'Facing' Vietnam

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A lot has been written and said about foreigners complaining in Vietnam, however hardly anything has been released regarding why foreigners do so (are we really so unhappy?) and why Vietnamese hardly ever complain (is this really true?).

The main reason Vietnamese do not complain, or at least the reason they do not complain as much and as openly as we foreigners do and I do complain a lot (or so my girlfriend Thoa says!) is related to not losing face, which in Vietnamese culture is a top priority. And this includes not making others lose face either. And that is what it happens when we complain: we are communicating that we are not happy as a result of someone else doing something or failing to do so, hence we make him or her lose face.

Another reason Vietnamese complain less is related to the different standards they are used to: let's not forget that just a few years ago Vietnam was amongst the poorest countries in the world. However over the last 10-15 years a lot has been done, and conditions here have improved a lot.

However the inflow of education and standards has not moved as fast as the flow money and rent. In other words, many Vietnamese do not complain about better service and standards because they have never or hardly ever experienced higher standards, so they are not expected. However, for example, my girlfriend has now experienced different service levels and she now complains more and more when the service is substandard, and I am sure she will complain for having mentioned her here... losing face again.

I have many examples of poor service in Vietnam, far too many to mention, and most come out of the hospitality sector, which funnily enough, should be leading by example in delivering toptier customer service. Hardly a week goes that I don't go to a restaurant or bar, order a beer and the waiter or waitress brings it on his or her own time, and leaves it on the table and goes away without opening it, and I am left wanting to drink my beer but without a bottle opener. Here is where you can observe one of the biggest reasons for poor customer service: lack of training.

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I used to run a hospitality consultancy in London, advising restaurants on how to make more money. One of the key areas of improvement I found in most businesses was in training the staff to provide better customer service. Every time the eateries followed my advice and let me train their staff, customers were much more satisfied, came more often to eat, brought and recommended many more customers, and tended to spend more in food and drinks (plus give much better tips!), resulting in the restaurant making much more money.

When I moved to Vietnam I was considering (still I am, a bit) providing the same services to the hospitality sector here, which is in even bigger need of them. But something tells me that with the exception of some major hotels, I would struggle to convince the businesses that employing my services would help them make money. And the key reason for this is that most businesses in Vietnam are still operating for short-term gains: "let's try to get as much as we can from customers today, let's worry tomorrow about tomorrow." The (negative) results of such a business strategy are obvious.

This week while preparing a lecture on Operations Management I went through the different phases in operations management evolution, and I clearly saw that most Vietnamese companies are still in the "production phase," which in the West ended in the 80s, giving way to the quality phase, followed by globalization and mass customization. We are far from reaching these phases in Vietnam.

However, those companies that care about having long-term customers and delivering good customer service are making huge profits. I am not crazy about pizza, but I have now become a very regular customer at a pizza restaurant not only because of their food (which is quite good), but especially because of their service. I go there now once or twice a week, plus I keep recommending it to more and more people.

Why do we foreigners complain? It is simple: the opposite reasons that Vietnamese do not. Losing face is not so important for us (especially if others are the ones losing face), and we are used to higher service standards. In other words, we want to receive what we pay for, or what we think we are paying for!

By Alfredo De La Casa
The writer is a British finance lecturer who lives and works in Ho Chi Minh City

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