Letter from China – Customer care in China: Does anyone really care?

February 2013

For the happy Chinese owner of a “Swiss Made” watch, the dream quickly turns to a nightmare when after-sales service is required. This is a scandal that the brands have swept under the carpet, almost…

For the happy Chinese owner of a “Swiss Made” watch, the dream quickly turns to a nightmare when after-sales service is required. This is a scandal that the brands have swept under the carpet, almost…

Jean-Luc Adam, head of the Europa Star bureau in Shanghai, reports his own experiences, along with those of Chinese customers, when confronted with the difficulties in obtaining after-sales service for watches in this country. Since the aim of this article is not to criticise any particular brand or group but to draw attention to a widespread deficiency, we have deliberately removed the names involved in these examples. But we have no doubt that those in question will know who they are.

Today, in the West, the client is king, but his accession to the throne has been a battle over several generations. First of all, it passed by the consumer protection laws (more guarantees), then by a competition among manufacturers (more services) and finally by the saturation of the markets (more brand loyalty). After-sales service, maintenance and even recycling are more and more integrated into the product and the industry approaches the client as a partner to be respected.

In China, this same process did not take place, primarily because access to mass consumption occurred not only in a different political context but it also happened quite recently and much too brutally. In three decades, the nongmin (small farmer) left his lands to become a citizen of a growing metropolis, sitting at the wheel of his Baoma (BMW) with an Oumijia (Omega) on his wrist. At the end of 2012, China counted 2.7 million millionaires and a rising consumer middle class of 700 million. Quickly, it became clear that demand largely exceeded supply, thus reversing, right from the start, the relationship between the seller and the buyer. This is why the after-sales service disparages the client.

Personal experience

Before discussing the experience of the Chinese, I would like to convey my own experience, since it gives a Western viewpoint of the problem. After four years in China, I have had to deal with after-sales service of large brands on several occasions involving various consumer goods. The first surprise, don’t bother going to the brand’s store. After-sales services are always grouped together in a customer care centre, generally one office per city. It is a large room where you wait an eternity before your number is finally called. Since the usual minimum contractual guarantee of six months has generally expired, you must pay for the repairs. Yet, I have always been positively surprised by the estimate and the repair time. But this is understandable, since the parts and labour are Chinese. For example, I paid CHF 30 to replace the 13-inch screen of my notebook computer. In the consumer electronics sector, the personnel are generally competent because they repair computers, TVs and smart phones by the millions. In the automobile sector, the level deteriorates because of the complexity of the product and rather poorly trained employees. The national and international manufacturers have, however, provided computer-assisted maintenance and repairs. Since the cars are made locally, the replacement parts are quickly available.

The exception, Swiss watches

According to the Federation of the Swiss Watch Industry, from 2005 to 2011, exports have increased 57 per cent to reach a total of CHF 19.3 billion. And, it must be pointed out that this success is largely due to Chinese clients (who also purchase a lot in Hong Kong). Swiss watches are the industrial exception since they are not manufactured in China. In addition, at a certain level, the product tends more towards art than micro-mechanics. Finally, faraway Switzerland, which wants to control everything itself, is already overloaded with work. In China, these reasons affect the after-sales service of the brands in all sectors. Let’s begin with the mid-range sector and my faithful Swiss watch whose leather bracelet tore apart. I was surprised to discover on the Internet that the problem is recurrent for this model and that buyers are concerned about the mediocre quality of the leather.

I printed out this “evidence”, added the international guarantee certificate and went to the Xiujiahui neighbourhood in Shanghai, where the only customer care centre for the brand is located. Here, I was surprised to see that the centre deals with clients from many brands of the same group, ranging from entry-level watches to sophisticated Haute Horlogerie timepieces. “Just imagine the scandal if the VW group received clients of Bugatti and Bentley in the same workshops as those of Skoda and Seat,” says my neighbour, visibly annoyed with his lovely automatic.

Number 921, it’s my turn! In front of me, behind a window, Tina Tang receives me coldly. “No, you have to pay for that,” she says without even listening to my arguments. When I showed her the guarantee card, she bluntly says, “You bought it in Hong Kong, so in any case…” I could hardly believe my ears. I tried to explain to her that this was no way to treat a client, but Ms. Tang literally sent me packing by asking the security guard to escort me to the door… That was my first experience in 2011.

Letter from China – Customer care in China: Does anyone really care?

Return to the scene of the crime

For this article, and somewhat apprehensively, I returned to the same customer care centre of the same group, taking a new quartz watch, but one that had stopped. It was the perfect specimen to verify the points of contention—very frequent it seems—between watch owners and after-sales service centres. At the reception, the employees do not carefully examine the condition of the watch, as the technical specification sheets suggest they do, but rather they systematically indicate everywhere that the watch is “scratched”, thus avoiding any liability. A pleasant surprise this time, the waiting room had been entirely renovated and enlarged, with the plastic benches and the austere ambiance replaced by designer sofas and cosy decorations. Number 1049, my turn. The surly Ms. Tang had disappeared along with the furniture. In her place was a row of smiling young women. But the anonymous employee did indeed write “scratched” on all the lines of the repair sheet. I couldn’t fault the diagnosis: “It is the battery”. It cost a reasonable 30 yuan (about CHF 4.50) and I had to wait half an hour to get the watch back, an acceptable time. Meanwhile, the room filled up and the waiting times got longer. Behind the counter, a blue tinted window provided a glimpse into the repair section, where the employees were clearly all Chinese. To sum it up, although the group has clearly improved its service, it still makes no distinction between clients, regardless of whether they have paid hundreds or hundreds of thousands of yuan for their watch.

Reassuring to ensure the sale

There are many brands and groups which, on their websites, claim to have dozens of “customer service” centres in China. The majority of these, however, are mono-brand boutiques that are capable of doing only minor repairs. In reality, the main groups only have three true repair centres in the vast nation of China, in Beijing, Shanghai and Guangzhou. So, too bad for the other 218 cities with more than 1 million inhabitants each. And, even more disturbing, the centres do not all have the same level of competence. According to a fan of our Weibo page, a centre in Beijing was incapable of solving a problem relating to the display of the power reserve on his very expensive and robust automatic. The watch had to be sent to the centre in Shanghai, thus meaning another two months of waiting. In fact, the repair centres of the large groups are Chinese-Swiss collaborations. Yet, this Sino-Swiss marriage does not always have to be the case, as exemplified by Rolex (and Tudor) and Patek Philippe, which manage their own after-sales service directly.

For your X, go to Y!

The following examples describe the misadventures that two other clients experienced with two prestigious Swiss brands. On July 14, 2012, Tiange Li paid 287,100 yuan, the equivalent of CHF 43,000, for a prestigious classic watch that he bought in a store in the city of Qingdao, before returning to his home in Harbin. Barely 12 days later, he called the store because one of the gold pins in the bracelet kept coming out. It was a “small” problem that could have led to more serious consequences.

Strangely, the store in Qingdao never informed him that the brand also had a boutique in Harbin. Worse still, they advised him to repair the watch at a boutique belonging to brand Y, a competitor brand, which did have a store in Harbin. Li did not understand why brand Y should be dealing with brand X watches, so he refused. Then, he was advised to mail the watch to Qingdao, but given the price of the piece, Li did not want to take the risk. When he looked at the watch’s guarantee, he discovered that the date of purchase had been drawn over. “Oh, our salesgirl likes to draw,” was the response Li got over the telephone. Distraught and filled with doubts on the quality and origin of his watch—was it really new?—Li completely lost confidence in the Chinese network and decided to clarify the situation directly with the Swiss manufacturer. Will he be successful?

Another story involving a beautiful gold watch costing more than CHF 20,000 generated more than 214 pages of comments in the forum of the famous Chinese website, www.iwatch365.com, before the brand finally decided to do something to help the owner—and then only on the express condition that he would cease and desist speaking about this affair. The story involves a certain Mr. Z, who noticed at midday one day that the hands of his watch were not aligned: the minute hand was four minutes out! At the mono-brand store in Shanghai, the professionals explained to him, “This is normal for a mechanical watch.” Considering this answer to be unacceptable, this brand aficionado had his watch sent to the service centre. After several days, with no answer, he called the centre, and was informed that the watch had been returned to the store, along with the invoice. Invoice? Mr. Z was not about to pay one cent for such a problem, all the more so since the watch was still under guarantee. When he got the piece back, it had clearly not been repaired since the hands were still not aligned. Yet, the summary repair order stated: “There is no problem with the watch.” When he contacted the brand’s general management they refused to follow up on the matter. For Mr. Z, the shock was severe, the disillusionment profound. It was inexplicable that they should refuse to repair a fault that was so blatant. Left hanging out to dry by the brand, he decided to tell his story on a specialised Internet forum, where he discovered that he was not the only one to be (mis)treated this way. After more than 2,000 comments, the brand’s management finally realised the scale of the problem and agreed to reimburse Mr. Z, but only on condition that he agreed, in writing, to remain quiet on this subject.

Source: Europa Star December - January 2012-13 Magazine Issue

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