By David Wolf
Happy World Consumer Rights Day, the day when your average Zhou gets to take a swing at the companies who are not playing fair. The reason most of us put up with this corporate Ides of March without complaint is that we see it as an important part of China's nascent consumer protection system.
Lacking the regulatory framework and ready access to legal redress available to citizens of, say, California, the March 15 witch-hunts act as a crude but functional deterrent to corporate hijinks. Or so the thinking goes. Here's my question: when do companies get a day to highlight onerous consumer practices?
We Don't Trust Consumers, Do We?
One of the biggest — and least talked about — problems in any consumer business in China is that companies don't trust consumers to play fair. Nobody talks about it because, after all, the customer is always right. In reality, that's all too often not the case.
I can't count the number of brainstorming sessions I've been in with clients where a foreign executive would bring up a promotional idea that worked in another country, and the Chinese in the room would shoot it down, saying something along the lines of, "No, that wouldn't work here. The Chinese would take advantage of that and we would lose a ton of money."
Back when I was starting an electronic retail business in China, I was explaining to my team that we were going to offer a 90 day unconditional return policy. There was an uproar. "We can't do that in China," my staff insisted. "Chinese people will take horrible advantage of us."
Being the idealistic young foreigner that I was, I disagreed. But I look around today and I have to wonder.
When The Customer is Wrong
To understand why this latent distrust exists, you need look no further than your lunch hour.
Go into a McDonald's in China. The trays of condiments, serviettes, and the like are noticeably absent, shunted behind the counter because after Mickey D's tried it the other way, the condiments would just disappear.
Go to Pizza Hut and order the salad bar. All you can eat, with just one catch: you're limited to a single trip. With the old "as many trips as you want" system, all too often, one person at a table would order the salad bar, and each person would make one or two trips, feeding everyone for the price of one meal.
Sit down at my own favorite American bistro here in Beijing, and they'll tell you that no longer do the soft drinks come with free refills. Apparently entire families came in and ordered one coke — and six straws.
Don't we all know people who will go into a nice restaurant, order a good meal, then after it is eaten will complain to the management in a voice loud enough for the whole restaurant to hear about some imagined affront or failure in product quality, in the effort to get all or part of the meal for free?
And while we're on the subject, this whole practice of mob-shopping, where hundreds of people will stream into stores demanding a better price on something or other, is an equally near-sighted practice. In return for short-term gain by a small group, everyone else pays in higher prices – unless they behave badly as well.
Social Responsibility Cuts Both Ways
There have been — and still are — horrible abuses perpetrated on Chinese consumers by companies both foreign and domestic. But this does not excuse the apparent determination of a sizeable group of consumers to squeeze well-meaning companies at every available opportunity.
It is precisely this tendency that makes companies who genuinely do take care of consumers worry about 3.15. It is not the fear of being caught doing something wrong, but the dread of a vocal, unconscionable minority taking advantage of the day to secure some kind of personal advantage, and damn the consequences to everyone else.
So on this National Consumer Day, I send to China's consumers a gentle admonition: the growth of consumer rights in China is accompanied by an equal growth in consumer social responsibility. Use your growing legal and perceptual power not for your own personal gain, but for the purpose of punishing companies who do wrong and rewarding those who make an honest effort to take care of you.
If you can do that, you take a huge step toward rebuilding trust with the good guys, and toward creating an economy made up of companies that excel at delighting all of us.
About the author:
David Wolf, President and CEO of Wolf Group Asia, a management advisory firm providing strategic communications counsel to technology, media, entertainment, and telecommunications companies in Greater China and the Asia-Pacific region. He is also Contributing Editor for China CSR. David's opinions are his own and do not reflect those of either WGA or its clients.