Is Customer Service an American Concept?

Costco checkout

If you visit France, China, or Ghana, then an American may find that the level of customer service is drastically lower than that of the US.  (I’m glad to hear that America still excels at a few things.)  Many countries, e.g. UK, have become better at customer service but I rack it up to greater competition by foreign competitors.

1.  Liberal return policy: most stores in America allow you to return even partially used items.  Costco, a big box warehouse retailer, and Nordstrom, a high end department store, are known for their liberal – take advantage of me! – return policies.   Costco sells all manner of items in large quantities (“bulk”).  Except for consumer electronics, you can return ANYTHING with or WITHOUT A RECEIPT.   This includes partially eaten food!

In most developing countries, e.g. China, Ghana, the return policy is caveat emptor or “catch me if you can.”

Apart from Costco and Nordstrom, you can basically return anything that can be resold in “new” condition within a specified return period.  This can be as short as 7 days or as long as 90 days.  Basically, you buy an implicit warranty for everything purchased.  Shirley thinks this contributes to the willingness of consumers to make large purchases because consumer protection is included with purchase.

2.  Restaurants implicitly guarantee quality of product/service:  If there is an insect, hair, or any foreign object from the kitchen left in your food and you complain about it, you can probably get the same item for free or they will deduct it from your bill.  If the cook staff is exceptionally slow, then you can probably get complimentary drinks or dessert.

3. Expedient waitstaff in restaurants:  Most waiters and waitresses may receive a salary that could be below “minimum wage” because they will also earn tips or gratuities that are somewhere between 10% and 20% of their customers’ bills.  Depending on how the restaurant accept payment, e.g. credit card vs. cash, then some of these earnings could be untaxed.

In Ghana, gratuity is not expected.  Compound that fact with poorly paid wait and kitchen staff, you get apathetic service.  Last year, Shirley and I went to a beach-side hotel and restaurant.  The latter had open-air seating near the ocean and offered an open grill for prawns and fish.  The price was around 20-30 cedi for an entree with rice or chips.  We waited 60-90 minutes for food to be served!  Perhaps they caught the fish on each order.  Yes, it was tasty, but you almost needed to eat first before you arrived.

Beyond simply restaurants, I think poor Ghanaian customer service has a lot to do with insufficient incentive schemes.  Gratuities are not common at restaurants.  I’ve learned that government workers are not paid much nor on time.  For instance, I’ve heard that some government offices have not been paid for 3-4 months.    If you don’t pay me for 90 days, I’m sure my productivity will significantly drop, too.

In this context, dash or tips/bribe seems more reasonable for government workers.  Before the Christmas break, we have some American students/friends who needed to process their passports to return to the US for the holidays.  They were not, however, willing to pay.  Thus, their passports seemed to be “misplaced” for 1-2 months.  Magically, a friend called a contact who he has been lubricating with dash for years; their passports were discovered within 48 hours.  Depending on the complexity of the task, the dash at the Immigrations Office is from 100 to 200 cedi.

(1 USD = 1.7 GHC; 1 GBP = 2.70 GHC) Reposted from private blog entry, April 15, 2012

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