Hotel staff line up to welcome customers.

How China has mastered customer service (except in high-end hotels)

Hongkonger Cecilie Gamst Berg remembers when all you heard in China was 'mei you' - meaning 'sold out' or 'there isn't any' - and can't get used to today's customer service ethos

Maybe it's because I remember the time when all you heard was " " ("There isn't any"; "It's sold out"; "You're disturbing my nap") when you tried to buy something, check into somewhere or get on some kind of transport, that I think the new level of service-mindedness in China is miraculous.

In the socialist old days, when everybody got paid the same (nothing) whether they worked or not, who could blame them for wanting to sleep away the working hours, letting the troublesome customer fend for himself? What with the incessant "study" (indoctrination) and self-criticism sessions that went on for hours every day, work was probably the only place where people could relax.

Then came capitalism with Chinese characteristics and everything was turned on its head; now everybody was stampeding to give the customer the best service ever in the shortest amount of time, often trampling him to a pulp in the process.

If anyone were still in doubt that China is now the service capital of the world, all they need do is walk down any street in any town and see the number of young people in ball dresses or wearing some kind of suit, lined up to welcome guests into the humblest of karaoke bars or massage parlours. Up to 30 at a time, huddled together for warmth in their skimpy, fake silk garments, they're all beauty, sincere smiles and helpful hands pointing you in the direction of the enormous entrance.

Eager salespeople.

This desire to provide service and help others now permeates the whole of society, with the paradoxical exception of … expensive hotels.

As I've complained in this column many times, everybody I know keeps leaving this part of the world, but, fortunately, some new ones do take their place. And some of these newbies insist on staying at the highest-end Chinese hotels and having (awful) Western breakfasts and wildly overpriced drinks in the hotel bars.

Instead of the super-quick service you'll find in small, privately owned restaurants, the staff of these pricey establishments (beautiful willowy girls of about 12) inevitably take 30 minutes to bring you even a beer or coffee, forget half if not the whole order and don't seem able to read their own menu.


Worst service so far: Hylandia by Shangri-La hotel, in Yunnan province. Price per night: HK$1,500. Number of Jack Daniels ordered: two. Length of time these were not received: 20 minutes. Time taken to get the manager: 10 minutes. Further time before the drinks were finally brought to the table: 15 minutes. Persons in cavernous bar: two. Management excuse: "We're too busy."

Maybe socialism still lingers in China, but only in the most expensive places, where "we're busy" is the high-end way of saying " ".