Vietnam Profile: Vietnam is: Hugely varied, extremely friendly, longer than you realise (I’m referring to distance, not cockney colloquialisms!). It offers exceptionally good value and a plethora of readily-available, mouth-watering street food. Vietnam is not: Flooded with tourists (or, at least they’re very easy to escape), clogged with cars, or obsessed with social media.
Comment: So what? Reply: Don’t chalk this up as an embryonic country that doesn’t understand the importance of the internet, the convenience of the car, or the value of tourism! There’s a lot we can learn from Vietnam. Please allow me to expand with two of my own experiences.
Firstly: Food! In the UK, the new-fangled concept of the “pop-up” shop is all the rage. Vietnam has been doing this for years in the form of the pop-up restaurant. I’m not talking high-saturated, zero choice, brain-washing hamburger and fries here. This is the storied tradition of Vietnamese street food. The most accessible way to enjoy this food is to simply flag down one of the yoke-toting (invariably) women who carry on their shoulders everything needed for a hot, nutritious, sit-down meal anywhere you, the customer, wants it.
Balanced on either side of the yoke will be: The raw ingredients: Piles of fresh herbs, tofu and noodles; the cooking materials: Smoking charcoals and a large pot of water; and The furniture: An assortment of small plastic stools to provide an instant outdoor café anywhere you choose. The food is cooked to order, exactly as you want it, and of course, where and when you want it too. These “pop-up restaurants” are ubiquitous throughout Vietnam and I really don’t know why you’d eat any other way. The very mobile and flexible nature of this way of eating means there’s no “trip advisor” recommendations and no “find my nearest” iPhone apps that can direct you to them. It’s a great lesson in the value of shunning “hyper-preparation” that a world of instantly-available information instils. Not only is it possible to leave your front door without having planned electronically the experience you are going to have in reality, in Vietnam, it’s actually recommended.
So, you’ve filled up on Pho, now it’s time to see some of this beautiful country. What are your choices? Option 1: You can play it “safe,” sit in front of your iPad screen and book yourself on a standard package tour of the area. What will you get? You’ll get exactly what’s advertised to you: A generic and cautious guide to the area in the company of a bus full of other tourists. You’ll have zero interaction with any of the locals and you certainly won’t have to put up with the risks of unexpected public transport delays or the gamble of not knowing exactly how and when you will see everything. It will be predictable. And that’s fine, but it’s really only a step away from the completely virtual option of staying at home and watching the whole thing in 3D, surround sound. Option 2: Imagine for a moment, a world where not every piece of global information is available online…it’s the world you are living in right now. It may seem that everything you could want to know is at your digital fingertips, but that’s only if you choose to confine yourself to this version of reality. Imagine this…
It’s 7 am in the morning and already the sun’s warm on your face. You sit on (aforementioned) plastic stools on the river bank in Hoi An, sipping an unimaginably sweet and strong Café watching boats laden with pineapples, melons, chickens -you name it - stream into this ancient market town. Most of the other tourists left on a tour bus an hour ago so you raise your glass to one of the locals, who’s letting the world soak over him at a similar pace to you. After a couple of minutes he comes over, noticing your interest in the trade traffic in front of you. Half an hour later, you learn that it’s come from a village across the estuary, accessible only by the water and within moments, you find yourself, perched in his wooden boat, motoring across the river for your own personal tour of the area. 12 hours later, as “Captain Sai pilots you back to your breakfast location,” you realise that unintentionally, you have had the full “package tour.” Can you “like” this tour on Facebook and recommend it to other travellers? (Certainly you can’t from this country because Facebook is a blocked.) No you can’t. The beauty of this customer experience is that it’s unique. Captain Sai understands my needs on a very immediate level, by talking to me. And this second point is utterly key to this experience, it is unpredictable and unexpected. I saw, tasted and experienced things I could not have Googled as I did not know they existed. No tour leader would have been able to ask and then meet my needs because I wasn’t even aware of what they were until they were exceeded.
One of the reasons that all this stood out so clearly to me was the trait that “Vietnam is varied.” Hanoi (the old French capital of the North) is far more palatial than any town in the South: There’s money and significant Western influence and business. This brought grid-locked traffic, shop-keepers hidden behind counters, waiters who replaced conversation with a menu and generally a more “sanitised” experience that seems quite disappointing after the open realness of the service and interactions I had on my journey Northwards from Ho Chi Minh City. So, what am I saying? In the style of Prime Minister’s Questions, let me first tell you what I’m not saying! I’m not saying that digital is dead, that we should throw away our phones and laptops and move into tree houses in the New Forest. I am saying this: Humans are multi-sense, multi-need beings. A rounded and satisfying customer experience requires more than one interface (may I dare to suggest that one of these should be a human face?). We cannot solve all our customers’ needs through electronic communications. Ignore this at your peril! If we think we can, there’ll be a backlash of dissatisfaction and unhealthy distance from the very people we’re trying to serve: Customers (those real people behind the online profiles).
Trends do settle down. Sometimes they come full circle and disappear; and sometimes, as I think will be the case with digital, they just join up the dots to create a balance. It’s important that businesses don’t forget their traditional values and skills which have been built up in the “non-digital” realms of customer service – these are still valuable. As more and more companies come online, this will be the norm and not the differentiator. Customers will crave the luxury of “real” interactions. Most organisations already have the skills and capabilities to provide great “real” customer service. It would be a shame if investment in digital came at the expense of these capabilities and in a few years’ time, companies were forced to invest in recruiting talent and purchasing infrastructure that they already now possess.