China’s capital city is light years away from its former self, now filled with glossy new skyscrapers and high-end shopping malls. But there is one thing still missing from many of Beijing’s ritziest shops and restaurants: service with a smile.
Skott Taylor, founder of NewSeed Creative Consulting
Photo: Sean Gallagher
In foreign chains and local shops alike, as a customer you’re still as likely to be scowled at, ignored or tailed as a potential thief than waited on politely and patiently. And, as the city booms, the service industry can be an employer’s nightmare, with employees jumping ship after a few weeks for a small hike in salary somewhere else.
Enter a young Canadian theatre graduate, trying to help instill a more positive corporate culture into some of the city’s boutique hotels and restaurants in hope of bettering the customer experience.
“The idea is instilling a moral compass,” Skott Taylor, founder of NewSeed Creative Consulting, said in an interview on a grey, smoggy Beijing day. “First you work on the people, then that translates into great service for customers, which makes them happy, which makes them want to come back and buy more.”
The 32-year-old Nanaimo native returned to China in 2010 after an earlier three-year stint here running a local English-language theatre and taking classes at Concordia University. After a year in marketing, a friend who was starting a pizza-delivery business offered him a chance to combine acting and marketing by leading his employees in training sessions.
Taylor’s methods, which he says are inspired by books like Mastering the Rockefeller Habits and Topgrading, would ring familiar for most Western firms but are still novel in China. Employees going through his training sessions engage in team-building activities like scavenger hunts and trust exercises, launching padded eggs off buildings or playing boisterous games of chain tag, designed to draw them out and get them working together.
The idea is that building a stronger team with a greater sense of belonging translates into happier employees who perform better and stay in their jobs longer. “Once they know they’re learning, they are excited to be here and they are excited to engage with the customer,” Taylor said.
With retail sales growth running at about 14%, China’s fast-growing retail scene is an employees’ market—particularly with the country’s working-age population now shrinking from a low birth rate. Large Western hotels and clothing shops can pay top dollar to employees with English skills and some experience, leaving smaller firms struggling to compete.
“If you look at finding store staff, that’s where the problems lie,” said Mirko Warmuth, the German co-founder and chief executive officer of Beijing-based Twice Fashion, a fashion-accessories chain with about 20 shops and 20 franchise operations around the country. Typically, he said, retail staff are in their late teens or early 20s, often from other provinces, with no postsecondary education or prior training, and—in China’s often cutthroat business culture—little employer loyalty.
“It’s a horrible headache for everyone because so many retail shops are expanding in China and so many Western brands are moving into China,” he said. “There’s a lot of poaching; there’s a lot of jumping back and forth among different brands.”
It’s not unusual for a chain like his, which at full strength has about 140 employees not including franchises, to see 100% staff turnover in their shops each year. The challenge has become finding ways other than cash to foster loyalty. That’s where Taylor’s training comes in.
“It’s how do you create a sense of loyalty and belonging, so that even if they are offered a bigger paycheque, they wouldn’t leave because there is something they would miss besides that extra 500 [yuan, about 82 cents],” Warmuth said.
Warmuth holds weekly town-hall meetings with staff, trying to improve communication, and offers prizes to top-performing employees; this month’s was a four-day trip to the tropical southern island of Hainan, all expenses paid. Other employers establish company apartments so that an employee tempted to leave is giving up not only their job but also their home and friends, no small decision in a culture where the work unit, or danwei, plays a major social role.
At Beijing’s Gung Ho Pizza, a chain of gourmet pizza-delivery outlets established by two New Zealanders that was Taylor’s first client, the training is starting to show. Staff, who are regularly rotated through training courses, speak cheerful English to their predominantly foreign customer base and enthusiastically greet Taylor for a demonstration of their team-building exercises.
A sign in the kitchen outlines the four slightly grammatically awkward principles of their corporate culture, which employees are expected to keep in mind on every order: security, accuracy, tasty and fast.
“He often gives us good suggestions to keep our spirits up,” said Angel Zhao, a 23-year-old from Hebei province for whom Gung Ho was her first job. Hired as a customer service representative a year ago, she has already been promoted to accounting. “I think the training taught me how to stay happy, how to give customers good service, how to always smile at the customer. We should treat customers as our friends, like [we treat] our family members.”
Taylor has so far been working solo with a half-dozen clients but is now expanding after landing a training contract with Swire Hotels, for a new luxury hotel in the city’s east end. He’s designing two-day orientation sessions on the brand and its core defining values for its 380 staff.
“The demand is outracing my supply,” he said. “It’s about corporate culture activation. A lot of cultures are words hanging on a wall; you put them up there but nobody knows what they are. … You really want people to believe in what you’re doing and buy into the whole thing, not just do their work and go home.”