China's still learning customer service

A construction worker lays bricks in Shanghai.

TEXT OF STORY

KAI RYSSDAL: Food safety inspectors have had their hands full the past couple of months. I don't think I need to say any more than "Chinese imports" and you'll know exactly what I mean. But that's really only one way to look at it. The other might best be summed up in latin . . . caveat emptor . . . buyer beware. But there's a Chinese version of that, too. As our Shanghai correspondent Scott Tong found out not long after he arrived last January.


Scott Tong: When we first moved into our office, it sounded like this. [echo sound] . . . Eventually, we built a studio that sounds like this. But not without delays, and aggravation, and quality problems along the way.

It started with Mr. Han, the contractor. He came recommended to us. We liked his work. And so we hammered out a deal over coffee: We'd pay him five grand to outfit our sound booth and our office. Sounded good.

Mr. Han's men started working, so we gave them some space. My colleague Eric Johnson headed up the project. He's an audio engineer.

Eric Johnson: I've always been kind of a hands off kinda guy. And trusting.

Hands off and trusting. [Buzzer] . . . Big mistake. We noticed the fresh paint looked kind of thin. And when we saw the can, we realized they substituted a cheaper grade of paint. So we made them start over.

James Rice has worked in China for 20 years, he's with Tyson Foods.

James Rice: The cheaper paint in China is not going to meet the kind of quality regulations you would expect in the U.S. So it's going to have lead or other poisonous fumes. It's typical for Chinese to renovate their home and air it out for a month before they move in, to let all those fumes go out.

Substituting dangerous ingredients is at the center of China's product safety scandal — whether it's toy trains, or pet food, or toothpaste. Rice says when you deal with suppliers here, you have to do the Ronald Reagan thing: Trust but verify. When he hired contractors to renovate his house . . .

Rice: I bought all the materials. And I was on site every day, to validate what they were doing.

As for our construction, we got into a spat with the contractor over shoe moulding. You know, that strip of wood where the wall meets the floor. We'd always assumed it was included in the deal. . . . [buzzer] . . . Wrong. Mr. Han noted it wasn't specifically stipulated in the contract. So we had to pay more to get what we wanted.

Johnson: I was furious.

Again, my colleague Eric Johnson.

Johnson: I thought it was one of the most inane conversations I've had in my life. You know, it's like you wanted a car with tires on it? Why would you have tires on a car? It's just insane!

The lesson: You can't assume things work here the way they work back home.

Malaysian businessman K.Y. Lai has been sourcing from China for decades. He says if you don't pay attention to the tiny details, disaster can strike. Once, he bought a shipment of nails. . . .

K.Y. Lai: And the shipment of those nails. . . . They had no head. Either it's bad quality control, or nobody cares. We can't sell it.

Eventually, Mr. Han's men finished the job. Or so we thought. Soon after, we ran into ventilation problems, and paint peeling. Again with the paint.

So we called the contractor and expected a little customer service. . . . [buzzer] . . . Wrong expectation.

Here's my colleague Linda Lin yelling at the contractor's foreman. [Linda yelling.]

And here's the foreman's response:

Foreman: "Hah?"

Foreigners complain a lot about customer service in China. It's maddening. But Tyson Foods' James Rice explains that many local suppliers have never actually learned the concept.

Rice: If you've never received good customer service, it's really hard for you to imagine working a job where you would give good customer service.

That would be the charitable explanation. A more sinister one comes from Mr. Han, our contractor.

Mr. Han [interpreter]: Foreign customers don't know how to operate now. Their expectations are low and they pay more. So, we like doing business with foreigners. [laughs]

Ha ha. It's funny.

Now, it's tempting to blast China as the one place in the world with dodgy quality and business partners who cut corners. But Asia business veteran K.Y. Lai says not so.

Lai: You buy from Vietnam, India and all that it's the same. The people who are doing this manufacturing, seize an opportunity to become rich very quickly.

I.e., buyer beware. Problem is, folks like us don't figure that out until we get burned.

Swindled in Shanghai, I'm Scott Tong for Marketplace.

About the author

Scott Tong is a correspondent for Marketplace’s sustainability desk, with a focus on energy, environment, resources, climate, supply chain and the global economy.

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