Friday, May 12, 2017

How the Free Market Improves the Service Industry

China, today as it has nearly always been, is a land of food.  People are willing and will spend excessive ants of money on good food, and tend to seek out the next best restaurant that is coming up.  Tens of thousands of restaurateurs battle it out in a city of millions, where good food is rewarded with constant line of patrons willing to wait for hours and days for a taste, while mediocre ones close down in matter of months as they can no longer afford to pay high rents in a expensive real estate market like Shanghai.  The sheer competitiveness of the market means that only the most delicious will survive.

While the pursuit for the best taste has always been a given here, the concept of customer service, on the other hand, has been rather lacking despite the intense competition.  The lack of proper service among restaurants here is visible in many ways.  One is the obvious attitude issue of service personnel.  No smiles, no thanks, and no cheerful conversations with customers.  Take order, provide food, and get out.  That was the norm for years.  Customers, themselves often lacking etiquette, did not seem to mind how the service personnel is behaving.

The other is the physical infrastructure of the restaurants. Experts of the Chinese culinary scene often pride themselves in finding the dirty hole-in-the-walls that serve the most delicious food.  Indeed, some of the best food in the country is served in tiny places with peeling paints and soiled floors.  Needless to say, if the customers had to sit through such a mess, the invisible "back office" of the restaurants, including the kitchen and storage spaces, cannot possibly be all that clean either.  It is no wonder that many foreigners landing in China for the first time, while enjoying the food, usually go through an "adjustment period" in the stomach.

The above issues have much to do with China's recent socialist history.  In a centrally planned economy, the service personnel has one role only: that of the distributor of state resources to individual citizens.  The citizens, with only limited rights to certain amounts of resources at certain times from certain places, had literally no leverage over the service personnel.  As such, the service personnel had little incentive to be nice to customers.  State monopoly meant that short of outright crimes, their bad service would not get them fired or reduce number of customers.  And good service would not get them any salary increase or promotions.

Such habits are carried over even as China became a free market economy.  Customers, so used to the bad services of the past, assumed that such is the norm, and no better ought to be expected.  Only as foreign service standards started to take hold in the past years (notably with the entry of many Taiwanese service industry firms) has this situation been changing.  And due to the sheet size of the Chinese service industry, only in the last couple of years has the significant mass of "good service" become accumulated to enough of a critical mass for it to become noticeable in everyday life.

And now that the critical mass is starting to become visible, the level of service has become a notable front for competition among restaurants in particular.  For one thing, interior decorations even in average restaurants have become extremely tasteful, often incorporating traditional Chinese designs into setup akin to living rooms in luxurious homes.  Cheerful colors are used to make the place stood out even from far away, and various posters, flyers, and handwritten chalkboards are put up in prominent areas to advertise the current specialties and discounts.

To better lure the customers, many restaurants are now employing young service personnels trained for friendliness.  Cute girls and handsome guys in distinctive uniforms stand in front of the restaurant, striking up casual conversations with passersby, bright smiles on their faces.  None are timid with words or stingy with laughs.  To complement the attitude of the service personnel, free samples are served to anyone who cares to stop and take a taste test.  While people are eating away, the service personnel joke about how their restaurant is the best in the neighborhood.

Once inside, the arrival of customers are declared in a loud voice to the entire floor staff, who would reply "welcome" for all to hear.  Upon seating, beautifully printed colored menu books are brought, and the staff happily make recommendations for today's specials.  In some restaurants, when orders are made, the restaurant even promise to make sure everything is cooked and brought to the table within a certain amount of time or an additional discount is given.  It truly is a world away from the old days, when restaurant staff do not even bother to say hi when new customers sits down to order.

Of course, such exceptional service is not present in every restaurant yet.  But there is every indication that now, this kind of service is what people would expect and push for in all eateries.  The emergence of online evaluation sites have made it all the easier for people to quickly push a subpar restaurant out of business.  And increasingly, given the overall high quality of food, service is the most important point of distinguishing a good restaurant from a bad one.  Finally, thirty-some years after the gradual dismantlement of China's planned economy, the free market is bringing the concept of service to the restaurant industry here.

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