• 7 minute read

When Mainland Chinese Tourists Throw a Tantrum

From inappropriate etiquette to uncouth behavior, mainland Chinese tourists have gotten a bad rep in recent years, with media reports highlighting a few extreme cases. How does the service industry worldwide handle these cases to prevent service complaints?

By Louisa Wah Hansen

When the term “Chinese tourists” is mentioned, the image of a defiant child making unseasonable demands from the service worker often pops up in people’s minds, as highlighted by a few extreme cases where these tourists have made an “exhibition” of themselves. One such case concerns a young Chinese couple who were furious about not being able to be seated together after they checked in late. The woman threw hot cup noodles at the flight attendant’s face while the man threatened to throw himself out of the plane.

Cases like that often make people puzzled. Why such a big fuzz?

Chinese Consumer Psychology

“Many Chinese tourists are traveling for the first time in their lives, so when they are overseas, they get very excited; there are changes in their emotions and hormones, but many service workers have not understood this point,” explains Prof. Denis Wang, Director of the School of Hotel and Tourism Management at CUHK Business School.

“In their eyes, such customers’ behavior seems rather irrational,” Prof. Wang continues. “But these tourists are just starting the journey of travels. Their mindset, psychology and emotional stability must be given special considerations and care. Basically you need to treat them like adolescents. They may be adults, but their behavioral patterns may not be totally mature. Once you’ve understood that, it would be easier to serve them.”

He observes that many mainland tourists have a huge ego and fear being looked down upon by others when traveling abroad. “They are actually reading too much into the conversations,” he says.

So, how does one serve mainland Chinese tourists to prevent “perceived service failures” such as the dramatic ones highlighted in the media?

“All those unhappy events can be minimized if you have a clear recognition that many of them have never been on a plane before,” says Prof. Wang. “They have never been abroad before. They’re bound to be very excited and talk very loudly. This is an emerging and transitional phenomenon. Once you understand the context, it would be easier to handle such behavior and manners. Basically, Chinese tourists need education in civility, and they need to have more exposure. If they travel more and see how people line up properly and talk nicely, they will learn. It’s very much a process. I think that is something the service industry needs to recognize.”

The second thing for the service industry to bear in mind, according to Prof. Wang, is how to define service. “Truly, service excellence is about empowerment—giving information, flexibility and power to the customers,” he emphasizes.

“Make the customers feel they are the queens and kings when they come into the store and empower them. That’s the way to serve this group of customers.” – Prof. Denis Wang

Of course, if people don’t follow the rules, the security or service workers have to make them comply, he says. In a restaurant, for example, if they are jumping the line, they need to be brought back to a certain degree of discipline. But in many cases, such as the row on the plane, if there had been a give and take in the dialogue between the passengers and the flight attendant, things may not have gotten that ugly.

“If you treat the mainland Chinese tourists as very sophisticated, developed and mature individuals, then you could get very angry, because you wonder why they would behave this way,” says Prof. Wang. “But if you go the extra mile, are kind, generous and nice to them, this behavior will be reciprocated.”

Service is Not about Human Rights

A large number of mainland Chinese tourists visit luxury stores in recent years, many wearing cheap clothes when they enter the stores. A lot of sales associates don’t want to serve them. “They think it’s a joke,” says Prof. Wang. “But they should realize the reason they come to you is to change their style. So it requires some special training to serve them.”

He says that the salespeople need to understand that these are “emerging customers” who need special care. “If you treat them like adolescents and give them special attention, they will feel eternally grateful and develop brand loyalty,” he remarks.

He also suggests service professionals to detach their emotions and minimize their ego while serving these customers. “Make the customers feel they are the queens and kings when they come into the store and empower them. That’s the way to serve this group of customers. They are so big in number and traveling all over the world. Everyone is chasing these high-value customers. They have huge spending power but their characteristics are not entirely desirable. As a service professional, you should be able to manage this challenge. It’s not an issue of dignity or respect. Service is not about human rights. When I see a Thai waitress at the Shangri-La kneeling down serving me a drink, she is not thinking about human rights and thinking, “We’re all equal. Why should I kneel down?” It’s not like that. If I were serving at a restaurant and it’s a good thing in terms of the customs to kneel down, I would do the same.”

A true service professional, according to Prof. Wang, is someone who focuses on empowering the customer. “Minimize your own ego and detach the emotions. If you are constantly emotionally affected by the customers, how do you serve? You shouldn’t get too intimate and emotional in the process. Think: How can I empower this customer so that he or she has a wonderful experience? If you can think like this, I believe a lot of embarrassing and difficult situations can be prevented. Not everybody can be in the hospitality business. If you don’t have the emotional intelligence and mindset to serve customers, you shouldn’t be in the business.”

Prof. Wang cites the more advanced economies, where the service level is relatively low compared with some developing nations, because the service workers there are more concerned about glorifying their own ego than serving the customers. In many cases, service has turned into self-service.

“It’s very important to realize that service is about empowerment,” stressed Prof. Wang. “It’s not about equality. If you constantly think about human rights and equality, then nobody will be serving. Everything will be self-service.”

An Ongoing Evolution

While Chinese tourists continue to exhibit “odd behavior” abroad, exposure to the more civilized ways is catching up very quickly, according to Prof. Wang. For example, the young people who have studied abroad go back to China with their behaviors transformed into more civilized ones. “But remember, even today, 47 percent of the population in China still resides in the rural areas. When these rural people go out, they don’t know a lot of the normal civilized customs. Just a few years ago, they didn’t know how to lock the door when they went to the toilet. You’re talking about 1.36 billion people. So it’s going to take a while,” he says.

Prof. Wang points out that many specialized forms of tourism has emerged to cater for the mainland tourists, such as educational tourism, medical tourism, shopping tourism and more. “The Chinese tourists as a force is just going to become more and more important,” he says.

There are businesses that try to shun Chinese customers due to their track record of exhibiting annoying behavior. For example, some hotels stop to receive them because they have been found smoking in the non-smoking rooms. But Prof. Wang believes that this amounts to a cop-out strategy. “It’s pretty sad,” he says. “It means the training and service of the hotel is not able to manage this challenge. I think they should try to develop training, systems and facilities that can complement the practices of this group of customers.”

One strategy he suggests is to charge a premium on those customers who want to smoke in their rooms, explaining to them that it would cost more to clean the carpets and maintain the freshness of the rooms due to the smoke.

“Simply putting your hands up is not going to help,” he says. “You can’t just ignore them. The Chinese tourists will grow in importance. And they will change as they gain more exposure.”


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