Friday, November 14, 2008

An Emperor in China

Our columnist comes away wowed by the consumer service in China, though his delight is tempered by a few other concerns..

Customer delight: Following the growth of foreign brands in China, one of the obvious things seen in the country is that as a consumer you are always welcome.

Till recently I had no direct exposure to China. Maybe my only exposure to China was to its cuisine and restaurants such as Mainland China and Memories of China which, though they tickled my palate, certainly pinched my wallet. Many of my friends had stolen a march over me and visited China and extolled its virtues to the extent that I went to China with a mind conditioned to not going overboard about the tremendous progress. But all that went through the window when I saw the roads, the huge buildings, the colossal Beijing airport and the Olympic stadium, all of which got me into a deep depression about our own lack of progress. This piece is not about infrastructure as I am hardly an expert in that, but about my experiences as a consumer in a country where one did not know the language but was still able to observe and experience the keenness to treat consumers as kings.

Of course, we all use the statement “consumer is king” without bothering to understand its implications and are often content to merely pay lip service to it. Here are a few impressions gathered over a week in Shanghai and Beijing. I must quickly clarify that I do not know the Chinese language and had great difficulty in communicating with the world at large, as very few people, however modern their appearance, speak even pidgin English.

Closing a sale

As people in business we all agonise about closing sales whatever the size of the transaction. We have theories on how to do it and on occasion have even experienced it. But the commitment of the young salespeople in China, even in small establishments, was something to be seen and admired. While I experienced it in many small outlets, I felt the full force of it in the golf shop where I was trying to buy a driver. I need to tell you that I belong to that breed of golfers who are looking for magical improvements in their golf game just by buying “new and improved” equipment. Of course, bargaining in China is an art which would put to shame the bargaining that one might do in Karol Bagh or Sarojini Nagar market in Delhi. Nor is it a feature only of street shops but something that happens in large establishments as well.

And yet, even if you offer a price that is one-tenth of what she might have offered you initially she still smiles at you because she is passionate about closing the deal. Their intensity in closing the sale makes us wonder how even young, junior sales people behave like owners of the establishment. Of course, I behaved like a veteran shopper and kept wandering to other shops in the same mall to check the prices and that threw her into a tizzy. And finally, since there was a delay in getting the clubs from the warehouse I offered to come back later but was amazed at the way she held on to me for dear life and even volunteered to give me a massage (an offer that I was unable to take up as I was travelling under the eagle eye of my spouse)!

It leads me to wonder about how people are trained, or how they are instilled with a sense of commitment that links their commitment to sales and how they are empowered to take decisions. It might be worthwhile for anyone who has anything to do with selling to study the selling skills of people such as these. I am sure such skills exist in other countries too and probably in small establishments in India too. But I wonder if the same skills exist or are allowed to flourish in larger organisations, or are they lost in transit?

Show the customer you value her

One of the obvious things about China is the fact that as a consumer you are made welcome. You can find malls opening at 10 a.m. and on Saturday there were already people waiting to enter. The gates opened exactly at ten, like clockwork as one would expect, and one could observe salespeople standing in wait, bowed in welcome, chanting something which sounded like good morning. Contrast this with our own set-ups where after the officially announced opening times, one can still see people cleaning and mopping the floors and empty counters where the attendants are yet to come even as consumers like you and me wait.

On another occasion, when eight of us entered an ice-cream outlet in the middle of the afternoon we were greeted with loud cheers of welcome. Clearly they valued our presence. When I said it was the birthday of my friend (a privilege we bestowed on him as he was paying the bill) they promptly sang “Happy Birthday” to his obvious embarrassment and our collective delight. Used as we are to surly salespeople who are wondering what you are doing in their outlet, one was pleasantly surprised to put it mildly.

Attention to detail

Marketing and management is all about attention to detail. As we often say, we all know what is to be done, but it is only that we often do not do what we know we must do to keep our customer happy. We all know that we must treat our consumers as individuals and look at opportunities to delight her and yet how often do we do it? I saw evidence of this in the train from Shanghai to Beijing when we travelled as a group. While it was no MAGLEV (magnetic levitation) which travels at over 400 km per hour, which operates in Shanghai, it was certainly a classy train which travels at a fair clip. But this is not about speed as much as it is about individualised attention.

Let me explain. The cubicle in which we travelled had four berths and as it was an overnight train which would reach Beijing early in the morning there was a toothbrush with a tiny tube of paste for each passenger which was fine, along with a pair of bathroom slippers for each one of the occupants, which was perhaps to be expected too. But what was unexpected was that each one of the slippers had a slightly different colour so that each one of the occupants knew exactly which was theirs! Simple you say, delight I say!

And yet …

While there are many things that I can talk about, it is only fair to talk about some of the issues facing the growing China as well. The biggest issue in my opinion is the prevalence of organised fake brands and precious little seems to be done to check that. People roam the streets of Beijing offering Omegas and Rolexes. I bought one each for Rs 120 a piece and one would be hard pressed to spot the difference. All the big brands, whether it is Gucci or any of the famous watch brands, all have replicas. There is also no denying the fact that the ‘Made in China’ label still carries its own perceptual problems and while China is working on it, one feels the problem and the perceptions are too deep-rooted to wish them away.

One also believes that China’s lack of proficiency in the English language could certainly hurt its aspirations in the long term, although one must mention in the same breath that China has just accepted Western customs and brands like a duck takes to water. In fact, one finds cities like Beijing and Shanghai are teeming with McDonald’s and KFCs just as Bangalore seems to be overflowing with Dharshinis (stand-and-eat restaurants). This, to my mind, is a big difference between China and India which has not adopted Western styles and eating habits with the same zeal and thank heavens for that! I read somewhere too that China does not have strong local brands which could hurt it in the long run.

Sum and substance

China clearly has a lot to offer the world in general and India in particular. It would be dangerous to blame all our ills on the democratic process and attribute all of China’s progress to the fact that it is ruled with an iron fist. I think China has realised the value of the fact that whatever the mode of governance you may have, it will be market economics that will determine long-term success. It will boil down to simple things that are not so easy to achieve, such as execution and attention to detail, not so much about strategy that many of us spend so much time talking about. And this is where China scores.

(The author is CEO, brand-comm, and the author of One Land, One Billion Minds.)


sundaram said...

Hello Sridhar:

Vicariously, I travelled the Shanghai Beijing train ride reading your article. It is immensely difficult to compose and capture serious thoughts as you have well accomplished in your piece, while commenting, as I do, is an easy part.

Puncuality, listening to the customer, empathizing with her/his needs and observing her ideas and behaviour, these seem to be a package available when one goes to a shop/store any where in China or in their stores elsewhere in the world. It would seem that though the sales people are quite over worked, there is a certain supporting organisation, relief during work hours etc. available to them, so that they can be energetic handling customers. Perhaps, this "Disney Magic" like behind the scene support work is not easily apparent to the customer! Add training, motivation, and an innate desire to be part of the organisation, you have the chinese sales culture.

It looks like the sales people in China and similar places work on the psychology of the customer, while listening and being observant, without being over bearing. Kindness is contagious.

Perhaps, there are places in India too where similar things happen, but may be a few of them.


Sankar said...

Interesting read. How about coming to the US so that you can write one
about US. Also, how about comparing England/Europe's consumer culture
with China and India.

BTW, I think that two of the reasons Chinese have taken to western
cloth and cosmetic culture is that they live in similar latitudes and
the mores imposed by religion are gone after the culture revolution.
China has always been a very practical and top down culture I think. The
adoption of western habits comes easy when the emperor dresses in a
similar fashion.

Ramanujam Sridhar said...

Yes Sankar, You are right, we often forget the importance of back office to support the visible service that we often experience and either admire or criticise.