to have a premature birth!

Me: I’m not a VIP customer yet, but you will see that I definitely have enough cash in the bank AND I WANT TO KNOW ALL ABOUT YOUR INVESTMENT OPTIONS!

Bank Manager: (Grabs me by the arm, propels me towards a window without a teller, and yells at another teller) A-Mei!  Get Li-Rong back from her break ASAP!  She has a customer!

2 comments on “China’s Customer DISservice

  1. Rain
    June 30, 2013

    lol. It sounds like banking in Indonesia and Korea. Except in both of those countries, the banks close before the work day finishes(and they do not open on weekends), so every bank trip requires taking time off of work to get in before the doors close. Setting up a bank account in the USA takes maybe 20 minutes once you get to a teller. In Korea and Indonesia, plan to be with the teller for about an hour. After waiting in line for about an hour (if it is off peak time).

    Also, I have run into a lack of the concept of ‘staggered shifts.’ At lunch time, you cannot do anything because everybody is at lunch at the same time. This concept would of course help the entire banking system if they had part of the staff work, say 10-6 instead of 8-4, rotating every week or something. Then the bank would be open from 8-6… Wow! What a concept. Then people with jobs, who have money, would be able to go to the bank! The current hours work great for people who do not have jobs, and subsequently, do not have money…

    After three years, I cannot say that I have mastered the patience required to go into a bank in Asia. I am proud to say though, I have gotten pretty good at ‘suppressing my rage’. lol.

    Coming back to the USA, I crack up at how angry people get if somebody pulls out in front of them while driving. Asia is teaching me patience, little by little. 🙂


    • lostnchina
      July 1, 2013

      Totally agree with you! If anything, Asian teaches PATIENCE. Everywhere from traffic to complaining in restaurants. I feel I’m much more easy-going after having returned from China. Thanks for reading!


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This entry was posted on September 15, 2011 by in China, Humor and tagged , , , , .
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