Marketing
• 7 minute read

Do Asian Consumers Always Swallow It?

Wan, Lisa C.

How differently would an Asian and a Western customer react to being treated poorly at a restaurant? A consumer psychology study by CUHK Business School reveals the real picture

By Fang Ying, Senior Writer, China Business Knowledge @ CUHK 

Given that people in collectivistic cultures are more sensitive to the needs of others, Asian customers are often portrayed as soft and more tolerant of service failures. But when a service fails to please them and on top of that, causes them to lose face, then they would not be that easy-going, according to Lisa Wan, an assistant professor at the School of Hotel and Tourism Management of the Chinese University of Hong Kong Business School.

Prof. Wan has coauthored a paper titled “Contrasting Effects of Culture on Consumer Tolerance: Interpersonal Face and Impersonal Fate1” with her colleagues—Hakin Chan, adjunct assistant professor, and Leo Sin, professor, both from the Department of Marketing.

“In many Asian cultures, people are more sensitive to and concerned about face (mianzi), which can be enhanced, saved or lost through social interactions,” says Prof. Wan. “When impolite service providers make consumers lose face, Asian consumers, especially those who are highly concerned about face, would become more dissatisfied with the service than Western consumers would.”

According to Prof. Wan, service failures can be categorized into two types: social failures and nonsocial failures. “We identify these two kinds of service failures based on the nature of service,” She explains. “Social failure refers to those failures that can be attributed to the service process. For example, if someone treats you without respect, it’s a social failure. Nonsocial failure refers to those failures that can be attributed to the service outcome. For example, if the food in a restaurant is not good or tasty, it is a nonsocial failure.”

Through three experiments in different service contexts, involving a restaurant, a theater and a computer repair store, where both social and nonsocial failures occur at high frequencies, Prof. Wan and her collaborators compared how two groups of subjects—one in the United States and one in Hong Kong—react to social and nonsocial failures. They found that compared with American consumers, the Hong Kong consumers were more likely to be dissatisfied with social failures but less dissatisfied with nonsocial failures. In other words, the Hong Kong consumers tend to be more tolerant when the products fall short of their expectations; whereas they are less tolerant when they feel the service agents made them lose face.

Why Asian Consumers Are Unique

Why was there such a difference between the American and Hong Kong subjects when it comes to tolerating service failures? Prof. Wan believes that it stems from the unique Asian cultural characteristics–“concern for face” (CFF) and “belief in fate” (BIF). She stresses that past research revealed that Asian consumers exhibit a higher tolerance for service failure, but she and her coauthors believe that this only applies to nonsocial failures, and the higher tolerance is actually attributable to a stronger belief in fate than their Western counterparts.

“For Asian people, they are more likely to believe that something is predetermined. In other words, they are more likely than Western consumers to believe in luck. So when they are encountering nonsocial failures, they are more prone to attribute it to bad luck,” She says. “But at the same time, when confronted with social failures, Asian consumers actually take more serious offense because of a higher concern for face.”

“If a social service failure happens, you need to perform service recovery, such as giving a public apology, as soon as possible. It would be more effective than monetary compensation and can help companies save costs. Even though customers are becoming more demanding these days, they are usually willing to accept an apology given in good manners.” – Prof. Lisa Wan

Therefore, based on this cultural effect, the researchers hypothesize that a higher level of “concern for face” (CFF) will lead to a higher level of service dissatisfaction among Asians, and that the CFF effect is stronger in a social than in a nonsocial failure. For example, when a customer feels he or she has lost face after being treated poorly by a waiter, this customer would feel angry or disgruntled. If the same customer gets an awful-tasting dish—which does not cause him or her to lose face—the level of dissatisfaction would not be as high as in the former scenario.

Likewise, the researchers predict that a higher level of “belief in fate” (BIF) will lead to fewer complaints of service failures and that the BIF effect is stronger in a nonsocial failure. Say for example an Asian customer purchased a poor-quality product at a store, he or she would attribute this as “bad luck” and would forgive rather than complain to the business selling the product.

“We confirmed our hypotheses,” says Prof. Wan. The study also reveals something useful for companies when it comes to branding—a fate-suggestive brand name, such as Lucky Star, would increase Asian consumers’ belief in fate and therefore increase their tolerance for service failures, she remarks.

The research is the first-ever in consumer service literature that indicates that Asian consumers are not necessarily less demanding or more easily satisfied than Westerners. According to Prof. Wan, most of the past relevant literatures just use two cultural dimensions—collectivism and individualism—to explain the differences in consumers’ reactions toward service failures, while this study proposes more concrete variables to explain the difference.

“Scholars seldom use the concepts of CFF and BIF to explain the cultural difference in consumer tolerance,” Prof. Wan says. “But these two concepts are pervasive in our daily life. People talk about these things all the time. But no one had pointed them out in consumer service literature.”

How to Cater to Consumers’ Needs

Having explained the key consumer psychology that Asian people exhibit when they encounter service failures, the research offers important practical implications for practitioners in the service industry to minimize service failures.

First, the researchers suggest service firms in Asian countries to encourage consumers to use self-service—such as online services and self-check-in kiosks—as much as possible to minimize social interactions. “From a business’ perspective, most of the service failures happen because of human elements. You can standardize product quality, but not people’s performance. So for companies, they should encourage consumers to use self-service. It would reduce the chances of service failures being witnessed by others, thus lowering the risks that customers may feel they have lost face,” Prof. Wan says.

Second, Prof. Wan says that once an embarrassing service failure happens, timely service recovery actions should be offered to compensate for consumers’ loss of face. Given that Asian consumers are more sensitive to face loss than Western consumers, a public service recovery with other customers witnessing it could be more effective. “If a social service failure happens, you need to perform service recovery, such as giving a public apology, as soon as possible. It would be more effective than monetary compensation and can help companies save costs,” she continues. “Even though customers are becoming more demanding these days, they are usually willing to accept an apology given in good manners.”

Prof. Wan emphasizes that from the study, business practitioners can identify what kind of services are more valued by people from different countries. This in turn would help them design better strategies or services to cater for the specific needs of different consumers. “Based on our research, we know that Asian people pay more attention to status and face, while Westerners care more about nonsocial elements, such as food quality and time,” she says. “In light of this, some Asian airlines tend to promote positive social attributes such as attentive flight attendants, while Western airlines tend to promote nonsocial attributes such as convenient schedules.” She concludes that one size doesn’t fit all, and that practicing consumer strategies based on cultural differentiation can be highly beneficial to companies in the service industry.


Wan, Lisa C.

Assistant Professor
Director, Centre for Hospitality and Real Estate Research

Research Paper

The Contrasting Effects of Culture on Consumer Tolerance: Interpersonal Face and Impersonal Fate

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