Wednesday, February 22, 2012

Culture Shock: Customer Service

Julius opened a bank account last week. He was supposed to receive his card in 4-5 days, yet still no card has arrived. We decide to go in to the branch to see what's going on.

At the branch, we are helped right away and Julius greets them in a friendly manner as one would do in the US. The happy cadence in his "Hi good morning!" immediately sets off a warning bell in my mind. I indiscreetly whisper in his ear: "Don't be friendly. Be stern." 

If you want to get anything done in Asia (even Singapore aka "Asia Lite"), you need to cut the niceties and just insist on what you want. This is extremely hard for people who are used to the American way of doing things, with the saccharine "Hi, welcome to Starbucks!" level of friendliness and "the customer is always right" approach. Basically the exact converse of what you'll find here. 

Many Americans may interpret "be stern" as "be an ass". This is not what I mean. One doesn't need to be rude to get a point across. It just means take no nonsense and really put your foot down until you get what you are asking for. Be stubborn. Keep your voice even, don't smile and look like you mean business. It is more difficult than it sounds, and takes a lot of practice if you've been conditioned to be warm and cheerful when dealing with others.   

Julius immediately takes my advice on board and changes his approach 180°. It's like a dark cloud has descended upon his countenance, and when he speaks it sounds more like thunder crackling rather than a ray of sunshine peaking out from behind a rainbow. And not a minute too soon, because the lady doesn't have good news. She tells us that no card has been issued yet. I can see lightning is striking in Julius' brain and he's really getting fired up. 

My Singaporean friend Alex gave me some words of wisdom yesterday. He told me you can't expect good customer service, because this will only end in disappointment and utter frustration. At this point I'm wishing I had remembered to relay this information to Julius before arriving at Citibank. You basically have to be ready for bad customer service and not take it personally, because this will just make you angry and raise your blood pressure unnecessarily.  

Fortunately Julius doesn't go to the dark side, and is able to keep his cool. Instead he takes a more pragmatic approach and asks, "Can you expedite the card?" The lady says she will and Julius fills out a form. Easy peasy. 

We think we're out of the woods, but we're wrong. There's an unforeseen obstacle that is thrown into our path. 

"Excuse me sir, it appears that your signature doesn't match. Can you sign again please?" We exchange a glance with raised eyebrows. He chuckles under his breath and signs the form again.  

Another lady appears as if out of thin air and they both scrutinize his signature. "It looks different," they say. I look at the two signatures. I can't see much of a difference. There may be a tiny bit of variation, but it's really minimal. There's no doubt that it's Julius and he has his passport to prove it, but confirming his identity (the big picture) is not the problem. The problem is this tiny detail of the signature not matching exactly to a T. 

I've been trying to remain calm, but this is just ridiculous and I snap. 

"He's not a robot. He's human. There's going to be some variation in his signature." 

"We know that, but the problem is that we're not going to be checking this paperwork, someone else is and they are going to see that the signatures do not match." 

I'm tempted to say is that someone called Big Brother? but I refrain. 

In an effort to solve the problem and smooth things over (for a minute I was really fearing they were going to say request denied), she suggests Julius update his old signature to the "new signature." 

Sighing with frustration, he goes along with it. More forms. stamp. stamp. The new signature is approved. I watch as she she stamps "cancelled" over the offending signature on the old debit card request form. 

"Sign again please with the new signature." 

The pressure is on. Julius is sweating bullets. He signs again. They scrutinize. Silence. 

"Hmm... can you sign one more time please?" We burst out laughing and I look around for the candid camera. 

He signs again. 

"Okay, this one looks alright. Thank you." 

At this point our anger has boiled over and turned to amusement. We go over to withdraw money at the counter brazenly talking and laughing about the signature fiasco, not caring if anyone overhears us. The lady at the counter's name is pronounced "orange tan", which doesn't help us contain our laughter any. As we leave, Julius tells me "this is going in your blog."


  1. Julius was right: there's no way you could not blog about this. I'm laughing here, and I don't mean to lessen the pain-in-the-assery of the whole business, but this is real traveling, when you get to sit in a German office for 7 hours, when the bank tells you you don't sign like yourself. Brilliant stuff!

  2. Now, when I go to ShityBank and have to sign a document I feel a lot of pressure, he he he