Chinese Secrets of Great Service

“Courteous treatment will make a customer a walking advertisement.” – James Cash  Penney

Ever since my first trip to Hong Kong in the early 1980s, I’ve been impressed by the level of service you get from travel-related Asian businesses. Even the best service you receive in the States – first-class accommodations on the best U.S. carrier or a stay at a Four Seasons or Ritz-Carlton hotel – doesn’t measure up to what you get in Asia.

This trip to China confirms my earlier impressions. Every contact we’ve had with employees of this industry has been exceptional.

Today at breakfast, I asked my fellow travelers if they agreed with my assessment. “Best in the world,” Allie stated confidently. “Without a doubt,” Daniel said, “and I’ve been in the best places.” Even K, who doesn’t like agreeing with me, agreed.

“So what is it that makes this service so special?” I asked.

“They are just so accommodating,” Allie said.

“So eager to please,” Daniel added.

“It’s true,” K said. “And a big part of it is that they will do anything you ask. Since we’ve been here, I haven’t heard anyone say no to anything we requested.”

“Do you think it’s a cultural thing? Is it innate? Or is it something they are taught when they get into the travel and hotel business?”

Everyone agreed that it was probably a combination of both. The Chinese people have a tradition of hospitality and a code of conduct that promotes respect. But the people we’ve been dealing with are also – very evidently – extremely well-trained. You can tell from the way they approach you, their choice of words, the posture they assume when they are waiting to serve, and their impeccable manners.

“But it’s not just their attitude,” Daniel pointed out. “It’s that there are so damn many of them.”

It’s true. At The Peninsula hotel in Hong Kong, I counted no fewer than six valets, three doormen, two security guards, and some sort of manager – all manning the front door. At the reception desk, there were no fewer than three people at any time. When a group came in, there would be five or six. And there were always three concierges. I never had to wait more than two or three minutes to get service. Most times, someone would be there to help me within seconds.

I wondered if it would be possible to create this kind of service in the West. I wondered, in particular, if this sort of service could be replicated at our Rancho Santana property in Nicaragua.

What would we need to provide this kind of service?

Inexpensive labor

The average hotel worker in China makes $150 a month. That’s about the same as moderately skilled labor in Nicaragua. In the U.S. or Europe, by contrast, the same level of worker would cost at least 12 times that much. All other things being equal, that means lots more people at your beck and call in Asia.

Smart-enough people

When I have done business in Asia before, I’ve wondered if the Asian people are innately smarter than we are. This trip, I’ve been paying particular attention to this issue – and my conclusion is “no.” They are not. The girl who was changing money for me this afternoon didn’t seem to be any better at counting than her counterpart in the U.S. would be. And she certainly wasn’t technically gifted. (I had to point out to her that her automatic cash counter wasn’t working because the power was switched off.) In fact, she was just about smart enough to do her job well.

Trainable people

One thing that clearly distinguishes the Chinese hotel and travel personnel from their colleagues in other corners of the world is how well-disciplined they are. They never fail to approach you the moment you want something. You can’t leave a bit of trash on your table for more than 30 seconds before someone comes by to clean it up.

I am very much aware that this caliber of service is unlikely to be equaled by the staffs of lesser hotels here. But that just makes the point: The Chinese travel industry has figured out what it takes to give its people near-perfect training.

Well-groomed people

The skin is spotless. The hair shines. The fingernails are manicured. Everyone we encounter is immaculate, both in terms of personal hygiene and dress. This makes a strongly positive impression.

Mannerly people

Above all else, it is the graciousness and deference that distinguishes these people. The little bow and humble smile when they approach you. The graceful way they step back and extend a hand to allow you to pass. When they speak to you, each word seems to be chosen carefully, as if speaking casually would be disrespectful.

There is an adequate supply of common sense and even intelligence in the pool of labor available in the West, and it would be difficult to argue that American and European people are harder to train. But I don’t think it is likely that you could find as many well-groomed and well-mannered people in the West – and that is a big difference.

[Ed. Note: Mark Morgan Ford was the creator of Early To Rise. In 2011, Mark retired from ETR and now writes the Palm Beach Letter. His advice, in our opinion, continues to get better and better with every essay, particularly in the controversial ones we have shared today. We encourage you to read everything you can that has been written by Mark.]