The impact of experience, particularly in the service industry, towards brand building, should not be underestimated. Research shows that 70% of a customer’s evaluation of a service brand is determined by their experience with the service staff, for example. Yet, the experiences that one comes away with when visiting China are underwhelming.
Consider my recent trip to Xian, in fact I am writing this from Xian airport, as I wait for my flight. I flew via Chongqing. Landing in Chongqing was landing in pea soup with visibility very poor with the all enveloping smog which we could smell even before the aircraft doors had opened.
Upon arrival I picked up my bag and went to find my way to the domestic terminal. Upon exiting the baggage area and arriving at the “Information” desk, I found no one there. After a while, I heard some noises from behind a pillar and upon looking there found a group of staff huddled together tucking in to some food. They were flustered when I showed up and one of them directed me to where I should look for the bus to the domestic terminal.
Airports and the environment are one thing, as they are under the purview of the government, and thus thinking about brands and building them may not take precedence. But, my experience at the Westin in Xian, a spanking new hotel that boasts its own private museum, wasn’t that great either.
Drawback number one for non-Chinese customers is the lack of English. At the breakfast buffet foods are not marked. A person like me, who has certain allergies thus needs to constantly ask about the contents of food other than the obvious like cut fruit or fried eggs and bacon. And, here, the lack of English is a problem. I constantly have to wait while someone with some English is discovered who can then answer my questions.
Perhaps it is language but perhaps not, but this morning when I set up alarm, I had asked for a second wake-up call 10 minutes after the original. The latter did not happen and I missed my meeting! At a Westin, one would expect better.
The Internet in China too is problematic. Connecting to the hotel WiFi was simple enough, but being able to get one’s email or make a Skype call proved challenging. After going through the motions of launching the browser and agreeing to terms and conditions, I was informed there was an “Error”. The call to the operator lead to instructions to switch off the WiFi on my computer and use the cable. I followed those instructions, but no luck. Same error message again. Next, the technician came and he said I should disconnect the cable and use the WiFi to get online. So we went through the motions again. But again the same error message. By this time, I was truly frustrated but, fortunately, after some more fiddling with my computer the technician was able to get me connected to the Internet! A half hour wasted trying to go online at the end of a busy day.
Of course, in China getting online only means limited access. Facebook is blocked and I wanted to send a few tweets, which too were blocked. Gmail operates very slowly and buggily. I am told that is because of the efforts of the Chinese government. I don’t know whether that is true or not, but be that is it may, the Internet experience in China is poor; perhaps if you are Chinese and use the government supported service providers like Baidu and WeChat, the experience is different, but then this is not the case for most visitors.
So, here I am sitting in Xian airport and looking forward to being out of China. I can then function more smoothly, be connected, as I like to be,… Why is this important for Chinese companies, foreign companies located in China, and the Chinese government to think about? Well, my desire to go back to China for one for holidays just declined, as I am sure it does for other travelers. It reinforces my concerns with Chinese made products, which raises the hurdle rate for the many Chinese companies that are today aspiring to become global branded players. For foreign companies in China, this is bad news because my liking for the Westin brand has taken a severe knock. I am looking to stay at a different hotel when I visit the US next week. No Westin hotels for me. And, of course, the Chinese government should think about this experience because I am more likely today to consider the negative propaganda in the Western media that I read about China, than I was before this trip.
Brands matter, and brand experiences are crucial for both corporates and governments as it is these experiences that are fundamental to shaping one’s opinions about a brand. So, perhaps, raising the game on the experience front will be important for all concerned in China. Just having fabulous physical infrastructure creates a good first impression and expectation, that is unfortunately dashed by the experience, leaving one having lower evaluations of brand China, Chinese brands, and the foreign brands one encounters in China.