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The Notion of Customer Service in Korea

This post is going to be full of observations, and questions, but not full of answers. Frankly, although I’m more of a consumer here than I ever was in North America — in the sense that I actually deal with a lot more people in the service industry — I still don’t really have a good fix on the Korean idea of how customer and service provider is idealized or considered.

Here’s what I mean: in North America, if you work in the service industry, the adage is that “The customer is always right.” Now, this is an adage, not a reality. Customers are very often wrong; they’re very often ignorant, have no idea of what they actually want or how to get that from a range of available products or services, but also hate being helped to find how to get what they actually want. Me, I used to be a recalcitrant shopper. If I walk into a store and someone comes over to me too quickly, asking me if they can help me, I used to walk straight out again.

Then I worked in retail. The nightmares began, of customers always being right. The unwashed, ignorant shopper who cast aspersions on my favorite music. The teenagers who would declare that Kurt Cobain was God now that he was dead. The ecstasyheads who came in and complained that our music store ought to be playing techno music 24/7. All of these idiots, I had to treat as if they were right. The people who never washed themselves, who would come in and lick CDs, the people who would stick their hands down their pants and then come over to shake hands with the clerks, because doing this was how they liked to get their jollies.

We developed coping mechanisms. Whatever actually effective sarcasm I express verbally, I developed working in a music store. That’s how I developed whatever ability I have to steer people away from one thing to another. My sense of how to make someone comfortable, my sense of how to respond to complaints while I’m on the job… these things all were developed as coping mechanisms. When someone has an unreasonable complaint, I entertain it, asking questions and explaining why according to the company it’s unreasonable, but also trying to find a way to fix the problem that keeps both sides happy. And when customers seems reasonably unhappy — as opposed to unreasonably so — I’ve tended to side with them, as have most of the better supervisors I’ve worked for.

I sometimes wonder what “customer service” is understood to mean in Korean business. Here’s an example:

Once, while still trying to find a shop that could adequately repair my soprano saxophone, I happened to go to a used instrument dealership. It was on the recommendation of another music shop owner in another city, and while I knew they weren’t doing repairs in-house, I’d been told their repair guy was pretty good. So I brought them my horn and showed them the problem, and they agreed they could get it fixed.

A week later, I showed up after a phone call saying the work was finished. Well, “work” in this case meant that the problem hadn’t actually been fixed, but a post on the saxophone, in addition, had been bent a little bit. They demanded the repair fee, and I demanded that they pay me money for (a) not having fixed the saxophone and (b) damaging it further.

You know, I wasn’t sure that they would actually pay me money, but I thought maybe some apologetic treatment, maybe an offer for another go at repair, or something nice would have happened. After all, they damaged my expensive instrument! So you can imagine I was pretty shocked when the proprietor of the shop started yelling at me! He started in on me and didn’t stop till I left. What the hell? Let alone good customer service practices, you’d think he might feel a little badly to know the horn was even worse off! But no, he just yelled at me.

Okay, there are a lot of missing variables in that story:

It’s impossible to know the answer to these questions, but on the other hand, when I told this story later, several people nodded their heads and said in their experience, when someone in the service industry screws something up, and that someone is a significantly older man, the usual response to complaints is yelling, not apology.

That’s the bad side of things.

On the good side of things, there’s the treatment I’ve gotten at dozens of restaurants and shops where people have been beside themselves — a little too beside themselves for my own comfort and relaxation, mind you, in a way that’s just anxiety-building, but good service is at least better than bad — to make sure I get the best service. People bring you more side dishes. They ask you a few times whether the food’s okay, and make sure you always have some water.

So what is the deal with customer service? Is there such a saying in Korea as, “The customer is always right?”

My experience today with Hanaro makes me wonder. I’ve been struggling with internet problems a lot, and found that calling their helpline multiple times has been worthless — half the time there’s nobody who speaks English around, and while I’d normally be understanding about that, both KT and Thrunet offer English service — and also found that the disconnection problems I’ve been experiencing have been generally off-and-on enough, and the helpcenter “help” was vague and worthless enough, that calling basically got me nothing but more frustration. Trust me, nobody’s more relieved than Lime about the fact I’ve decided to cut off my service with Hanaro, because (a) she doesn’t have to listen to my complaints anymore, and (b) she knows my blood pressure is likely to improve somewhat once the KT hookup is completed.

Well, after I called and requested for my account to be discontinued, I discovered some interesting things. For one, Hanaro is still using the archaic, stupid system of requesting faxes of peoples’ citizen ID cards (or Alien registration cards) to confirm identity. It’s not enough that I could tell her my name, phone number, and address; no, they need a fax containing my alien registration card. Fine… okay… I can live with that… I guess.

But the woman who called me to tell me this spent a good hour trying to change my mind. After months of useless call-center help, after plenty of visits from friendly but puzzled technicians, after several weeks of near-daily disconnections and two straight weekends of almost complete disconnection, this woman wanted me to think again, and stay with Hanaro. When I put it to her that way, she suggested I upgrade my account to the high-level account, which was sure to enjoy continuous connection. When I pointed out that nobody told me the standard account was subject to continuous disconnection, she said she didn’t know the details, but that a high-level account would be free of disconnections. When I asked why nobody had informed me of this before, or why my “standard level” account had only become subject to arbitrary disconnections in the last few months, she didn’t know what to say.

When I complained that I’d gone through this crap for more than a month, and wanted her to discount my bill, she said I hadn’t called the helpline enough and that I needed at least 3 periods of continuous 72-hour disconnection, or five visits from a technician. And when I said, “Well, the reason I stopped calling the help line and asking for technicians to come is because it never helps, and they arrive the connection happens to have come back up, and that anyway half the time nobody at the help line speaks English and while I try to communicate in Korean, technical mumbo jumbo is harder than normal conversation.” She said, “Oh, but maybe someday we will have an English help line!”

Maybe. Someday.

That’s nice for you, maybe, someday, Hanaro. KT and Thrunet have English helplines now. Today. That’s what I said to her. Now, don’t fret, at the end of the phone call, once I knew I’d be expected to pay for my full net service — despite the fact my connection was down half of last month — and when I knew where I had to send my fax, I let her know two things:

First, that most of the people I’d talked to working for Hanaro were actually quite nice. I don’t blame her personally, or any one person I’d dealt with. I was satisfied with how they’d done their jobs, within the parameters set out by their employer.

But second, I informed her that the parameters set out by her employer were ridiculous; that their protocols and their system were messed up, and that it’s no great secret. Anyone looking around on the Net would find reports of the same thing. I let her know that not having an English helpline will make Megapass (the KT service) much more attractive to foreigners, and having some bizarre rule of disconnections being okay unless you’re on a premium account will drive away customers. I told her I will definitely be telling everyone I know that Megapass is better than Hanaro.

And she apologized. That helped, but not enough to keep me around.

I wonder how she and the company she works for see a lost customer. See, I know that at Hanaro they’re concerned about losing customers. After all, calling me up at all, and having a spiel prepared, even in English, to try to convince me to stay with them, that’s evidence that they care. But mainly it amounted to the abusive boyfriend who finally says, “Please, please, please don’t go!” to the bruised up girlfriend, after a bout of fights. Maybe a fool would stay… hell, probably many fools do stay. A genuinely nice person asking you to stay despite the crap could have a powerful effect on all kinds of people, I imagine. But the fact is, for me, it was far too little too late.

Is the expectation simply that people ought to accept the inconveniences, the crap, and whatever? Who knows. Maybe KT will be just as bad, I don’t know. But I do know that sometimes, customer service is served up in baffling ways here.

Then again, there’s the techie who came to my home today. Last Sunday, I called asking for my connection to be discontinued as of this morning. Well, they sent a techie, but not to disconnect me. This, someone decided, was unacceptable, so they booked in someone to come and “fix” my connection. Again.

When I figured out he was trying to fix things, I told him what the real story was. He explained he wasn’t able to disconnect me, that this had to be done at the Hanaro main office, and then he could pick up my modem. When I shook my head in surprise, and explained that I’d already booked KT to come tomorrow afternoon, he helped me out. He wasn’t allowed to call in and cancel my account, so he borrowed my landline phone, disguised his voice, and pretended to be my neighbour. Even so, getting someone to put my phone number into thw queue of numbers to be called for cancellation confirmation took almost 40 minutes, but he did make sure it was done before he left.

It’s ironic that this guy, in helping me out this way, was doing something he wasn’t even supposed to be doing. The person who helped me most was the person in violation with company policy. This tells you something about company policy. I wonder if it also tells you something about notions of customer service in Korea. In any case, what this guy did, that, that is customer service. He even apologized for the things I complained (nicely) about to him. This is hard to do, but it takes the edge of my resentment towards the company. Certainly, my own urge to tell everyone I know to switch to Megapass is much-reduced… though I will, I think, tell the foreigners I know that switching to Megapass is a good idea since, after all, they have an excellent English Help line.

The English line was excellent. Not the Korean line, which was the first line I tried, because I didn’t know there was an explicitly English-language help line. That first call went a little like this (in Korean, mind you):

Me: Is there someone in your office who speaks English?
KT Lady: Why? Do you speak English?
Me: Yes, I’m a foreigner.
KT Lady: Who is?
Me: I am. For me, English is a little easier, so…
KT Lady: Sorry, no, there’s nobody here who speaks English.
Me: Oh, well, then I’ll try in Korean.

Except, of course, that I didn’t say that last line. I got as far as, “Oh, well then…” before I realized the clicking sound in my ear meant she’d hung up on me.

“Sorry, there’s nobody here who speaks English.” *click* I’m not going to get into the insanity of the fact that you cannot even get a job without a TOEIC score — except to say, this just goes to show you what one learns studying TOEIC, and what TOEIC actually evaluates — and I’m not going to complain that they don’t have English service. But it’s pretty shocking to me that, after having that much of a conversation in Korean, she’s simply hang up on me all of a sudden after telling me there’s nobody around to talk to me in English.

Frankly, it’s not just bad customer service, but outright stupid to do that. I mean, it’s not as if I demonstrated NO ability to communicate. So maybe it’s not even a corporate culture thing, this issue of customer service. Maybe some people get it, some don’t, and some are just plain stupid — like back home, except that the stupid often get fired in my experience, and even those who don’t really get it have a sense of how to go through the motions of getting it. Ah, hell, I don’t know. I’d like to know, though. Anyone who knows more about this suibject, how Korean culture’s sense of “customer service” is constructed, please do register and comment. I’m dying to hear different perspectives on the subject, especially from people who have worked in such a capacity, or who know someone who has. I’m sure to ask Lime, but that’s only one perspective and I think her only retail experience was in Canada.

And for those needing to contact with Megapass’s English help line, use a landline and call 100, and then press 8 at the first voice prompt.

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