A fresh look at an old relationship

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A FRESH LOOK AT AN OLD RELATIONSHIP

If you were born in America and haven’t been to Korea, you’ve missed out on one of its most unique cultural experiences: the customer greeting. While there are, of course, important Korean historical sites and natural treasures to see, you’ll also get a sense of the country’s cultural identity from shopping and eating out. From the moment you enter most stores or restaurants, you’re made to feel welcome by a loud cheerful greeting (Welcome! Please come in!) from the nearest employee. For Americans it can be a pleasant surprise to walk in the door of a run-of-the-mill business and get a salutation worthy of a Ritz-Carlton hotel guest. In Korea, the customer is king or queen.

Alas, a big problem has been developing with this custom, according to Snowfox founder Jim Kim, a Korean native who moved to the U.S. as a university student in the 90’s. While opening Snowfox’s first restaurants in the country’s capital city, Seoul, this year, Kim would expose an aspect of the tradition that many of his countrymen agreed had gone too far. By addressing the issue, he inadvertently created a media frenzy.

Korea’s traditional customer-worker relationship has its origins in the Confucian culture that informs most of the country’s manners. It extends to solving customer problems from product returns to dissatisfaction with an employee, and most Koreans, Kim told us, would notice immediately if this level of service dropped off. But because those manners revolve around respect for status, whether familial or in society, their version of the Western adage “The customer is always right” takes on a different tone, he said.

With an increasing number of customers willing to exploit the customer service tradition for their own gain—or simply to placate their anger—a day at work in the Land of Morning Calm, as the country is known, was starting to become anything but peaceful for a hapless retail employees, Kim told us. Tales of dramatic tantrums, where an enraged guest demands an exception to retailer policy, even accompanied by the offending employee supplicating themselves on hands and knees, have become the stuff of media and pop culture lore.

We reserve the right to refuse service to anyone

As a string of Jim Kim’s successful grab-n-go café’s started popping up all over one of the capital city’s busiest and most high-end retail districts, he had both a horde of customers and a small army of loyal employees to satisfy.

While he had made customer engagement a key growth strategy of his U.S. sushi bars, Kim wasn’t a big fan of the disturbing trend in Korea’s customer-worker relationship. He pointed out that in the States he had developed a culture of treating his employees not as run-of-the-mill service workers but creating something more like a disciplined but fun and supportive family atmosphere. By now he also had three sons ranging from mid-teens to young adults who were the same age as many of his Korean employees.

With more bold plans for the restaurant chain, like those that had gotten the food company this far, he was investing in his employees’ potential. In each one he saw a future manager or executive, Kim said.

He saw the opportunity to address the cultural paradox and took aim.

Today as customers enter each one of Snowfox’s bustling grab-n-go café’s, they’re met with a very visible sign on the glass. While some restaurant chains might greet guests with a cute slogan or tout some special aspect of their ingredient sourcing, Snowfox (whose customers were already raving about tastes and convenience) uses the sign to clearly convey its customer service policy. Kim’s concise written philosophy emphasizes that human dignity should be key to customer/employee relations.

Loosely translated, the sign Kim wrote (pictured here) begins with the policy: If one of our employees doesn’t provide you with excellent service, we will fire them; however if you mistreat our employees we reserve the right to deny you service. While most Americans are accustomed to seeing a variation of this phrase in establishments where customers can get a little, ahem, rowdy, this was an audacious statement for the average Korean retail guest!

However, of equal importance, the sign then communicates the Kim’s reasoning: These people are just like your sons and daughters. They are our equals and are working hard, so you shouldn’t look down on them or mistreat them. Keeping their job shouldn’t be dependent upon denigrating themselves.

Jim Kim appears on KBS Morning Yard Chat

The unanticipated result of Snowfox’s sign, the photographed image of which was widely posted on social media platforms like Instagram and the country’s Daum social network, was an outpouring of public support. From “power blogger” posts to man-on-the-street TV interviews, opinions generally leaned in favor of the way the restaurant chain was giving the old tradition a little kick in the pants. And while reactions to the sign weren’t all positive, on panels and in interviews of Seoul’s citizens, supporters’ enthusiasm occasionally verged on tears. There seemed to be little doubt those emotions came from the personal experiences informing Kim’s sign.

One of the biggest factors that had kept retailers from turning the tide on customer abuse, Kim relayed, was how much they risked economically if they lost in a public battle over their customer service image. But, the chairman said, in Snowfox’s case he took into consideration that, despite his investments in Seoul, the American foundation of his business was still robust enough to handle any backlash. He saw a window and took a risk on behalf of his employees.

Anyone who’s met him can guess that, despite some criticism of the sign’s brazenness, Kim’s congenial attitude remained at the heart of his decisions. Whether greeting a guest in one of his restaurants or colleague on the street, his laser business focus is seldom unaccompanied by a smile and warm pat on one’s back. And Snowfox Korea team members told us it’s rare these days, once a guest meets Jim Kim or realizes who he is as he checks on a restaurant, for them not to mention the sign to Kim.

SBS News

While the Chairman has stuck to his guns, he reflected in a bemused but humble tone, “I didn’t start our venture with the idea of changing the culture. Our priority was launching a unique new food category in Seoul, so in that respect I certainly wanted us to be noticed.”

“The focus is still on grab-n-go”, But I’m ecstatic we’ve been able to bring some needed perspective to the proper way to give and receive great service. We’re making a bold statement about who we are while still providing our guests with an exceptional experience.”
– Joel Stark