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Chinese consumers say: Fix this fridge or sledgehammers coming

BEIJING – Luo Yonghao has a message for foreign companies selling products in China: offer good customer support or the hammers are coming out. 

Sledgehammers to be exact.

From the always interesting blog, China Hush, comes this story about Luo, a 47-year-old founder of an English language school and the frequently shutdown, Bullog.cn blogging site.

Luo had a simple enough problem: Some months ago his refrigerator door had broken and just wouldn’t stay shut. His annoyance was compounded by the fact that the fridge was manufactured by Siemens, a global brand with a strong tradition for quality and design. 

So Luo contacted his local Siemen’s customer service center in Beijing and described the problem with the fridge he had purchased three years ago – incidentally, his washing machine bought at the same time had also broken and required repair. However, after much back-and-forth, Siemens denied any issues with the design or assembly of Luo’s refrigerator and refused to replace the faulty product for free.

Ultimately, Luo would file several complaints with Siemens which the company continually dismissed.

That was enough for the blogger, who took to his micro blog on China’s twitter-like service, Weibo, and began to detail his frustrations with Siemen’s handling of the matter.

Having built a following of over 1.2 million users on Weibo, thanks to his popular laid-back and often amusing English language classes which are broadcast online, Luo’s complaints were quickly disseminated throughout the Chinese web sphere and quickly churned up a slew of other Siemen’s fridge owners with the exact same handle issue.

Dubbed “refrigerator gate” on Weibo, the discussion released a groundswell of frustration over Siemen’s public non-handling of the issue, all of which came to a head this past Sunday when Luo organized a group of affected fridge owners outside of Siemen’s headquarters in Beijing and angrily took sledgehammers to three of the broken refrigerators.

Holding signs that said, “[We] gently demand that Siemens acknowledges and solves the problem,” the group submitted a letter to Siemen’s urging the company to acknowledge the technical issue and to improve its customer service in China.

Siemens for their part accepted the letter from the protestors, but also called police in to deal with them. The company later issued their own letter that did not detail any plans for compensation, but noted that production of the said refrigerators had been outsourced to a third-party manufacturer in China.

‘It’s unfair for Chinese customers’
The bad public relations from this incident harkens back to the great Toyota recall of 2009-10, in which millions of the company’s cars were recalled globally. However, Chinese customers were outraged when reports of Toyota’s speed and considerateness towards buyers in regions like the U.S. and Europe did not match their own experience on the mainland, where 75,000 vehicles were affected.

As one local news report about the China recall notes, Toyota employees in the U.S. were required to either personally remove affected cars or pay the travel expenses for those customers returning the cars themselves. Replacement cars were also supposed to be offered for free 

In China though, affected car owners were required at the time to drive the cars to dealers themselves and were offered no compensation. Replacement cars were only provided to those who had cars that could not be fixed quickly, an additional problem that was compounded by a shortage of required parts.

The apparent inequality generated a groundswell of angry sentiment among Chinese consumers, who had already dealt with six previous recalls the year before on Toyota cars sold in China that affected nearly 1 million vehicles.

"The way Toyota has treated Chinese customers is different from how it conducted itself in the U.S.," said Zheng Yumin, head of the Zhejiang provincial industry and commerce administration at the time.

"It's unfair for Chinese customers.”

More fridge smashing to come?
These incidents reflect the upward economic mobility of China’s new consumers and their increasing expectation for products and customer service of a high standard, qualities that are perceived to be mainstays in the West.    

A recent post by the head of consulting firm, McKinsey & Company’s, China offices noted the rising importance of customer service for Chinese consumers. Polling shows that among China’s luxury consumers, the expectation of quality customer service had risen from 17 percent to 30 percent in 2010 and that two out of three consumers said they were disappointed with the poor service they received in China.

Similarly, an Economist Intelligence Unit study of customer service found that despite improved numbers over the years, China had Asia’s least satisfied consumers, with 63 percent of consumers saying they would immediately switch brands if they receive poor customer service from a company whose product they bought. 

All of which must worry companies like Siemens, who are still well-regarded in China but now must deal with the unexpected blow that Luo and his online fight have dealt.  

For his part, Luo hopes that their complaints are dealt with promptly by Siemens. However, should he be ignored again, Luo has already warned that more fridge smashings will follow.

“If Siemens won’t fix this, I’ll rent a big space in [popular Beijing art district] 798 and hand out free hammers,” wrote Luo on his Weibo account before continuing, “then more victims can come and smash their refrigerators up.”