Monocolumn

A daily bulletin of news & opinion

8 April 2013

I am happy to admit that I have no talent whatsoever when it comes to admin. Filling in forms, phoning call centres or setting up just about anything drives me up the wall. I never seem to have the right information on me: I’ll have my passport number but not my birth certificate; I’ll be armed with the right account number but then forget that account’s password. If the task has more than three or so stages, it’s a safe bet that I’ll have stopped and started the process just as many times, defeated at each box-ticking, number-plugging hurdle.

So, when I boarded my flight from JFK to Hong Kong International Airport last week, a sense of dread came over me. While the big things such as where I was to live and work had already been sorted, there were all the little things still to take care of: bank accounts, phone contracts, house utilities and the rest. To a normal person, these tasks wouldn’t be a problem, but to an admin-phobic like me, a mountain of imaginary paperwork started to clog my mind and fog my relocation excitement.

Spurred on by the fact that if I procrastinated, I might end up living in a flat with no power or water supplies, I started calling the local utilities companies as soon as I arrived in Hong Kong. Armed with everything I thought I would need – identification numbers from every country I’ve lived in, bank-card numbers and a freshly brewed pot of tea to calm me in case it all got too much – I dialled the hotline numbers. After only a couple of automated menus to select English as my language of choice, I was through to a helpful human being in less than 30 seconds. How novel! I started to relax. And after simply conveying my new address, passport number and name, the ordeal was over. Power and water were mine!

Encouraged by the ease of working with Hong Kong Water and Electric, I headed to HSBC to get a new bank account. Greeted by a friendly man whose nametag informed me that he was a “smart senior” – a brilliant initiative that gives retirees an option to return to work as customer assistance in busy branches – I had a new account within 20 minutes. And unlike any other bank account I’d opened, there was no waiting for my cards or cheque book – I walked out with both in hand.

The situation was similar at the phone shop. Welcomed at the door by a smartly dressed smiling salesperson, I was taken to a comfy seating area, given a cup of tea and had a new phone in a matter of minutes. What a difference from the grumpy adolescents giving hodge-podge service in American phone stores!

Having spent years balking at admin, I realised that perhaps it wasn’t me but the inefficient systems I had become accustomed to. Customer-facing companies would do well to send their operations managers to Hong Kong for a week or two. Removing bureaucratic barriers to entry and replacing them with kind customer service and easy procedures can make even the most mundane tasks more enjoyable.

Aisha Speirs is Monocle’s Hong Kong bureau chief.

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