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Service complaints can leave a bad taste

Publication Date : 02-11-2012


If the hamburger you bought at McDonald's was too spicy for your taste, what would you do? Try to quell the spice to make it more digestible or call the police for help?

Most people would feel there was little point in making a fuss, but one customer in a Guangzhou outlet of the burger chain opted for the second choice.

McDonald's compensated him with another set meal. But the incident, which took place in August, was recorded by another customer and posted on Sina Weibo, instantly attracting more than 3,000 reposts and 200 comments.

Some people said they would follow his example, but others wondered why he had resorted to calling the police and many accused him of overreacting and wasting public resources.

Meanwhile, airline passengers also felt they had cause for complaint.

On April 11, some 20 passengers blocked the runway at Shanghai's Pudong International Airport preventing a plane from leaving, simply because their own flight had been delayed because of the weather.

A copycat case occurred at Baiyun International Airport in Guangzhou two days later, and on August 6, more than 30 passengers whose flight had been delayed by heavy rain got onto the runway in Kunming's Changshui International Airport, and blocked a plane.

The dispute was settled only after the airline promised to provide each passenger with compensation of 500 yuan.

As long ago as 2007, Spring Airlines, the Shanghai-based budget carrier, published a list of customers it would not serve.

The company said its action was prompted by a wish to avoid cases and also to protect the rights of the vast majority of passengers. The move won some applause but also attracted harsh criticism.

One of the Pudong protestors, who would only give his name as Meng, later told Dragon TV in Shanghai that the passengers had been held up for more than 20 hours and were extremely frustrated.

"The airline blocked all other possible solutions; we could not return our tickets. We were just left to wait. We only took this extreme action in the hope of gaining the attention of the authorities," he said.

Wang Anbai, a professor of ideological and moral culture at the school of politics and public administration at Southwest University of Political Science and Law, told Xinhua News Agency that cases such as this reflect the difficulty consumers encounter when they try to demand their rights.

"Airports belong to the incomplete competitive industry. In a seller's market, consumers always find it hard to protect their rights. When flights are delayed, airlines think of their own rights first, instead of protecting the customer. That makes consumers resentful. Because of the lack of a proper outlet for appeal, consumers are forced to go to extremes," he said.

"We have great respect for consumer rights. Honestly, no businessman wants to offend his customers. What we have done has won support from most customers, and we promise we will never seek retribution afterwards," wrote Wang Zhenghua, the chairman of Spring Airlines, on his Sina Weibo account.

He insisted that the company has never used the word "blacklist" in any of its statements. They will also go through a lengthy process to get to the core of the complaint and staff are required to provide the customer service and service quality control departments with a full description of any contentious incidents, including the customer's version of events. The number of such customers is quite small, accounting for, at most, three out of every 100,000. What's more, as long as they are prepared to publicly accept that levels of service can vary between airlines, their names will immediately be deleted from the list.

"We only compiled the list because we don't have a better solution. We simply feel incapable of serving certain customers who have been excessive in protecting their rights. Sadly, we will have to keep implementing this policy," said Wang.

Fortunately, not all consumers are as aggressive. According to a recent survey conducted by Sina Weibo, around 60 per cent of the 10,835 people interviewed supported the airline, saying it has the right to refuse business from customers who have acted in an excessive manner. However, roughly 36 per cent of respondents felt that the airline had infringed on passenger rights by imposing an imparity clause.

At present, Chinese law does not define what "excessive protection of consumer rights" actually means.

"There is no such term as overprotection of consumer rights in any current law. But the phrase is heard frequently in the Chinese media. It implies a process of legalisation. Chinese consumers have taken quite a long time to develop an awareness of their own rights, but since the reform and opening-up policy came into force in the late 1970s, celebrities have helped to accelerate the process by launching a number of legal cases to protect their image rights," said Wang Zhong, a lawyer at the Shanghai branch of the law firm Zhong Yin.

He admitted that it's hard to define "overprotection" of rights with any real legal accuracy and so only a rough definition exists.

Legal 'catch-up'

He also pointed out that the law is almost always in a position of playing "catch-up" and that usually means it is more in favour of those whose rights have been infringed. Yet the growth of complaints makes it almost inevitable that new laws and regulations will have to be enacted and the terms will have to be defined with greater accuracy. However, he believed that more emphasis should be placed on personal integrity and morality.

"Some cases of rights protection have gone a little too far. That will definitely result in the overexploitation of social resources, which will lead to a chain effect of impairment of more people's rights. Some consumers attach too much weight to their personal rights. Such obsession is equal to fastidiousness. It is also unfair to the service industry," said Wang Zhong.

As the service industry develops, it seems likely that cases of "overprotection" will occur more frequently.

Government data shows the tertiary industry accounted for about 43.1 per cent of China's GDP in 2011, and employed approximately 270 million people. The sector contributed more than $400 billion to the nation's trade volume in 2011, becoming the world number four in terms of volume. In the same year, it also attracted some $55.2 billion in foreign investment, overtaking manufacturing for the first time to become the industry attracting the most foreign funding.

Mao Weihai, a sales manager at Shanghai Business Holiday Travel Service Co, has seen and dealt with the whole gamut of complaints during his 17 years in the tourism industry. From most widely voiced complaint - discontent about travel routes - to quite trivial matters, such as a lack input from guides during periods when tourists are officially unsupervised, Mao said that it is the travel agency's responsibility to offer a prompt apology, because that is part and parcel of life in the service industry.

"We send text messages to our customers every day with greetings or travel tips. When their trip is over, we always call customers to hear their feedback. Whenever there is a dispute, we will settle it right away. It is common for us to apologise first, provide customers with gifts as compensation or refund some of the costs to make amends. In the very few cases where the customer's request exceeds the company's bottom line, we will take it to a third-party institution, such as a tourism arbitration service. We always hope customers will come back to us anyway," he said.

While acknowledging that a large number of complaints will inevitably reflect badly on agencies, he also admitted that customers have been extremely tolerant of the incompetence or even illegality of some travel agencies. Most abide by the law, but few meet the service criteria required by the industry and several have been found culpable of deceiving consumers by directing them to designated shops where prices can be as much as 30 to 40 per cent higher than in other outlets. Given the circumstances, it's hardly surprising that most of the laws relating to the travel industry are weighted in favour of the customer.

"If there is one thing that should be made clear, that is, what can be called a 'service'. Complying with everything written in a contract is not a service at all. Performing acts that are not written into the contract and are not expected by the customers, or something extra, can be called a service. In other words, travel agencies should be thoughtful, plan everything in advance and cater to the customers whole-heartedly. Only in this way can they improve their service and also make more money by being able to charge service fees," he added.

Lin Zi, a senior psychiatrist of 14 years standing and a founder of the company Linzi Counseling in Shanghai, said consumers' awareness of their rights and their social status are signs of positive social progress, but if customers believe they have more rights than they actually do, they can become overwrought when their complaints aren't acted upon.

Exaggerated self-worth

When consumers become too obsessed with their rights, Lin said, their perception of their own self-worth becomes exaggerated and they pay too much attention to their feelings. It's essential that mature adults are able to control their emotions.

"It is very dangerous when they go too far, because that's very likely to spoil interpersonal relations. They will not only be incapable of protecting their own rights, but may turn into 'monsters' and harm others," she said.

Tracing the source of such negative feelings, Lin said emotional insecurity derived from too many unhappy and inconvenient experiences is the culprit. The mental defenses have been overly built up. People like this will think it is better to cross the line to secure their rights.

Put into a larger social extent, the fact that the frequency of such cases is much higher nowadays may indicate that people are more anxious, according to Lin. The feelings of uncertainty and not being in control have made things even worse.

"Technically speaking, people living in a more mature society, where consumerism has a longer history, usually have a more realistic view of the services offered by the industry and know that things are often not as straightforward as they seem. However in China, where things develop so quickly and changes may occur almost overnight, people's expectations may be more naive," she said.

Hu Shoujun, a sociologist at Fudan University in Shanghai, echoed Lin's point, saying that it's necessary to establish laws and regulations to define the rights and responsibilities of both parties in such a fast-paced society, where frequent inconveniences can lead to unease and even irrational behavior when emotions rise to an extreme level.

"The high frequency of such cases largely results from a less-regulated service industry, unsafe products and a disorganized business environment. All these things have made customers more vulnerable psychologically, excessively protecting their rights and even using legal loopholes to extract compensation. What is more important is to establish an integrity system in which everyone is mutually reliant to a high degree," he said.


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