Cus­tomer ser­vice in S. Korea

The Korea Times - - OPINION - Bernard Rowan Bernard Rowan ([email protected]­ is as­so­ciate provost for con­tract ad­min­is­tra­tion and pro­fes­sor of po­lit­i­cal science at Chicago State Univer­sity. He is a past fel­low of the Korea Foun­da­tion and for­mer vis­it­ing pro­fes­sor at Hanyang Universi

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!

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