Thursday, July 18, 2013

Customer Service in Vietnam

In an economy, which is highly dependent on customer service, whether it be tourism, exporting or manufacturing, one would expect the level of service to be very good.  On the face of it, it is.  However, while the staff are often extremely friendly and eager to please, the reality is that the service falls far below what foreigners, and more importantly, foreign companies would expect.  It is true that foreign companies need to understand the country they are doing business in.  They need to understand the culture of the people and the customs that they follow.  However, differences in culture aren’t always a good enough reason or excuse for errors that occur in business or even daily life.

So often we hear that in Vietnam, or in many nations in South-East Asia for that matter, that ‘saving face’ is very important.  However, this isn’t acceptable in Western society.  Not admitting an error or seeking clarification is simply unacceptable.  In a coffee shop it means the customer will not come back.  For a business it can mean the loss of a big contract with a multinational company, which could have ensured the long-term success of the enterprise.   In fact, owning up to a fault is since as courageous and good customer service in the West and Vietnamese schools should be encouraging the young generation to do this.

Another annoyance is that because labour cost are relatively cheap in Vietnam, there are often a lot staff in a resort, factory or shop, yet there are very few customers, or the staff are only responsible for one element of the business.  This causes problems.  When a customer goes to a shop in Vietnam, quite often, 2 or 3 staff will go to the customer.  This is often very annoying, and if the customer says, ‘I’m just looking’ the staff will follow the customer around which is even more irritating.  Additionally, as staff are often only responsible for one thing, if they are absent, it often causes confusion so others who don’t know how to do their job.  This can mean that important documents don’t get signed, deliveries don’t get processed and deadlines get missed.
This brings me on to my next point.  In the case above, is something is unable to be done, the guilty party won’t admit to the fault or inform the customer / client of the delay.  The most frustrating thing is that a smile or saying ‘it’s ok’ isn’t enough to make the situation ok.  Also, the time delay can cause serious inconveniences for the customer, which could be mitigated if they knew about the problem.   From people I’ve spoken to, delays and missed deadlines are the biggest problems with doing business in Vietnam.   It often seems to be forgotten that ‘the customer is King’.

Finally, I’ve never been to another country where staff in customer service where staff are allowed to use their phones.  You go to the bank, and the tellers answer their phones in the middle of serving customers and shop assistants would rather finish sending a message than tending to a shopper.  In the West, this is completely unacceptable, and although I’m used to it now, I still wonder why so many companies allow their staff to use their mobile devices whilst ‘working’. 

 cell phone ban

Vietnam has such great potential, particularly in customer service.  The people are naturally friendly, smile and are willing to help.  However, the lack of communication when problems arise, overstaffing and the use of cell phones are all detrimental to Vietnamese businesses, especially when dealing with foreigners.

Monday, April 1, 2013

Miscommunications in Vietnam

Any time that communication is required, whether that be in the same lingo or multiple languages, there is always the potential for the message to be misunderstood.  This can cause minor inconveniences and result in a chuckle or two, but it can also lead to more problematic scenarios, bringing about stress and frustration.  In most cases, instances of miscommunication can be avoided and cleared up very easily, but in Vietnam, this is not always true.
One of the biggest problems many foreign teachers or business people face in Vietnam is the reluctance of many Vietnamese workers or students to admit when they don’t understand something.  Often, a foreigner will ask a local if they’ve understood the instructions given to them, and of course, the worker will nod their head, smile and say ‘I understand’.  In a culture where people are scared to lose face by admitting that they are wrong or don’t comprehend something, especially in-front of their peers, this can lead to potentially serious problems.
In Western culture, we are always taught that if we don’t understand something, we should always seek clarification and not proceed with something until we know exactly what is expected of us.  It’s seen as imprudent to attempt a task without understanding what we have to do, and managers and seniors are always willing to give clarification or re-issue instructions should that be required.  Workers and students don’t feel embarrassed or ‘stupid’ if they don’t understand something, and having the confidence to ask for help is considered to be a strength rather than a weakness.
In Vietnam, the opposite appears to be true.  When communicating with foreigners, many Vietnamese people won’t admit when they don’t understand something.  This ranges from students not understanding tasks or vocabulary in a classroom, a waitress misunderstanding an order in a restaurant or a receptionist mishearing the dates a tourist wants to stay at a hotel.  In most cases, the miscommunication causes small problems like the wrong food or drink being served, or a new piece of vocabulary being used in a harmless yet incorrect context.  However, these mistakes could easily be avoided if people sought clarification and had the courage to admit they didn’t completely understand something.
Although I’ve used the example of foreigners communicating with local people, the problem in communication runs much deeper than the language barrier.  In Vietnam, employees are also very eager to please both their managers and their customers.  This sometimes comes at the expense of honesty.  Employees tend to say what they think the other person wants to hear, rather than tell them a truth they don’t want to hear.  A small example of this is a motorbike mechanic telling a stricken motorcyclist that it will take him 5 minutes to fix his tyre.  The motorist is happy as if the job only takes 5 minutes, he can arrive at work on time.  However, in reality it takes 15 minutes and the motorist is late for work and gets in trouble for not informing his manager as he thought he would be on time.
While this may seem like insignificant and trivial example, it nevertheless highlights several differences between Western and Vietnamese culture.  In the first case, the mechanic clearly knew that the job would take longer than 5 minutes, and therefore, should have given a more honest approximation of the time it would take.  This is a common frustration that foreigners face in business.  Employees, in their eagerness to please their managers, frequently give their managers unachievable time frames to complete a task.  This invariably leads to deadlines being missed and projects running behind schedule.  The second problem is the motorist’s failure to inform his manager that he would be late.  While being late in most cases might not be a serious problem, the non-calling to the manager, presumably as he didn’t want to let his manager down, again highlights that saving face and not owning up to mistakes is common in Vietnamese culture.
As always, I’m not saying that these problems are unique to Vietnam, or that they don’t happen in the UK.  These things are of course evident throughout the world and I’ve certainly been guilty of doing these things myself.  It just appears that a failure to seek clarification and simply saying what someone thinks the other person wants to hear is more common in Vietnamese culture than in the West.  Simply seeking clarification and owning up to errors could easily remove the frustrations that many foreigners feel on a daily basis and ease communication problems, especially in cross cultural and language exchanges.

The frustrations of learning Vietnamese

Over the last 5 years, at various points I have tried to learn Vietnamese so that I can integrate better with my family in-law and experience more of Vietnamese culture.  However, I have found it an incredibly hard language to master, and I am sure many of you have experienced similar feelings when learning English or another language.

For me, the most difficult aspect of learning Vietnamese is mastering the different tones and sounds that Vietnamese has, that English doesn’t.  The best example is the ng sound.  In English, this sound is always in the middle or end of words, and it’s very difficult for me to make this sound at the beginning of words where it’s found in Vietnamese.  This is particularly problematic for me when trying to say names correctly.  Being a teacher, it’s embarrassing when I can’t say Ngan correctly, especially as that's my sister in-laws name.

In addition, the tones are incredibly hard for a foreigner to master.  In English, if we call someone’s name, we naturally go up at the end of the name.  However, when saying a Vietnamese name, this could be a huge problem as it might change the meaning of the word.  In fact, I’ve had several occasions where I’ve said a name with the wrong tone, and it has changed a student’s name to an offensive word.  Of course I didn’t mean to do this, and luckily the students have taken my mistake in good spirits.  However, I’m always worried that by saying the wrong name, someone might get very upset or even confrontational because I’ve got the intonation wrong.

Another thing that’s very difficult is to grasp that many words have the same spelling but different meanings depending on their intonation.  Native English speakers are generally able to figure out the meaning of foreigners when they say words incorrectly.  This is probably because we’ve had a lot of exposure to people trying to speak English and know the common errors that people make.  However, the Vietnamese seem to have a big problem in trying to understand words that foreigners say incorrectly.  This is probably because it’s only quite recently (15 years or so) when foreigners started living here and before then, there was very little reason for foreigners to learn Vietnamese.  Even so, it is very frustrating for me when I try to speak Vietnamese but no-one can understand anything I say.    

To finish I had an amusing conversation with my Xe om driver a week ago.  I said ‘Can you take me to district 7?’ in Vietnamese.  He said ‘Sorry I don’t speak English’.  I said again, in Vietnamese ‘Can you take me to district 7.'  He said ‘No speak English’.  Then I said ‘Do you speak Vietnamese?’ in Vietnamese.  He said ‘yes’.  Then I said ‘Listen.  I’m speaking in Vietnamese.  Can you take me to district 7?’  He replied ‘Ah district 7!  I know it!’.  Why have I told you this story?  Well that’s a good question.  Usually when Vietnamese people see a foreigner, they expect them not to know Vietnamese and to speak in English.  Therefore, when a foreigner speaks in Vietnamese, the local thinks they’re talking in English, when in fact they are speaking in Vietnamese.  Obviously this will result in a mis-communication which is actually quite frustrating for someone who is learning another language.

As I said before, I’m sure many of you have shared similar experiences when trying to learn English, but believe me, I (and many other foreigners in Vietnam) have gone through exactly the same in learning your language.  Please sympathise with us when we try to use your language as it’s very difficult for us to learn!