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How brands can deliver an exceptional customer experience in China

September 21, 2020 |   Dandan Cheng

The Chinese retail market is a jungle – only the fittest survive. The Chinese consumer is sophisticated, highly discerning and willing to take a long time to research all their options before making a purchase decision – and they are quick to complain if the product or purchasing experience doesn’t meet their expectations. In China, where consumers rely heavily on the opinions of their peers, who are seen as more trustworthy than marketing from brands, a bad review on social media, forums, online stores or blogs can have a detrimental effect on your brand’s reputation.

In order to gain a foothold in such a competitive environment, brands in China have sought to set themselves apart from the pack by providing exceptional customer service that often goes above and beyond the bounds of normal customer service in the West. Yet despite how technologically advanced China is, much of China’s exceptional customer experiences are powered not by technology, but by humans.

In this post, we explore some of the things consumers expect from brands in terms of customer experience in China.

Product appraisal

In a country where counterfeit products are rife, not to mention very believable, Chinese consumers go through a lot of effort to ensure their purchase is the real deal. That’s one of the reasons they spend much more time researching than their Western counterparts, and why their buying journey often requires a few more touchpoints.

For this reason, Chinese consumers like to have several ways of appraising products in order to feel more confident about their purchasing decision. On Tmall, for example, product pages rarely contain just 3 or 4 photos of the product – rather, there will be at least 5 photos of the product from various angles (if not more), model shots and a 360-view video of the product being worn or used. Consumers can then scroll down to the product reviews, where previous purchasers post photos and videos of the product alongside their reviews.

Many Chinese brands have taken this a step further. According to a report from Deloitte, one leading Chinese electronic retailer allows customers to browse their products online and then request an offline product demo session. Not only does this allow consumers to test out the product for themselves, it also allows sales staff to provide hands-on services, such as giving comparisons between different models based on what specific features the consumer is looking for from the product. It also provides a key opportunity to cross-sell other products. Allowing consumers to book appointments online beforehand also allows staff to better prepare for the visit and any potential questions the customer may have.

Other brands have also found innovative ways to bridge the online and offline experience and provide customers with the information they seek. According to a KPMG report, Hema Supermarket have installed a ‘magic mirror’ system called 7Fresh, where customers can scan products in-store and receive real-time information including place of origin and supplier and product characteristics. It even uses blockchain technology to track the production and delivery of frozen beef.

All these measures serve to reassure customers of the trustworthiness and reliability of their products and cultivates brand trust.

Responsive customer service

When making a purchase, it’s not uncommon for Chinese consumers to use customer service chat functions to ask questions about the product and purchasing process. And no, a chatbot won’t suffice for this purpose – consumers expect to talk to a human customer service rep, and they also expect a near-instantaneous reply. Take any longer than 15 seconds to respond, and you risk the customer bouncing to another store. Customers also expect customer service reps to be accessible at all hours – preferably 24/7, but at a minimum 9-9-6 (9 am to 9 pm, 6 days a week).

This expectation may come as a shock to Western brands, who may use chatbots to answer simple requests, only elevating the query to a human if it’s more complex, and whose customer service reps expect to work 9 to 5, 5 days a week. Brands will need to consider how to meet this expectation if they are serious about entering the Chinese market.

Concierge service

While one-on-one customer service chat portals are common, both in China and the West, many Chinese brands also make much use of group chats on messenger apps to communicate directly with customers. Online travel agency Ctrip, for example, uses WeChat groups as a virtual tour manager, in effect providing a crowd-sourced concierge service, again run by human customer service reps. In these groups, which are limited to 100 people, customers can request airport pickups, find drivers, organise tours, and book spa and restaurant reservations – all in their native language, which helps ease the stress of travelling in a foreign country. In 2018, Ctrip’s virtual tour manager was used for 14 million trips.

It may seem somewhat impersonal, but Chinese consumers respond strongly to the social element of group chats. Ctrip is therefore able to upsell services and share relevant information in a way that feels communal rather than commercial. The group chat participants also don’t just get the benefit of the Ctrip representative’s expert knowledge, but also the knowledge of their fellow travellers, who may be better placed to answer questions as they are actually in the area themselves. Because questions are being answered in a group, everyone gets the benefit of the answer, not just the person who asked the question. Users can also more easily organise group tours and activities with other like-minded travellers that are in the same area, thereby helping to reduce costs.

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