Shanghai must raise its service level

Updated: 2012-09-17 07:53

By Hong Liang (China Daily)

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The Shanghai municipal government is well known for its penchant for setting lofty goals. It wants to re-establish the city's former status as an international center for almost everything, from finance to culture, entertainment and style.

The massive infrastructure build-up in the past decade or so showcases the municipal government's efforts to prepare the hardware deemed essential to achieve this. But behind the gleaming skyscrapers that have become a familiar part of the city's skyline lurk nagging problems that many economic analysts believe are holding back the pace of progress.

One of the main problems is the standard of service, which is patchy at best. Having lived and worked in Shanghai in the past few years, I can say that the quality of service offered by establishments in many business sectors has made remarkable improvements, but some rough patches persist, confounding and frustrating consumers.

My expatriate friends in Shanghai used to complain a lot about the attitude of the city's service providers. Now, they mostly vent their frustrations on the procedures, which seem to be mainly designed for the convenience of the organizations or companies that provide services rather than for the benefit of consumers.

After all my years in Shanghai, I still can't get used to going to the cashier counter, sometimes located at the other end of the department store, in order to pay first before returning to the sales person to collect my purchase. This is something that I don't have to do in Hong Kong, where the services were once so bad that it used to be called the rudest city in Asia by its neighbors.

Hong Kong has had to restructure from a manufacturing-based to a service-based economy. In the process the rapidly expanding service sector absorbed many former manufacturing workers, and thrust them into front-line service jobs without much training. This didn't matter initially because the substandard quality of service was glossed over by the explosive demand which far outstripped supply.

It took an economic calamity on the scale of the Asian financial crisis of 1997 to force Hong Kong to change its almost self-destructive ways. However, the service industry in Hong Kong was too fragmented to regenerate itself and the government had to take the initiative and orchestrate a quality service campaign.

The campaign not only taught the providers what was meant by quality service but, more importantly, it raised the expectations of millions of Hong Kong consumers, who were enamored of the frequent TV advertisements featuring such superstars as Andy Lau. Many Hong Kong people can still recall a famous line in which Lau admonishes a salesman of an electrical appliance shop: "In this time and age, this level of service is no longer good enough."

In Hong Kong it now seems so much easier and more pleasant to do almost anything, this, I think, is the hallmark of a global services center. When I travel to Shanghai on the other hand I have to lower my expectations.

However, I am sure Shanghai has the potential to match, or even exceed, Hong Kong's standard if it puts its mind to it. The Shanghai Expo in 2010 showed that a high level of efficiency and civility can be achieved in this city when the government is willing to take the lead. But the standard attained then seems to have slipped since. It is time for the government to re-ignite the "Expo spirit" and take the lead in pushing for excellence in service.

It's just a matter of will.

(China Daily 09/17/2012 page8)