I am wandering through Central Chidlom – one of Bangkok’s many Boutique Department Stores – when I come across this typical “farang v Thai customer service representative” interaction. The farang, a well-heeled, somewhat portly middle Eastern gentleman dressed in Western fashions, is well on his way to apoplexy, the timbre of his voice climbing from polite baritone to screeching owl. The Thai Service representative is a slight women in her twenties, immaculately attired and coiffured as the dictates of the store demand of its employees.
Of course, this captures the attention of travelswithadiplomat and I hover surreptitiously in the area to observe, lurking furtively among some silk flowers. In defence of the customer there has been a minute or so of polite inquiry which has got him nowhere…
“But I was told I could return it if it wasn’t right.” A white piece of paper flutters in the breeze of his be-ringed fingers.
Unfortunately, the opponent in this dialogue barely speaks a word of English. Certainly not ire-English. There is a glazed smile, much nodding, and looking everywhere but at the customer. “OK, yes” is uttered among a stream of placatory Thai.
“Are you going to help me?” demands our protagonist. This is repeated several times when the answer is an inaudible smile and fluttering of nervous hands.
“Where’s the manager? Your manager! The one who said I could come back here and sort this out.” At this point the service representative is looking everywhere for help but her colleagues have dissipated into the store like silent grey ghosts.
I should add the object of concern is a rather pungent, even malodorous, jasmine-chemical perfume ejaculator. The entire part of this floor – the 5th – reeks like an over-exuberant youth has created their perfect idea of a Valentine’s Night romantic boudoir (you know we’ve all done it). I decide to step in, so to speak, by moving into the customer rep’s eyesight with a bottle of honeyed lavender oils I want to buy (don’t ask why). She latches onto me like a character from a Steve Smith’s poem, happy to steer me towards a cashier. Basically, yep, she just walks away from the indignant, now enraged, other customer.
I’ll give you another example. Different store, same ethos…
Walked up to the cashier with a toy for Isla to be told: “1500 Baht, sir.”
“Er, the label on it says 1200 Baht.”
“So it does. Still, the computer says 1500 Baht, sir.”
“And? You’ve priced it for the customer at 1200 Baht.”
“Look, sir,” and the (as always) immaculately pressed service representative swivels his cashier screen to me. “1500 Baht on the computer.”
“Yes, I know,” I begin to argue, “but you can’t charge me that. You have to charge what you label it as.”
“Can’t do that, sir, the computer won’t let us sell it.”
You’ll note not one mention of the word “sorry” (or kor tod krub in phonetic Thai). The entirely conversation is conducted with a fixed smile, which, I’ll point out never reaches his eyes. We go back and forth for some time. I notice his agitation rising because ‘the crazy farang just doesn’t get it. The price is 1500 Baht!’ and back off, paying the 300 Baht extra and suggesting he might like to fix his labels for the next customer. Smiles all round. It won’t be done.
It is this that is one of the hardest adjustments for Westerners to make when we get to Bangkok. Land of Smiles and all that, for sure, but the customer service smile is on the mouth only. I do feel for them, because I have come to realize the problem (and this has been backed up by those with a longer experience of this happy nation than me) is that “thinking outside the box”, “acting outside the guidelines or instructions” is just not permitted here. No one is authorized to do anything other than refer the matter upwards into the bureaucratic chain. Yet it won’t be referred because a customer complaint will make the said manager lose face in front of their employees so no one dare do it. The end result: fixed rictus smiles, nodding, but total inaction. Any Westerner expecting Western-style customer service here just won’t get it. Now I am not saying Western-style service is perfect. No sirree. In fact, I think it empowers the customer far too often. “The Customer is always right” is the biggest horse manure I’ve ever heard from gurus (and I’ve worked in the service industries most of my working life). The problem is that Westerners associate the word “service” with “servant”. Big mistake. A service is provided to make the right decisions for you based on experience and knowledge, not take your abuse.
You know what…sometimes those customer representatives do know better than you, O customer. Listen up just once or twice. Kindness is a contagion.
Anyway, back to Bangkok. Of course, when you paint with a wide brush there’s always someone to point out that no brush is infinitely wide. I’ve come across some awesome Thai customer service – like Thai Airways; strangely, in any Starbucks; in places like AIS; with my fruit vendor outside who’s happy, cheerful, genuinely interested and works out a solution to my fruity desires. Yet, these examples are not the common position. The problem, to me, seems three-fold: 1) a lack of a common language of commerce (usually has to be English), 2) lack of empowerment of customer service people to resolve a problem, 3) the global weariness of customer service people to be treated like emotional punchbags.
The last is something every expat or tourist needs to work on, the first two are something you need to be aware of here. Sure, your tourist dollar will get you a fawning, obsequious service, but don’t try and step outside the invisible guidelines or else you’ll find yourself angry, holding a jasmine-chemical perfume ejaculator you don’t really need, staring at the back of the savvier farang who has stepped into the box of customer service that Bangkokians are comfortable with. And that…might just get you a big Thai thumbs up.
Is this what diplomacy is all about?