We don't smile, we don't greet

According to the recently released findings of an international mystery shopper survey on the standard of service of the retail industry, out of the 26 countries/regions surveyed, Hong Kong was ranked 24th in terms of smiles, just higher than Pakistan and Croatia. Hong Kong’s performance in greetings was worse, ranked second from the bottom. The survey involved 2,000 mystery shoppers making 80,000 visits and collecting data from 30 business categories.

The data certainly present a disappointing picture of the Hong Kong retail industry, which has always been a major income generator for the region. And it is tempting to point our fingers at the employees in the retail businesses for not doing a better job. In any case, I am sure that we have all had the experience of feeling short-changed or not well-treated when we go out for a meal. I certainly have. Just earlier this week, when my wife and I had dinner at a large chain Chinese restaurant, we both witnessed and received some lousy service. The waiters and waitresses were indifferent to the customers’ requests for service or placing orders, to the extent that, within an hour or so, we heard grunting from three or four tables and cursing from one. Our own unpleasant experience was our attempt to order a bowl of rice.  After trying to call attention for a few minutes, a waitress eventually approached. Strangely, after hearing our request, instead of placing the order herself, she tried to shift the responsibility to a waitress across a few tables. This other waitress was furious, and quite understandably too, as she was taking orders at another table, and she didn’t hesitate to hurl some blaming words back in the presence of the customers within earshot. I was amazed and slightly amused, and I told my wife that I was ready to bet that our order was not placed. As expected, the bowl of rice never came. My wife was in the mind to complain to the manager, but I managed to make her drop the idea. My wife wasn’t trying to be vengeful, she felt that it was necessary to let the restaurant know it was some lousy service they were offering. She certainly had a point, but I was ever so sympathetic of these grassroots people and knew how such complaints may jeopardise their jobs.
Of course, employees of the retail industry must account for unsatisfactory service, of which the survey and the personal experiences mentioned above may be evidence, but are they the sole party to take the blame, and are we to draw the convenient conclusion that they are just lazy, rude and mean? I think we should seek to understand the situation from the wider Hong Kong context.

Because of the high operating costs, most frontline jobs that businesses in the retail industry of Hong Kong offer are low-paid and involve long working hours. Morever, to keep the running costs down, it is quite common for the businesses to employ an absolute minimum number of staff, which means the employees have to work on tight schedules and under great pressure. All these, plus the fact that these jobs are not held in high regard in the Hong Kong society, mean it is difficult for those engaged in the employees to be highly motivated, or derive much satisfaction from, these jobs. It is therefore hard to expect them to be wearing a smile or greeting customers warmly all the time. One thing I remember about the ferry trip I took across Sydney Harbour many years ago was that many of those serving at the pier and on the ferry were young people and they wore smiles that were more brilliant than the sunshine. It was a stark contrast to the situation of Hong Kong, where these jobs are considered to be of low level and so you only ever see old men pulling ropes and lowering gangways on ferries, and they do look grumpy or miserable.

Another major factor for the poor service is the background of the employees. These low paid and low status jobs are only taken by grassroots people – those with limited education and social exposure, and quite often new immigrants from China. These are the people who may not even know how to be good to themselves and their families, expecting themselves to provide hospitable, high quality customer service is unrealistic to say the least. Pre-service and on-the-job training could help, but then, with the exception of the very large retail chains, how many shops and restaurants do provide the sort of training that makes a difference?
The catch of the survey is that the ranking of Hong Kong is much better in the additional promotion category, meaning that retail business employees do quite well in persuading customers to buy additional products and services.  Given that such successes often lead to the earning of commissions, this finding shows the very practical side of Hong Kong people.

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