HCMC Dining Guide

Wednesday, April 18, 2012

Customer Disservice

For all the progress that Vietnam has made over the past two decades, one area in which it has a looong way to go is customer service. As with anything there are certainly exceptions to this, but shopping and dining here are often fairly taxing undertakings. Every expat here has surely had at least one experience with the staff of a restaurant or a store that has left them steaming mad, or perhaps just laughing at the absurdity of it all.

This afternoon, for example, I did a restaurant review for AsiaLIFE. When I walked into the place a young woman approached and asked how many seats I needed. I said none, I need to talk to Mr. Cuong, the manager. She giggled, pretended to wave a colleague over, and walked away. Then some guy came up and asked if I needed a table for one. "No, I'd like to talk to Mr. Cuong. The manager." He blinked and walked away. A third waiter did the same thing, and I was left standing at the front of the restaurant while everyone attended to something else. I finally walked up to someone who looked a little more responsible and was able to get my point across.

Incidents like that happen all the time, either because people are naturally timid when they aren't using their first language or because they don't want to lose face and say they don't understand or they can't help you. I understand that speaking a second language is intimidating (trust me...my terrible Vietnamese is terrifying to use), but this shouldn't be an excuse for simply ignoring someone. It seems that many store employees have a few phrases that they expect to hear from customers, and if they don't hear one of those they are completely lost. Since workers are scared of this happening, it's common to walk into a business and have the entire staff just stare at you as you stand in the middle of the room, simply waiting for someone to offer to help.

This next anecdote combines both problems. Last week I had to drop off all of the books I used to teach at my former school, as well as something called  a Teacher Clearance Form. I walked into the lobby and was greeted by the sight of a platoon of receptionists dutifully tapping away at their keyboards. No one batted an eye at me, so I picked the one who looked the most bored and walked up:
"Hi, I need to return my books and turn in this form."

15 seconds of silence.

"Um, I used to work here, I was told bring my books (picks up bag full of books) back."

Confused staring. I look to the next receptionist:

"Ok, I need to give my books back. Here's the form I need to hand in as well."

She looks at the paper: "Do you want to apply for a job?"

"Oh my god, listen: I used to work here, I need to return my books and hand in this Teacher Clearance Form.   "

Subtle glances among the whole group of receptionists saying "This white guy is stupid".

Then an older woman ambles over and asks what I need. I repeat what I've already said seven times. She calls someone upstairs and tells me to go talk to them. Should that have been that difficult? (The issue of face was also at play here: they clearly didn't know what I was talking about, but didn't want to admit it.)

This is especially vexing when you consider the ridiculous amount of employees most places here have. I've yet to figure out the reason behind this, but many restaurants and stores are so overstaffed that they are practically tripping over each other. There is a tiny 24-hour convenience store near my house, and sometimes there are six or seven people working there at the same time. I'm pretty sure I've smacked someone in the face with the door before because they're crammed in so tightly.

Occasionally one encounters the direct opposite of the indifference issue. You sit down at a restaurant and your waiter hands you a menu with roughly 147 items on it (not an uncommon thing here). As you start to work your way through the tome the waiter stands above you, pen and notepad in hand, ready to take your order. Maybe Vietnamese people already know what they want when they go out to eat, but I usually prefer to have a look at what's on offer first. So you tell the waiter you'll need a minute, and they promptly disappear for hours, apparently to go watch Titanic or read War and Peace. For some reason there is no middle ground between instant attention and utter ignorance.

Shopping for clothes is another area where the service gets a bit clingy. As soon as you walk into a given store an employee will shadow you like a CIA operative, re-arranging whatever displays you mess up, ready to snatch away anything you pick out and immediately bring it to the cash register. Do they think all foreigners will just steal whatever they can get their hands on? Are we so inept we can't even carry a shirt from the shelf to the check-out? Thanks to this cloying service I avoid shopping for clothes unless I absolutely have to, because I really don't like having someone looking over my shoulder the entire time. (Or you may be rejected at the door of the store by a staff member saying "No sizes for you, just Vietnamese sizes." You saying I'm fat?)

Now, I don't mean to make it sound like people working in shops are entirely to blame for poor customer service. The management of all but the most Western-oriented stores and restaurants seem to have little concern for training their employees in how to deal with customers. They simply shove people with little to no work experience into the store and tell them to make sure customers pay their bill. Until Vietnamese businesses start to take customer service seriously we'll just have to endure more humorous but annoying blank stares, cold shoulders, and unhelpful responses.


  1. My best one was when I bought a computer. Naturally, I have to speak to about 5 people and visit 3 different desks all with a slightly different job. But my favourite bit was when the sales assistant told me that they didn't accept credit cards. After I told him that I wouldn't be buying unless I could pay with a card, it emerged that they did have a credit card machine. The problem was that it was in the other shop across the street and the sales assistant couldn't be bothered going across. Instead, he thought it was fine to ask me to get on my motorbike, go all the way to the bank to get my money out (since you can't get that much out at an ATM), and come back to buy it with cash.

    Any electrical stores are the absolute pinnacle of overstaffing. I used to work in one and we'd have about 8 staff members at any one time. In the same size store in Vietnam, you're looking at over 100.

    1. Ah yes, the classic run-around. When I bought my phone when I first got here I was attended to by at least 6 different employees.

  2. The overstaffing is due to the government trying to boost the economy. They encourage employers to do this so more people have money. The more employees, the higher the cost. So of course, they'd pay them less. Now, how good would your customer service be if you were being paid 7k an hour?

    1. Yea I figured workers at overstaffed places must make ridiculously low salaries. Like I said, the workers aren't all to blame here.

  3. When I was in Vietnam last month, I also noticed the odd "shadowing" when I went to a nice mall (Diamond Plaza, for instance). Every time I stopped to look at something, I would have 1-4 employees just looking over my shoulder silently. I just chalked it up to them hoping/anticipating a sale right then and there. Those places aren't cheap (compared to outside street stores), and I don't imagine the average folk buying things regularly there. So any eager "shadowing" of customers who want to browse is probably a hope for a sale.

  4. Nice blog, by the way; feel free to check out mine with tons of photos (still currently being updated) from my 1st trip to 'Nam.

    1. Thanks! That's a good point about hoping for a sale - most stores in the malls here are usually pretty empty, so I guess the 47 employees working there must get pretty excited when someone actually walks in. I'll take a look at your blog as well.

  5. Try shopping while black in a "nice" mall in Pretoria or Johannesburg, South Africa.