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Service In China. Good Luck With That.

Posted in China Business, China Travel

I love it when my wild assertions are proven right.

I am always writing about how terrible the service is at China’s hotels and restaurants and I have often posited that service in China is the worst in the world.

In “This Is China. I Laughed, I Cried,” I wrote about a blogger’s “Kafkaesque situation that  so often occurs at hotels (or other businesses) in China” and concluded by noting that “China does not have a monopoly on bad service, but the [horrible] treatment TFF received is so way more likely to happen in China than anywhere else.”

In “Win-Win Negotiating In China. It Is More Than Just A Panda,” I again lit into China for its service and compared it very unfavorably to Vietnam:

Every time I go to China, I come back planning to write an excoriating post on the place. I mean, let’s face it, it is one of the (if not the) most exasperating places on earth. I found it even more exasperating this last time because before hitting China, I spent two and a half weeks in Vietnam (mostly Ho Chi Minh and Hanoi) and once again was shocked at how a country like Vietnam (which is considerably poorer than the places I tend to go in China) can, at least on some levels, appear to have its act so much more together than China.

Let’s take service for example. I am never ceased to be amazed at the downright horrible service in China, and that includes at so-called five star hotels.

I am feeling vindicated today after reading a New York Times article, entitled, “Where to Get the World’s Best Service,” which puts China next to the last in service, behind only Russia. And I agree with the rankings, based on the following countries I know well:

Japan.  Japan came in first place and anyone who has been to Japan knows why. The taxis there are impeccably clean and their drivers are always polite and know where they are going. No matter how cheap the restaurant, service is quick and professional. The hotel staff are so good and so pleasant, it’s almost scary.

Canada and the United States. Canada came in third and the United States came in seventh. Not sure why the difference as to me they are pretty much the same but I agree generally with their rankings. Both countries usually provide excellent service. Excellent, but not amazing.

Turkey.  Turkey came in twelvth and that seems about right to me. I lived in Turkey for a year and I’ve been back a few times for extended stays. The service there is generally very friendly and sincere, but probably not top tier.  

Vietnam. Vietnam came in fifteenth and that seems about right to me. The hotels and restaurants and even cab drivers there just “seem to get it” more than in China. They actually try hard.

China.  Twenty-third and next to the last. Russia got the honor.

Russia.  Service in Russia isn’t so much bad as non-existent. They don’t even try and on some level, you have to respect that. I once was fumbling with my money at a really nice store in Vladivostok when the storekeeper derisively yelled across the store to everyone else there to “look at this stupid American who can’t count to ten.” My Russian was at its zenith at the time and so I was able to understand what she was saying and deliberately counted out my payment ruble by ruble in Russian and then swore at her and left.  Russian service is consistently rude, bordering on mean, but without any pretense. You do not get the unbelievable type stuff that you get in China, but I guess that it is consistently worse.

So does China really deserve such a poor rating? I say that it does.

UPDATE:  This post has received a number of fairly strong comments, to which I say great, but would like to respond.

Some imply that good service equates to being a servant and imply that I am a snob for seeking it out. I will leave it to others to decide if I am a snob (I don’t think I am), but I will say that good service does not mean being a servant. I kill myself and I expect my collogues to kill themselves as well in providing good service to our law firm’s clients. Is it because we are servants. Hell no. There are countless times where we just flat out tell our clients they are wrong and there are other times where we tell them that if they want a lawyer to do what they want us to do, they need to hire another law firm. I view that as good service in that we are doing exactly what we think is right for our clients, but that is not being servants.

“Service” goes beyond hotels and restaurants. If you have a plumbing problem in your house (and come on people, be honest here) that needs an immediate repair, in what countries do you think you will get it fixed quickly and correctly and in what countries do you think it will be difficult to get someone to fix it correctly at all? That too is service.

And to all those who make it seem that the Chinese service problem lies with me, I say bunk. You could claim that if the article were not based on interviews with hundreds of world travellers. In fact, I am going to flip it around and say that your love of China or your lack of travelling elsewhere may be blinding you to reality. 

I also have to say that I really notice the lack of Chinese service when I take my wife and kid(s) with me to China. Just by way of one recurring example is how often the people at the hotel have absolutely no clue on how they should go to major tourist sites and they make no real effort to find out. That is a phenomenon pretty much peculiar to China.

One commenter asked for examples so I am going to reprise some that I set out in a previous post, all from just one China trip:

Let’s take service for example. I am never ceased to be amazed at the downright horrible service in China, and that includes at so-called five star hotels. Some examples from this last trip:

  • At breakfast one morning, I was waiting as an employee was loading massive amounts of French toast. I wondered to myself whether he had seen me and knew I was waiting and gave him the benefit of the doubt. He then looked right at me and continued loading, while I waited. This at a five start hotel in Shanghai.
  • Towards the end of my stay in Shanghai, I got sick and needed to keep extending my stay. Twice, I called down in the morning and received confirmation that my stay would be extended at the same rate and twice at around 4:30 in the afternoon I would receive a phone call pretty much giving me three minutes to get the hell out of the hotel or the police will be called. I should further note that for at least five years I have been the highest level frequent stay member at this particular Western hotel chain.
  • At a Beijing five star hotel, two days in a row for breakfast I was seated where someone else had already been seated. One of those days, I was re-seated, got my food, then got up for maybe 30 seconds to get my drink and my food was gone. I probably could have gotten my food faster by going to the grocery store.  

Then there are the cab drivers who have never made any effort whatsoever to learn anything about their city and who get mad at you when you are unable to give them street by street directions to where it is you are seeking to go (another, as far as I know, peculiarly China phenomenon)

And here are a few more that pop into my head with no effort:

  • Restaurants in China, way more than restaurants in any other country I have ever been (with the exception of Russia) simply do not have what is on the menu. Come on people, can you honestly tell me that you have not ordered something at a Chinese restaurant, been told it doesn’t have it, ordered something else as a replacement and then been told it doesn’t have that either, then ordered yet another replacement item and been told it does not have that item either and then, in complete frustration, ask what exactly it does have? Has that ever happened to you anywhere other than in China?
  • How many times have you ordered something in a restaurant or bar and then had it substituted without your permission in China as compared to elsewhere in the world? China wins hands down on this, doesn’t it?
  • How many hospitals in China do not make you wait five+ hours and are clean?
  • The planes in China run later than in any other country (except Russia) of which I am aware and the information given out regarding flight times is typically either non-existent or just flat out untrue. 
  • Back to the plumber example above. in what country do you trust your plumber, your landlord, your accountant, your hospital, your baby formula, your milk, your eggs, or your fake Ikea or fake Apple store less? That’s service too, isn’t it?

Keep the comments coming….

  • Gregorylent

    Maybe people look at those serving them as servants, and not as fellow human beings? I have had three years of fabulous service and gracious help and wonderful assistance in big cities and small towns. The only problems have been because of my poor Chinese, and even then, they tried. Buying tools, art supplies, hotels, airports, restaurants, five star or no star, I have only seen wonderful hard working people doing their best. Perhaps we get the world we see? Dunno.

  • http://www.chinalawblog.com Dan

    @gregorylent,
    So are you saying that the only difference between service in Japan and service in China is perception? Are you saying Chinese service is not some of the worst in the world? Or are you just saying that you’ve met some “wonderful hard working people doing their best” and so the service is just fine? Please explain.

  • gregorylent

    hi dan .. as you know japan has an exquisite aesthetic in so many areas of life; design, fashion, beauty, packaging, and of course service at the higher end .. yet struggling with a shopkeeper in yet another language i am not very skilled in, buying, say, gold leaf in an art supply shop, i don’t find anything particularly japanese about the service, just the same helpfulness present everywhere in the world (haven’t been to russia though :-) … and the kids working in starbucks around the world are much the same, no matter what country
    china does have a rustic macho-ness about it .. was once on the fortieth floor of a four-star hotel waiting for an elevator with some businessmen, one of whom thought nothing of spitting on the carpet .. that i have not seen in japan, or anywhere. :-)

  • Casualsurfer

    The service is even worse in China if you look Asian. I do recommend anyone to try out the service in Taiwan: it’s excellent and shows that Chinese CAN in fact provide great service, but for the mainland it’ll be another few decades…

  • Mick

    China does not deserve to be near the bottom. Maybe it did 10 years ago, but I am now constantly surprised by the level of service I get in China. Maybe because I speak some Chinese I sometimes get special attention, but it’s not always that. A lot of stores and restaurants have now introduced and built up basic protocols to provide good service, moving on from the “Huanying Guanlin” mantra. If you want a country that should be near the bottom for service it is my home country, Britain. They have a degree of ‘couldn’t care less’ indifference that is staggering.

  • Thomas

    I agree that service in china is not what we are used to in Europe. I’d say I got used to it. But I will not disagree with them being second to last on that list.
    I can’t however agree with the conclusions drawn in the NY Times article. According to the arcticle, no tips are somehow related to good service. Where does China fit in there?
    And leaving out Switzerland when talking about service? A big omission I think.

  • ibz

    Been living in China for 4 years now. Don’t know about 5 star hotels, which I don’t visit, but I can tell that service is great in the small restaurants I usually visit.
    Of course, language barrier is an issue. You have to know some basic Chinese to be able to get around.
    Agree with Gregorylent on this – treat the waiter or taxi driver as a fellow human being and they will be nice to you. And a smile always goes a long way!

  • http://www.foarp.blogspot.com FOARP

    I’ve lived in both China and Japan and can’t say that I found the service all that terrible in China, or all that awesome in Japan.
    The areas in which China truly is terrible is anything associated with authority – banks, post offices, tax/registration offices, hospitals – all consistently awful and unhelpful, often staffed by people with no idea what they’re doing. I’m sure a myriad examples are going to be brought up on this page, but for the outstanding example was the THREE DAYS I had too take off work to stand in queues and argue with bank staff who were, for some reason, convinced that foreigners could not transfer more money out of their country than they had paid in taxes whilst in the country. Idiots.
    Of course, the eventual solution was just to get in touch with the accounting people at the company I was working at who had control over which banks were used by our company to see if they couldn’t exercise some influence. I hated doing this, but the effects were fast and effective. Within an hour of making the call, I was called by the up bank manager on my mobile, picked up by their VIP car and driven to the bank. When I got there, there was no queuing – I was taken directly to their VIP room and the transfer was done within about ten minutes.
    In Japan , I can’t say the service was amazing, but people took far more care and attention to their work. Anyone who has been to a decent Japanese bar and had a cocktail there will, I hope, agree.
    But given a choice bet6ween the two, I would live in China rather than Japan.

  • http://mouseneb.livejournal.com/ Nicki

    I agree, service is terrible, most of the time. What makes me feel slightly…I don’t know if better is quite the right word….is that my mainland friends consistently say the service in Hainan is much much worse than the rest of the country. I guess if even my Mainland friends say the service here is bad, I’m not just imagining it. Part of that might be that Hainan is touted as the Hawaii of Asia and an International Tourism Island and it just highlights how far there still is to go to make any of that even a little bit possible.

  • peter

    This is an interesting topic, coming from Europe I always felt that service in China was quite good. At least there are usually some staff around having time for you when you need it. In Europe, Paris for example, it can take ages before a waiter will have time to listen to you.
    In general I feel that Americans requires service personel to be obedient to the point of self destruction before its good service, in Europe (and China?) we are more used to service personel with an ego who doesn’t go “yes sir” every other second.
    Anyway do you have any examples of bad service in China ?

  • Max Hastings

    You write about a China I don’t recognize. In fact, I usually find the service in hotels in the US worse than in China. I’d suggest changing your service suppliers if you think it’s so bad you blog about it.

  • Volker Mueller

    Bad service in China? Have you have never been to Germany, haven’t you?
    1. I think one cultural issue, Chinese are incredible friendly and helpful, if they have established any kind of relationship with you.
    A small restaurant with just two tables, the fruit seller at the peasant’s market, they know me and service can’t be better. Also true for small hotels where I stay regularly.
    2. Don’t take Beijing as standard for China. Even among Chinese Beijing has a reputation for a very poor standard. Shanghai and most other southern cities have a much better service attitude.
    Having said that, Beijing has improved tremendously during the last years, first because of the Olympic Games, second because of the influx of migrants from other parts of the country that don’t have the typical Beijing rudeness.
    USA: no! When I go into a shop and the shop assistance smiles at me because he/she HAS to smile and it is obvious that is a fake smile. No, I prefer China!

  • Andeli

    The cab driver thing in Beijing is really strange and something unique. They don’t pick you up when its raining, they will try to give a good solid trip around the city if they can feel you don’t know where you are. They don’t like or use GPS, so they sometimes don’t know where they are. Some of them still smoke in their own cabs. They don’t turn on the aircon even when my sweat is dripping on the back seat.
    In the end I think it about pay. 6 years ago they made 10 Yuan. Today they still make 10 Yuan plus a little extra, but its really not a very good job any more.
    Even 5 star hotels change staff very often, because they don’t want to rise room prices. No one works in a lower hotel service postition for more then 1 – 2 years.
    Good pay and good management gives good service. One of the side effects of inflation is bad service especially if the pay doesn’t follow the prices up. The service was better 6 years ago.
    I agree with service not having a single thing to do with a servant – master relationship. Its about doing or not doing your job the proper way. Still one has to be paid according to that. In China most people don’t anymore.

  • MHB

    I have had the food-ordering problem in China, but I haven’t noticed a higher incidence in China than elsewhere. It’s very common in restaurants of all sizes and types in Britain. It’s sometimes a sign of a popular dish or fresh food.
    I find that you have to be authoritative in China. In Dan’s French Toast (eggy bread?) example, the typical Englishman (me) would behave the same way – wait nearby until given attention. My Chinese wife simply asks. If you don’t ask, you don’t get. I’m sure the employee was totally bemused about what you were doing just standing there. In a good hotel, he would have responded immediately to any request.
    Chinese service is mixed – the best service I have experienced was in China, and so was the worst. I love Chinese barbers/hairdressers!
    I hate tipping – this is my personal preference. I think it’s a sickly habit. I totally agree with the Chinese about this.
    Non-leisure services can be very poor. Service is not seen as a component of the job. The customer/client is not important – the boss is important. If you keep the boss happy, who cares what the customer thinks? If you keep the boss happy, you don’t even need to work at all!

  • James G

    This makes me think about Chinese opinions of their in-country service. Chinese tend to be very hard on themselves in this area, and I mean very. Given the strength of your opinion, and your long experience in China and Asia, I find your observations about service there insightful, even when they don’t dovetail with my experiences.
    Based on the OP, what would you say about the service in S Korea compared to China? I have heard many many horror stories about SK, and given it’s size compared to China, I am curious about the similarities in customer service between the two countries, and customer service improvement over the years.
    In China, I found people who handled/worked with money (banking and hotels) to be the most difficult. Almost sadistic. Restaurant and coffeeshop staff, on the other hand, were usually kind and even jovial with me, but when dining with Chinese, my Chinese dinner companions always assured me that the only reason I got such good service was because I am a foreigner.

  • Bob Walsh

    The taxi drivers in Shanghai are head and shoulders above those in Beijing, where it seems that every driver just arrived from Shanxi last week, and is just getting to know the city.
    A frequent argument I have with my Chinese colleagues has to do with tipping; as virtually no restaurant wait staff has any incentive to provide better service, what you get is what you get. Perhaps if wait staff knew that the size of their tip is driven by good service, things might be different.
    There are exceptions: the Little Sheep chain has uniformly great service, but customers are given stickers to place next to the picture of their server after the meal, and I’m told that the more stickers a server gets, some sort of bonus / incentive kicks in.
    As I will be headed there in a few days, I’m dreading the truly horrible experience that I know awaits me in Wuhan. Not just the hottest and hardest to get around city in China, but first and foremost a place where in-your-face rude service is taken to a whole new level. Hubei’s questionable command of a paradigm.

  • DaMn

    It’s very easy to rate China service, especially from an international business person perspective, as awful. What I’ve found is that it *can* and usually does vastly improve if you do two things:
    1. Speak some Mandarin and have the feel of a local.
    2. Know how, when and why to make a fuss and complain.
    I understand you may say these things are not your responsibility. Ok. It’s China. On a populace level it’s run by cultural standards, not “international business” standards.
    #2 above actually puts you into relationship with the staff and your service can become not only more responsive but actually more plentiful and generous creating a very enjoyable experience.
    If service were perfect there really would be no reason or context to develop a relationship. I am not rationalizing that its actually a superior system. Its just the way it is. It is best to have both high frequency business as well as a running tangible relationship which often carries the context of some conflict from the past and the desire to avoid it happening again.
    While Chinese certainly get treated poorly too, there is a hit and miss with foreigners. Often they are completely ignored or given the simple steps but not taken care of. Not being able to communicate easily is a non starter most of the time.

  • James

    Dan, you are absolutely right.
    I have traveled in Europe, Africa and Asia, and service in China is the worst of any country I’ve ever been to.
    The number of times I’ve had desk clerks lie to me in China is such that now, I assume they are lying about almost everything, and that my reservation has been lost or was never entered, and keep backup maps and hotel adresses whenever I go to a city I’ve never been to.
    My not-quite-but-almost-fluent level of Mandarin is completely not to blame for hotels overbooking and promising things they can’t deliver. Like seeing me, and my white face, and suddenly saying, “Sorry, we don’t have any rooms available.”
    “I just called you and you said you did.”
    “We don’t have any rooms avaiable.”
    Sigh…. China….. so damn worried about mianzi.

  • http://www.chinalawblog.com Dan

    @James G,
    Great question about S. Korea as I love to go on about service there as well.
    In Korea, service can range from amazingly good to amazingly bad, depending on who you are. If you are what I have dubbed a Gung-kae (a literal translation of “Big Dog”), you will get 5 star service. If you are a foreigner with a Gung-kae, you too will get 5 star service. Go to any airport and watch the Korean Air Lines or Asiana counter for a while and you will see what I mean. The Gung-kae will be the older guy who is being attended to/fawned over by at least three airline employees. Listen to what they are saying and you will hear amida added to just about every word (amida is a sign of respect).
    We lowly foreigners generally get 4 star service. Korean restaurant and hotel people are unfailingly polite and service there is 100 times better than in China. Though it is not without its own special issues:
    Here’s what I wrote on it previously (http://www.chinalawblog.com/2010/05/china_negotiations_persistance.html) and it is this sort of thing that can drive you batty in Korea:
    I particularly like the part about becoming “very dulll but not unpleasant” as this is a tactic I have often had to employ throughout Asia and reading that paragraph immediately brought to mind one of my toughest negotiations over $15 USD (yes 15).
    Let me set the stage. I have stayed at the Westin in Seoul so many times that I had my picture taken and a mini party thrown for me when I hit 100 stays. And that was so many years ago that I may have even hit another 100 since then. I arrive at the hotel and ask at the desk about renting a cell phone. I usually get my cell phones at the airport upon landing in Korea (US cell phones do not work in Korea) but I had either forgotten to do so this time or had been in too much of a rush. The desk attendant told me I would need to go to the business center and I did. I signed for the phone and then went to my room, where I discovered there was already a cell phone waiting for me. I returned the cell phone to the business center (this was maybe 20 minutes after I first got it) and was assured I would not be charged for it.
    At least ten days later, I go to check-out on the concierge floor. I sit down and examine the bill, which totals more than $4,000 (I had been there a long long time). I notice the bill has a $15 charge for the business center cell phone and I point that out to my desk attendant and tell her the story as to why I (actually my client) does not owe that money. She looks at me and says nothing. And when I say nothing, I mean nothing. I quickly realize she thinks she is going to try to wait me out because she knows that I am hoping to catch the airport shuttle that leaves in five minutes or so and then not again for another half hour. I too say nothing but keep sitting there. I pull out my International Herald Tribune and continue to say nothing. Finally, she picks up the phone and calls the front desk in the lobby and then gets off and proclaims to me that they know nothing about my being entitled to a write-off of the $15 charge. I very patiently tell her that I did not know why she had called the front desk because it was the business center that told me I would not have to pay and perhaps she should call them. She gave me a blank look and then did nothing for maybe another five minutes. She then picked up the phone and though I probably did not understand a word she was saying, I think I understood everything and she said the following:
    “I’ve got this crazy wae-guk (foreigner) sitting here and he won’t leave. I though I could just wait him out like I do with all Americans, but he is not leaving. He is claiming he is entitled to $15 back from the business center and that you made a mistake charging him. I know you are too loyal and hard-working to have made such a mistake but what should I do? Do I have your permission to give him a $15 credit?”
    Then (and I swear I am not exaggerating here) an additional ten minutes of conversation ensured between the two of them and then my person got off and re-ran the bill and presented it to me and said, Mr. Harris, the $15 has been credited. I then graciously thanked her and she noted that I had missed my bus. I politely told her I would take the next one and that would be no problem.
    I had triumphed. My persistence and calm had paid off.
    I returned to the US and armed with a Westin bonus of four free weekend nights, I went to Portland, Oregon, with my family. We got two rooms and stayed two nights at the Westin in Portland and when I went to check out, my bill was $6, for one beer from the mini-bar. I politely said that we had never taken anything from the mini-bar and the desk person immediately said, “don’t even worry about it.”

  • Hua Qiao

    I feel particularly qualified to comment on this because i have lived for 4 years in a serviced apartment that is part of a major western restaurant chain, a highly respected one.
    I know the management and discuss the service issues at great length. This company does much better than most western hotels and certainly far better than Chinese run hotels. But they still have service problems.
    One challenge is that western customers have different preferences than mainlanders. For example, one major retailer told me they train their staff to recognize that mainland customers want fuwuyuan (service staff) to hover behind the customer waiting to meet their every command. Westerners, especially Americans view this as an intrusion in their privacy, a suggestion that perhaps the store thinks they are shoplifting and would most likely react buy saying “get the hell out of my face.”
    Chinese customers in a restaurant scream “fuwuyuan ” when they want help. Westerners would never do this and would expect the staff to make eye contact. It is hard for mainland trained staff to adjust to these differences.
    There is a bigissue with empowerment in China service industires. Staff are taught to obey procedure, protect against fraud and cheating, which is rampant and are not expecting to be trained to truly take care of the customer in a Nordstrom-like way.
    I don’t excuse the poor service but if you are here long enough and watch how mainland customer behave, you begin to understand the issues facing service providers.
    There is no lower job onthe esteem scale than being a waiter at a local restaurant.

  • Taewon

    I agree wholeheartedly with this blog post. I have traveled around the world myself quite a bit, lived in three different countries in Asia and America, and living in China for three years now.
    I have tried rundown small restaurants to the 5 star hotel chains. China Is the worst country in terms of service among the ones I’ve been to (never been to Russia, that may be why).
    What I would give some slack to China is that I do see some improvements here and there. I don’t expect a fast change in this regard in China but I hope they can improve service faster than they are doing now.

  • Mike

    Dan, I have much respect for your blog.
    I’m not surprised on your post, everyone needs to vent once in a while, but 3 reminders for the general public from someone who has been in China 6 years and Mandarin is a shade above poor:
    1. So much of China food supply chain is based on what’s fresh. Often restaurants MIGHT not have a dish or a series of dishes if the raw ingredients are out of season. Not too shabby an excuse; what I like about Chinese cuisine is the freshness and flavors versus defrosting. This happens a lot so your anecdote needs to disclose that you asked if the food was in season. Think about it: Chinese don’t print seasonal menus, that’s a silly waste of money here. When prices go up most menus just put a sticker on with the higher price.
    2. Its not just the tipping, its the staff migration. I work with (not in, with) the F&B industry in Shanghai and some of my customers lost up to 80% of their staff after CNY holidays this year. The service is being made worse due to attrition through labor migration back ‘west’. As an example, last night I took visitors in town to ‘New Heights’ on the Bund. They add a 10% service charge onto their already inflated menu. The staff was poorly trained, didn’t know the menu, and most staff were WaiDi Ren (outside people, non-Shanghaiinese) – in other words, new.
    3, I find good service comes with immediate financial reward. I have received excellent service when I’ve stopped nickle & diming like a local and show someone they’ll make an extra buck doing it for me ‘NOW’ and ‘RIGHT’. Locksmiths, cleaners, yes even plumbers. In a non-financial transaction (e.g. hotel or telephone service) that benefit is harder to communicate.
    We’re all going to have different opinions on this, and surely China has a different ‘culture’ of service than in the West. The reasons for it are incredibly wide and varied, training alone isn’t going to improve them (as some commenters have also referred to above.)

  • Westerfield

    I’ve lived in eleven countries over the last twenty years and China by far is the worst in terms of service. People on here imply that the fault lies with the customer for not speaking fluent Mandarin, but what the hell is up with that? Is good service supposed to be only for those who are fluent. Of the eleven places I lived, I didn’t speak a word of the local language when I got to eight of them and I have never been treated worse than in China and the same is true of my family. China is a hardship post and the inability and unwillingness of the people to be decent is a big factor in that. Those on here who are contending otherwise have either never really traveled much or are drinking funny kool-aid. Those experienced travelers in the Times article have it right. Russia is bad but at least they don’t constantly lie to you.

  • Hua qiao

    Oh, and by the way, spitting customers is a regular occurence in local lunch places as is flicking ashes and mashing cigarette butts into the floor (right near the no smoking signs usually.). While i have many horror stories about poor service. I have even more stories about absolutely abysmal behavior by customers. To me, mainland customers bring down the service level by atrocious behavior.
    We hear the term “ugly American”. The world should get prepared for “ugly middle kingdomer”.
    I too have traveled all over Asia and the world and i have never seen such poor manners. This is not about the cross cultural differences like whether to belch after a meal. This is about basic common decency like letting your 2 year old defecate right on the sidewalk or lining up in an orderly manner for a cab or subway car or screaming at service people to impress your guests that you are a big shot.
    One other observation on service, Chinese pay strong attention to issues of face. Therefore, in addition to the fear of being criticized for making a wrong decision, workers want to take themselves out of the equation in a confrontational situation with a customer. So they often say the subject request cannot be allowed for “policy” reasons. This drives Americans crazy who often will respond with “i don’t give a damn what your policy is, it’s a reasonable request and i’m the customer!”. The policy tactic seems to work on a lot of mainlanders, who perhaps understand the subtle message which is “we really don’t have such a policy but i am not going to let you do that. So don’t even think anymore about it.”

  • http://www.v-coffee.com Benjamin

    The one thing I really love about service in China is that you can really chew out the waiters in restaurants if there’s an issue (in Chinese). It’s incredible how casually service staff take this verbal lashing, but in the end it probably contributes to the (in my opinion) overall terrible level of service.

  • William

    I was about to write that service in China isn’t all that horrible, but then I realized that my expectations had been lowered from living in China. I now assume that my international mail will be delayed inexplicably for random amounts of time, that clerks are often lying or else totally ignorant of their jobs, and that my cup of tea will only be refilled if I call out to the waitress to refill it. It doesn’t bother me too much anymore, but it certainly is bad service.

  • http://hongbao.tumblr.com Liz B.

    Chinese service is horrible. And not just because they take forever putting out the French toast.
    Try going to the police station when a man in your building has been stalking you and knocking on your door late at night. A laugh and a “mei banfa” is all you get.

  • Chris

    I totally agree with you Dan…..Service in China is crap!!!! I have been coming to China for more than 20 years. I have lived in various Asian countries for 18 years and the last 7 of them in China (as well as 6 in Hong Kong). I can say without a doubt China is the worst service ever (of course, there are always exceptions to the rule, but they are few and far between).
    To me it comes down to the
    1) In ability to make logical solutions to problems that arise.
    2) The preference to lie than to solve the problem
    3) Bosses reluctance to empower employees to make decisions.
    4) Staff just dont seem to care.
    This is an indictment of mainland China not Hk or Taiwan (or other Asian places that have Chinese communities (Singapore, KL, etc).

  • Jinxin

    I wouldn’t say service in china is good nor bad. It probably just depend on who is servicing you. I have never been to a restaurant or bar in china that just substituted my order with something else without asking me first infact they always got me what I ordered even if they had to sent a waiter/waitress out to get it from another restaurant. Though I have to say that I usually never go to restaurants that is frequented by non Chinese. And cap drivers never got mad at me because I couldn’t give him directions but maybe that is because I have the face of a 18 year old Chinese girl…
    I do not trust plumbers in china but I do not trust plumbers nor landlord in Germany as well. I called the landlord of my office cause of a pipe burst, got a number of one of the other landlords, called him got a number for a plumber, called the plumber and he told me to shut of the water of the whole building completely and that he would arrive in about 2 hours. He arrived after two and a half. He had to check out the pipes in the apartment above my office the man that lives in that appartment suffers from dementia so the apartment is quite messy. That a… of a plumber went in and out of the apartment and told me that he can’t work cause it stinks in the apartment. In the end the whole building was without water for almost two days…
    Service in Italy and Spain is sometimes good and sometimes bad. The landlords I know in Paris are a nightmare.
    The service of the hotel stayed at in Poland last year was pretty decent.
    My trip to St. Petersburg was nice and from my experience I can’t say that the services is bad but to be fair that trip was almost 12 years ago.
    In my opinion good or bad service never really depends on the country you are visiting but by the individual that is serving you.

  • http://linkedin.com/in/ruebenmarley Rueben Marley

    Couldn’t agree with you more on most points, Dan. And since I am the Executive Chef at a popular restaurant in Hangzhou – working with Chinese staff just about every day – here’s my 2 bits:
    Why does the general level of service in most venues in China make me feel like everybody is sniffing glue?
    It could have a lot to do with the fact that mainland Chinese are raised within a culture that consistently punishes creativity and strongly discourages creative problem-solving. I’m not making excuses for them, but it helps to keep me from getting really pissed off, and to find ways to anticipate behavior before it becomes routine.
    ENDURANCE is essential! Maybe I’m just a glutton for punishment, because I find myself working a lot harder in China to maintain a semblance of the service level my expat customers would expect in their respective countries… and if that wasn’t hard enough, our best efforts go largely unappreciated by Chinese customers.

  • Twofish

    Seriously no clue what people are talking about here, since I’ve never experienced particularly bad service in Chinese restaurants, hotels, tourist attractions, etc.
    Of course this might have something to do with the fact that I frequent places where I (or someone that I know) has gotten good service, I make it a rule never to go somewhere twice where the service is bad, and before booking a hotel, restaurant, I tend to read internet reviews.

  • http://www.twitter.com/darnoc darnoc

    Interesting topic and thanks for the NYT link. My first reaction was to rate the countries (except India & UAE, which I have not visited) based on my own experiences, from the bottom up. (an exercise that was harder than you might imagine…try it yourself!) China ended up in the lower half of my rankings, just barely, but certainly not on the bottom. (FWIW, Argentina took anchor honors in my list)
    Service in China….like so many things in China, there’s a gap that spans both sides of the coin. On the one hand, I’m regularly amazed at how quickly service people will appear at your door to fix certain things. Examples from the last 60 or so days for me include failed Internet and washing machine services. In both instances, I had service people on site to remedy the problems within the hour. As a contrast, my Internet failed in Seattle last year and the local cable company’s response was measured in days, not hours.
    On the negative side, there are two areas in China where I consistently see lower service levels. First, instances where you ask for service outside of a person’s silo of training or process. For example, I occasionally avail myself of McDonald’s delivery service for a quick snack while working late…..want to add a slice of cheese to your chicken sandwich…more difficult than you would imagine. The second area is when you question quality…..I find the immediate reaction to be resistance, which you must push through. For example, on a recent flight via a Chinese carrier in business class to the US, my colleague requested wheat bread with his breakfast plate….when white bread was delivered, my colleague objected to the attendant who (kid you not) simply picked up the bread and inhaled deeply against the nose. ‘No, that’s wheat’ was the answer as it was returned to his plate. In this particular case, we didn’t push the argument….but often to win the ‘quality’ argument, you’ll need to push…and a bit of pushing will usually yield results, at least in my recent experience.
    In the end, it would seem that rating service is as much about rating the expectations about service. Over time, I actually think it will be more interesting to watch these expectations change regionally rather than the perceptions of service itself.

  • MHB

    Hua Qiao writes sensibly and reminds me of something:
    Our (former) local Beijing restaurant has some steps leading up to it. Go through some plastic curtains and there is the small reception area with the fish tank. Once there was also a toddler at the top of the stairs holding his Mama’s hand and laying a steamy turd so large I would have been proud of it!

  • http://laowaitimes.blogspot.com Mike Cormack

    I have consistently found the service in China the worst of any country I have been to (though others I have merely travelled to, not lived in). The most annoying feature, I would say, is the sudden refusal to speak English when an issue gets too embarrassing or irritating. Just refusing to accept the issue.

  • Tim

    Much of this debate fall into the trap of expectations of services. Mainland Chinese have an ever changing expectation of what good service means and currently it just does not gel with the expectations of many people who are living here. Hua Qiao points it out above:
    “For example, one major retailer told me they train their staff to recognize that mainland customers want fuwuyuan (service staff) to hover behind the customer waiting to meet their every command. Westerners, especially Americans view this as an intrusion in their privacy, a suggestion that perhaps the store thinks they are shoplifting and would most likely react buy saying “get the hell out of my face.”‘
    Personally I find the services here rather odd; as if the facade of quality and professionalism is more important than the substance. I am reminded of this in the daily training exercises that many stores run their employees through with an almost boot camp style discipline. Or the additional accouterments that are provided at my bank’s VIP lounge – if i ever needed access to free cosmetics or mouth wash I know where I can withdraw some cash and gargle away that huajiao breath. Perhaps this is what lives up to local expectations of service; the superficiality of being treated well. Much like the facades of the faux chateau style high-end restaurants pumped up on baroque, gilded cherubs and statues of women that look like they came off the front cover of Heavy Metal. It looks kitsch to many outsiders but the local haven’t works out what kitsch mean.
    They will though, and they’ll also change their expectations of service as well.

  • Dan W

    I agree with you totally. You forgot to mention dishonesty. Honor is very much a part of the Japanese culture. Not so much in the Chinese culture. Including Taiwan.

  • Jaap

    Even if the service would be impeccable.
    There are many environmental issues that are outside the control of the people that would ruin the perception of service. I have traveled over 70 countries and never saw something so dirty and polluted as China. Take these ugly grey monotonous cities. You have a nice room on the 80th floor of a 5 star hotel. The staff’s smiles can only get so big but once you look outside your window you see a vast 22 million metro-pole that impresses primarily by its ‘huge and as far as the eye can reach picture of amorphous grayness’. The view it has is highly depressing. Sure, you can see the other three buildings in Shanghai where they used an architect but it is like recognizing the food in a pool of vomit.
    The reality is, Chinese service is not impeccable. Most restaurants are inside out thoroughly dirty, it seems they have given that up collectively. And you can’t escape it by paying more because there is no cuisine culture, well at least not yet. So, you want cleaner? you can to go to the Mac, you want better? forget it.
    How often is your China experience on par with a similar western experience? Almost never, but i like to think of positive things. Usually places are swarming with staff. As soon as you understand how to use them (fuwuyuan!!!) your relaxed live can begin. Second, don’t worry about tipping: ask for a discount. When you entered a restaurant more then twice they should start giving you it. And beside this, it is all just very cheap.

  • Nate

    Most of those complaints seem to fit pretty well with my experience, all except the hopsitals. I’ve been five hospitals in China, two of them were very clean, the others were older and just mostly clean looking. I only had to wait five hours to see a doctor twice, both times at the same hospitol waiting to see a specialist. In the US I probably would have had to make an appointment a week in advance for the same appointment. Were I to complain about hospitals in China I would probably be asking why everything needs to be done with an IV…..

  • Andeli

    Best hair cut service in the world is done by Chinese. It kicks ass to get your hair washed 2 times, cut, styled for 30 Yuan.

  • http://asialawblogging.com talkinthelaw

    Honestly, it’s not a question of perception. The food substitution thing is instructive. I have never been anywhere in the world where you can get something that is totally NOT what you ordered and they will try and tell you it is. Sure, restaurants everywhere screw up, but when you say (for example…which really happened) “I ordered Prawns with broccoli” and you are looknig at a plate of chicken and pea pods, they don’t tell you it is in fact prawns with broccoli…outside of China I don’t mean there is generally a misunderstanding about what we ordered, but rather, they simply made or brought the wrong thing and don’t want to exchange it, which is just standard practice, even in less developed countries. Or, and this is also, my gut feeling on this, they’ll bring you something remotely close to the more expensive dish you ordered and hope you don’t notice or won’t care. And I don’t this is just a China bashing exercising, because having had to deal with U.S. hospitals recently, I can’t believe a lot of places in the world can be more screwed up than we are, so tit for tat.

  • max

    Generally agree on the bad quality of service in restaurants and hotels. However, in retrospect–as opposed to in the moment–I have a strange grudging respect for such rude behavior; a bit like the way I like the straight-forward way that many Israelis deal with one another (but am glad at the end of the day that I am not Israeli).
    anyway, a counter example: My Asian-American girlfriend had her toilet overflow in a major southern city. We found a guy from a local hardware store who came by in no time. He proceeded to spend hours wholeheartedly attacking the problem, going so far as to reach into the awful pile of excrement with HIS OWN HANDS and put it into plastic bags, like a cesspool-cleaning Lei Feng. Little while later, problem solved. That’s service!
    This was in a pretty working-class district and seems to me to be a pretty everyday problem. Maybe there’s a class difference in the kind of service people expect/are provided with. We were of course foreigners in this area, so that may also be a factor.

  • Vinnie C.

    Every expat living in Suzhou 100% agrees with you. There is not
    even a hint of disagreement. One guy just came back from Viet Nam,
    Laos, Thailand and Manilla. All he talks about is how much better he
    was treated during the entire trip than he is in China.
    So why do these truthful comments cause so much adverse response?
    It makes no sense. Of course, this is what holds China back. Rather
    than correcting defects, they just blame it on the foreigner and then
    they point to the sycophant foreigners to justify their position.

  • Chris

    The worst service I’ve experienced has been in the USA. Incredible queues checking in and out of hotels because they have no staff. Theft from my hotel room on numerous occasions. Taxi drivers physically threatening me and speaking no English. Drivers double charging for trips that were already paid for…. over the top wait staff being inanely friendly hoping for a big tip….
    China is a mixed bag. There is some great service about and some that sux. I’ve had great experiences at 4 and 5 star hotels and some poor ones. At local venues I’ve had fairly uniformly good service, though only occasionally stand out impressive service. At shops it varies though generally it is OK. At State owned banks it has been mixed, with some staff terrific and genuinely going out of their way to assist and be friendly ( several very good service experiences at the Bank of China recently) but generally pretty routine and average. Airline service is uniformly appalling even after I lowered my expectations. In Chinese hospitals I’ve had surprising good experiences with excellent treatment and care.
    Overall, there is great improvement in service standards from the 1980s when I first came to China. The attitudes of service staff has completely changed from a passive “mei you” to an active approach to resolving service issues.

  • Ed

    Hi Dan,
    Interesting post and even more interesting reactions. I find service to be incredibly variable in China, when people are helpful, they are angelically good, and when they are unhelpful, they are a level below piss and vinegar. A good example is Beijing taxi drivers, I find the quality of the experience has nosedived since the Olympics. It wasn’t great to start with.
    I think the clue is in the question. I think China, as a very hierarchical society, has a very different concept of what it means to receive or give good service. For you and me, it is being professional, but in China, it is very wrapped up in status. I do think that giving good service can equate to an acknowledgement of low status in some situations, and in some contexts, the artificial high status given to foreigners in the past has been reversed.
    Which explains an event that happened about five years ago in Beijing. I wanted to buy a Rolex ‘Air King’, and I went in to the Beijing Rolex shop to find out about it. I walked in and asked if they had one. The girl behind the counter didn’t get up, didn’t move, didn’t say anything, just looked at me and laughed in a withering way. Perhaps I wasn’t fat enough, perhaps I didn’t smoke enough, perhaps I was just too polite. From that day on, I have done as little shopping as possible in China. I go to Hong Kong, where they deserve the business.
    Come to think of it, why wasn’t Hong Kong on the list? I’ve never been to Japan, but Hong Kong tops the list for me.

  • CT

    I’d say the survey is quite accurate. There are some good things here, but if customer service were the only factor, I wouldn’t spend a day here. In general customer service is awful, even in some more expensive establishments. It has nothing to do with Western, PC notions of treating workers well. My wife (who is Chinese, plus I speak Chinese pretty well) just to a nice restaurant, and the workers kept standing right in front of the air conditioner. We asked them politely several times, but they kept doing it. A lot of it is just the total disregard for anyone else.

  • Westerfield

    I have been to 33 countries and I now live in China. China has by far the worst service of any country I have ever visited. It is so bad that I am never surprised by bad service I am only surprised by passable service.

  • Twofish

    Vinnie C.: So why do these truthful comments cause so much adverse response?
    Because some of us are seeing something different. Also, I’ve had terrible service in China, but I can’t think of too many *recent* (i.e. in the last two years) examples of that.
    I was in Beijing while this thread was going on, and I was going out of my way looking for bad service, but I couldn’t find anything. The closest thing to bad service I got was when the bus driver at Tian’anmen was screaming at people to squeeze into the back of the bus so that more people can get on, but whether this is good or bad service really depends on whether you were on the bus or waiting in line.
    Yes maybe 100% of the expatriates in Suzhou would agree with service there is miserable, but I’ve never been to Suzhou. Also, a lot of my experience in the US has been in New York City and the expectations of service in NYC are a lot different than Seattle. Try going into a McDonald’s in Brooklyn.
    Also there are things about expectations of service. For example, I find “fine dining” extremely uncomfortable so that I tend to eat in food courts, and small mom-and-pop restaurants, and it’s still a bit odd for me to leave the mess on the table whereas in the US you’d be expected to bus your own table. Also airlines still offer magazines and hotels still give you toothbrushes.
    Ed: For you and me, it is being professional, but in China, it is very wrapped up in status. I do think that giving good service can equate to an acknowledgement of low status in some situations, and in some contexts, the artificial high status given to foreigners in the past has been reversed.
    Not sure this is the case. The best service that I’ve had tend to be in places where we have roughly equal status (i.e. buying clothes, I have money, you own a shop with goods and services that you want to sell, lets make a trade). I think that part of it is that Americans in some places expect that service people will read their minds, when in fact I’ve found that the assumption among Chinese in service positions is that they should be seen and not heard, and that you want something, that you will ask for it, and if you don’t ask for something that it’s rude to ask you if you want it.

  • Sam

    I’ve lived in China for years and I haven’t had any experiences that would lead me to believe that China has terrible customer service. Maybe foreigners come to China with such high expectations that they set themselves up for disappointment. Chinese service standards are simply NOT the same as in most countries. It’s not about being better or worse, it’s just different.

  • Fumer

    No matter what the Pandas are saying, the fact that real travellers find China’s service to be terrible is conclusive proof that it is. The idea that it is different, not worse is absurd and the fact that people are advancing that argument shows just how far some people will go to avoid the truth.

  • James Wu

    Funny, I have been traveling worldwide for over a decade, in and out of the US military, for personal, business, and military reasons. Every time I stay in a hotel in China (from Shanghai and Beijing to Xiamen and Guangdong and ranging from 3-4 stars) the service has always been decent to great. The issues you point out, I am certain, are due to your total lack of understanding of the local culture and I’m going to go out on a limb here and say you haven’t bothered to learn, at least to any certain amount of fluency, Mandarin Chinese. Which from reading your bio and claims of having immense amounts of experience in Chinese business transactions, is not only ridiculous but also insulting to anyone with an ounce of respect for the country(s) they frequent/conduct business in. So, to your long, whiny article about how horrid service is in China, either learn the language and actually respect the culture or stay the hell out. Either way, you will not be missed.

  • LH

    This is such a funny discussion.
    I am American, have travelled widely on business, in Europe and Asia as well as in the Americas.
    I must say that I have found the service in the 5-star hotels of China to be very good on the whole. It would never have occurred to me to complain that it is second-rate. I have stayed at enough such hotels in China and in the U.S. that I find myself wondering how much experience could be so much out-of-whack with Dan’s impression. U.S. high-end hotels are dreadfully understaffed in many instances. In contrast, when I walk into any of my favorite high-end Chinese hotels, my impression is always that the staff is coming out of the woodwork. There is a full-time attendant working to keep all the bathrooms on the lobby level clean, for example!
    Bellhops in the U.S. are good but at good hotels they expect a WHOPPING big tip. Try not giving it to them next time, see how good your service is then.
    At the same time, I’ve witnessed truly unbelievably bad service in China, haha. Not at five-star hotels mind you, but still. I once took a piece of electronic equipment to the authorized repair facility for that manufacturer in Beijing. They held onto it for a week. Then two. Then a month. Then three months. When I would call they would say the most complicated things about why it wasn’t being repaired. They said they were talking the problem over with the company itself (in Germany). They said they were trying new things with it. etc etc. Finally after a year (!!) I took it back in exactly the condition I gave it to them in. There are no other authorized repair facilities for this equipment in China.
    Taxi drivers in Shanghai are very good, I find! Well, they try to cheat you if they think you don’t know the language and the city, but that happened to me in Paris to, so it seems to be part of taxi driver culture. Surprised that Dan finds taxis all over China to be bad. Geez, I would take a Shanghai taxi over a New York one ANY DAY, ANY TIME, haha. Dan must not travel to the same New York that I travel to. Same for Chicago. haha. In Beijing the taxi drivers can be very surly, but I find if I chat them up, most all the time they become quite nice.
    -LH

  • Serr

    I once had to sit trough far, far too long a discussion with a lady at the China Aagricultural Bank because my mom put her middle name in the last name column (and I kept writing it in the first name column) on the sheet with info the sender gives and the receiver is supposed to replicate. I wanted to throttle her, but there was glass wall.