Customer service in S. Korea
Good customer service is disappearing. I think democracies would rank among those places. We just can’t get past ourselves to imagine we’d serve someone. It isn’t about servility or servitude, groveling or self-humiliation. It’s extending active and considerate regard for customers as people.
Among the countries I’ve visited, South Korea has displayed good customer service to me. I’d like to share some of my experiences and related observations in this column.
I’ll start with Korean Air and Asiana. I’ve flown several different airlines in my life, and I can’t find airlines with better customer service. From the time I enter their planes to the time I leave, I’m treated well. The flight attendants show me the same consideration in economy class that I see for business and first-class patrons. They invite me to enjoy a newspaper such as The Korea Times. They regularly interact with me about my comfort (not just at meal or snack or drink times). They present an efficient but outwardly concerned manner of customer service. With other airlines, the experience is akin to command and control in a penal establishment or military boot camp. Please! The post-911 era has hastened a decline in airlines’ customer service not shared by South Korea’s major airlines.
Department stores in many countries will find needy customers scouring the floor — I mean an entire store floor — for a living being — except perhaps a security guard. They’re stuck to their registers all too often, typing in endless data to reflect labels, tags and credit cards.
Hyundai, Shinsagae, and Lotte department stores in Korea are wonderful havens of humanity. It needn’t go so far as the bowing attendants of parking lots or elevator doors, but it’s a friendly and inviting experience. I’ve left department stores in frustration but never in South Korea. There are widespread personnel ready to help.
Also, good service occurs in large shopping meccas like Namdaemun and Myeong-dong in Seoul or Gukje Market in Busan. I find shopkeepers and sellers eager to talk and interest me in their products. Their humanity matches their interest in selling something to me. I do think it increases sales too, by the way! In some of the most crowded and busy shopping districts, Korean merchants don’t lose a disposition that befriends and invites patronage.
While living in Pungnap-dong, I patronized many small shops up and down Toseong-ro. Be it a shop for soft drinks, the barbershop, restaurants or the grocery store, the patrons befriended me, even with my broken Korean, and welcomed my custom.
I’m not going to say the tendency I’m describing is universal or unfailing. However, good customer service is one memorable feature of my time in South Korea and one renewed on each visit. Why does it occur?
First, South Korea’s Confucian culture, of late crudely caricatured by some and formally derided by others, values harmony. It beats the transactional quality of business in the U.S. or Europe.
Second, perhaps because of the labor force and relative employment costs, there are more people working in Korean stores and establishments. I do think it’s easier to provide good customer service when there are enough people serving customers.
While there is concern for security in airlines and stores, I don’t feel watched or recorded to the same degree. I feel welcomed! That’s important, even today. I’d rather meet a friendly face than hear some muzak or canned brainwashing ambience while being scanned for facial recognition and treated like a data point.
I also think the relative availability of many stores, as opposed to endless retail chain megalomania, still characterizes the establishments I’ve visited in Korea. When a family owns and runs a business, they have even more interest in providing good customer service than Employee No. 672 of Store 54 of Company Z.
Finally, and may it not end, Korean social democracy still unfolds. Good customer service relies on the sense of people as a wider family. It’s Confucian in a positive sense. It limits the sense of other people as “strangers,” as merely potential consumers occupying a space of business. That’s how many European and American places of custom make me feel, and regularly. That isn’t my experience in Korea.
I hope my experience of Korean customer service resonates with you, and I hope you find it the case in your travels, visits and life!