Shopping or dining in Saigon exposes one to opposite extremes of the customer service experience – often in just a single day.
At this point, I should divulge (for those who don’t know me outside the blogosphere) that I’ve spent more than a decade observing, writing about and photographing retail stores all over the world – that’s my day job. So I figure by now I can recognise good customer service when I experience it. And bad.
I’m a regular customer at Highlands, my favourite of a fairly limited offer of espresso-style coffee chains here. At Highlands one can experience the best and worst of Saigon service – sometimes in the same store.
At Vincom Highlands, where I am a regular, some of the staff know me well enough to just check my order without offering the menu (although the new menu this month caused confusion when I decided to indulge in pancakes with strawberries only to discover they’re no longer made – at least my doctor will be pleased). One or two will often give me two or three extra of those yummy little complimentary cookies with my cafe latte, making me feel special and more inclined to return.
But this weekend, I had the opposite service experience at the Saigon Centre Highlands, probably the city’s busiest.
A smiling young male takes my order: a tall cafe latte hot and a croque monsieur – with an egg on top. He sets off to arrange it and I resume writing my blog (the next instalment).
Several minutes later, about the time I would be expecting my coffee to arrive, he returns, this time holding an order pad. “Excuse me sir, can I check your order?”
“Sure,” I say and wait for him to speak. But wait, this is in fact his way of conveying he has forgotten my order and wants me not to check it but to repeat it. So I do.
“OK,” he confirms. “One cafe latte tall. Hot. And one croque monsieur.”
“Yes, with an egg.”
He looks confused.
“An egg,” I repeat yet again. Fried. On top”.
I am confused. After all, this dish has been on Highlands’ menu since I arrived here four months ago.
So I quickly open a new tab on my laptop, type egg in the address bar and Google takes a few seconds to display some images of eggs. I point to one of a fried egg on the screen.
“Yes, I know. Egg”. I feel chastised. Perhaps I was, as 10 minutes later my croque monsieur arrives. Without an egg. I gave up.
Hey at least this guy was awake! Well, OK, ambulatory.
The grainy image below was taken on my iPhone one day in Vincom when I was looking for some cooking implements. Fortunately I was not seeking a new kitchen.
But this is an all too common sight in Vietnam: store staff asleep behind the counters, huddled together watching sitcoms on laptops – sometimes at full volume! – or chatting animatedly about their weekend, often while you’re standing confused in the middle of their store trying to catch their diverted attention for some guidance.
Sometimes they’ll be eating their lunch.
Sometimes they’ll do that in the middle of the store. On the floor. In an aisle between stock displays.
I kid you not! Several weeks ago I was in one of the toy shops in Vincom Centre selecting something for my baby niece’s first birthday. I turned to walk down an aisle only to find it blocked by one of the store staff. He had placed a sheet of cardboard on the floor, unwrapped his bowls of food and proceeded to enjoy his lunch.
I couldn’t believe my eyes! If this was a shop house in a backstreet of District 5 or a Sari Sari in Manila, I wouldn’t have batted an eyelid. But this is in the most modern (well, for another month or two at least) shopping centre in downtown Saigon, a western-style mall…
In my western experiences store staff are forbidden to eat or drink food in front of the customer. It’s considered impolite.
There are two main factors driving the lack of service culture in retailing in Saigon: firstly, labour is cheap and store staff are usually paid little more than a survival salary. Workers prefer to work in an air conditioned store environment to a fan-cooled clothing factory, so they might covet a job in a shop. But retailing is not exactly considered a career here.
Secondly, training is evidently non-existent.
By good fortune more than anything else, Vietnamese-run retailers might occasionally hire staff with their own instinctive abilities that make them stand out above their colleagues: people who smile at customers, for example. Western run retailers – like the owners of L’usine off Dong Khoi – will recruit only staff who know how to smile and make the customer feel important. It’s called engagement and engagement is what makes occasional customers loyal customers – and ambassadors for the store.
But consider this experience from the Geox shoe store in Saigon Centre: I walk in, my attention caught by a pair of official Red Bull Racing team sports shoes (I’m a Formula One addict and a mark Webber fan). I seek my size, but they don’t have it in store. So I try on a pair one size larger just in case – nope, they definitely don’t fit. At this point, the store staff were ready to let me walk out of the shop.
But I am very keen to buy these shoes if I can find a pair which fit. So I ask if the store has other branches in Saigon.
Yes, they do. In the Parkson department store on Le Than Ton.
Does he know if they’d have my size in stock?
Not sure. No surprise there, but it’s 2012 and I’m sure both stores have a phone…
Good customer service would have seen the guy offer to phone another branch and see if they had my size in stock well before I thought to ask him to.
Excellent customer service would have been to suggest I have a coffee at the cafe next door while they had the shoes brought across town on a motorbike – they would have impressed with the service, achieved a sale and had me singing their praises to anyone who would listen (or read!). And a motorbike courier from Parkson on Le Thon Tan to the Saigon Centre would have cost less than one US dollar – to achieve a sale of a pair of shoes worth around $200!
Saigon is becoming home to more and more expats, not to mention the growing ranks of overseas educated Vietnamese returning home having been exposed to many different ways of the world. In years to come, consumers will be demanding higher and higher levels of customer service and retail execution.
The challenge for local operators will be to learn from abroad, improve their customer service offer, recruit better and train better. In doing so, perhaps retailing will become a more serious career option for many Vietnamese.
At the very least we should all be able to shop in stores without tripping over staff sitting on the floor eating their lunch!