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February 24, 2010

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Giving tips for better service

SHANGHAI tends to attract and frustrate expat residents alike. One of its most complained-about aspects is the quality of service in restaurants and other retail outlets. With concepts such as branding, marketing and customer experience developing only very recently, levels are naturally not what visitors are used to in the West.

One British expat, however, didn't just complain about service - he saw a great opportunity in the expectations gap, both for making money and for living his dreams.

Ed Dean founded Jett Asia, a consultancy for raising the standards of service in China, in 2004. In helping and training China's young service staff, Dean also found the passion that was lacking in his former life in corporate London.

"A business is not just about making money, that's bad for the soul. It should be about something you believe in that gets the team going," says Dean.

"The service staff are often very young, at age 18 to 22, they're a blank canvas. It's not their fault if they haven't been trained. In fact, training in English and other service skills are their big opportunity to improve their lot in life and their career. You can't take that away from them," he adds.

New challenge

It was the search for passion and creativity that led Dean to China seven years ago.

At the time he held a comfortable job in a well-regarded marketing firm in London, well on his way to middle management. But working on corporate projects with corporate clients, he felt there was no room for creativity and that passion was lacking in the people he dealt with every day.

His 30th birthday triggered a re-evaluation of his life and he decided to break the mold of the ordinary middle-class success in search of a vague something more. On the day after he turned 30, Dean quit his job to "launch a new decade" in Asia.

"I had lived and grown up in London all my life. As I neared 30, I thought if I didn't leave I might never do it," he explains.

People thought he was brave to leave home, but he thought it would take more courage to stay and fight it out in London.

"It's so well established that there's no opportunity to do anything new without a lot of money, and options narrow the further up you move in the corporate ladder," says Dean.

Away from home, and from the well-meaning but burdensome interest of family and friends in his affairs, he, like many expats, also felt the freedom to experiment.

Arriving in Shanghai in 2003, Dean experimented with a variety of roles he had always wanted to try, such as being a voice-over actor, and a journalist editing a newsletter for an investment company.

They didn't inspire, so he left.

After six months he hit upon his real passion - running his own business. At first he ran two businesses in parallel, a marketing consultancy and the service quality consultancy.

The service business grew out of a common occurrence in Shanghai. Dean describes how a customer in a well-known Western restaurant got angry with a waitress because she could not speak English. Dean realized there was a great gap between expectations and reality, and where there is a gap there is an opportunity.

Eventually the service consultancy turned out to be more successful, and in six years it has grown to four branch offices in Beijing, Shanghai, Guangzhou, Guangdong Province, and Hong Kong.


According to Dean, service problems are caused mainly by cultural differences: good service is not as valued and highly regarded here as in the rest of the world. Some actions, such as counting money in front of a customer, is considered practical and common sense in China but rude in the West.

From his personal dialogues with Chinese people, Dean also thinks that lack of tipping is part of the problem. Many Chinese have no experience of it, and even think it's illegal, so that its real value as a way to raise service is missed.

Dean has heard of examples of Bund-side restaurants where tables seating tip-savvy Western tourists may get better service than Chinese tables, as the staff expect a tip from foreigners.

There's also the expected gap between tier-one cities and rest of the country. Multinational companies with headquarters in big cities are leading the way as their staff are already aware of the need for good service.

Dean cites Guangzhou as a particularly good place for service on the Chinese mainland. Dismissing the proximity of Hong Kong as a factor, Dean speculates that it must be, "something in southern, Cantonese culture."

Dean rejects the idea that service people themselves are at fault. Many are easy to train, motivated to learn and see their jobs as a chance to meet people from all over the world. There is not usually resistance to learning higher service levels, according to Dean, which gets easier with each younger generation.

"Another fascinating thing about China is the huge gap in mentality between generations, because they grew up in totally different surroundings," he says. "Contrary to popular belief, people in their 20s are not totally unquestioning."

Ed Dean

Nationality: British

Age: 37

Profession: Business owner


Self-description:Optimistic, positive, outgoing.

Favorite place in Shanghai:

Any swimming pool in summer.

Strangest sight:

The bizarre pet dog costumes. I've seen dogs dressed as Batman and Superman, plus a poodle dyed pink and green.

Perfect weekend:

It would involve friends, family, laughter, some exercise and sunny weather.

Worst experience:

In my first week here I was hungry one morning and bought a peach Danish for breakfast. I carefully ate around the middle to save the best piece for last, butwhen I got to the peachcenterpiece I quicklylearned that it was in fact a dried egg yolk.

Motto for life:

Honesty is the best policy, though silence is occasionally better.

How to improve Shanghai:

Please enforce the law on honking the horn all the time!

Advice to newcomers:

Be yourself.


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