In Hong Kong, the customer is no longer king

Amy Wu says Hong Kong risks losing its competitive edge, as a city known for its efficiency, if the quality of its customer service continues to decline

PUBLISHED : Thursday, 15 August, 2013, 12:00am
UPDATED : Thursday, 15 August, 2013, 3:21am

There we were, sitting in a nice Cantonese restaurant in the heart of Central's business district. It was at the tail end of lunch hour. The server disappeared after seating us.

We examined the menu, and waited for someone to come over to take our order. Five minutes, then 10, and finally my lunch companion stood up waving the menu in the hope of catching someone's attention.

"Excuse me," he said, finally grabbing the sleeve of one of the fast-moving serving staff. The waiter - who even looked a bit annoyed at being button-holed - finally took the order.

"The customer service is getting worse and worse," my lunch companion, a native Hongkonger, said, recounting recent experiences that sounded familiar - waving down servers, suffering the wrath of staff who just can't get the order right, repeatedly asking and eventually begging for more tea, water, the bill, and taking the last resort of serving oneself.

I've become a cynic when it comes to the quality of service in Hong Kong. That's too bad. One of Hong Kong's perks - competitive edge if you will - has traditionally been its fast, efficient and accurate service, plus a workforce with a stellar work ethic and a star attitude.

The cases of bad customer service are building up quickly. There was the case of the travel agent who repeatedly said, "Sorry, there are no more seats" after I made the request to move a travel date. After pushing and prodding, the agent gave me a choice: cancel the ticket and pay a penalty, or buy another ticket. What other alternatives were there, I asked. His response was silence.

What about a waiting list? There was no room on the waiting list, he said. Instead, he suggested changing the date by upgrading the ticket to a different class (at a higher cost, of course). Money does funny things to people, I thought. So I headed to the ticketing counter myself. And, yes, the airline - Cathay - was very helpful.

Maybe the service industry would sharpen up if the amount of service charge or commission were determined by the customer. In Hong Kong, the service charge is built into the bill. Adopting a tipping culture could rouse motivation to achieve high-quality service. At the same time, taxi drivers here, most of whom are excellent drivers with decent English, would get their just rewards, too.

Maybe I'm just being too hard on Hong Kong's service industry. I can appreciate the challenges of working with difficult customers on a daily basis (I've been there).

But as a visitor - here temporarily and to work - I hope to see Hong Kong keep its competitive edge when it comes to solid service. The customer is and should be king. After all, spending is what keeps the economy chugging along.

Customer service is part of what makes Hong Kong so civilised. It is one of the factors that sets it apart from cities in mainland China and numerous others in the Asia-Pacific region. Taiwan and Japan are known for their polite and pleasant people, and Singapore is famous for its order - albeit often extreme - while the mainland Chinese are fast learners. Hopefully, Hong Kong will not be left in the dust.

Amy Wu is an American-born Chinese writer and commentator