Open Letter to U.S. Consul General in Shanghai

Thursday, July 2, 2009 5:21
Posted in category Uncategorized

As an American living in China for the better part of 8 years, I have experienced the spectrum of customer service experiences, but my experience earlier this week (July 1) at the Westgate ACS office highlighted that within your own office.

On (May 14, 2009) my wife I went to the Westgate office to arrange for the Marriage affidavit.  We completed the form, paid 40USD, swore the oath and were given the document; a document which requires little information (name, date of birth, passport number, name of previous spouse, etc), but whose data accuracy is critical (as we would find out 2 weeks later at the Marriage Registration Office).

We proceeded to the Marriage Registration Office on a day that my wife to be had chose for its auspicious nature, where we were turned away for having ‘an incomplete affidavit”.

The document that the consulate provided (a document with the seal of the State Department) did not contain my middle name.  Furthermore, it did not specify that the name is required “as it appears on my passport”.  None of the consular staff or officers brought this to our attention.

This was not a new problem.

In order to solve this problem, we returned to the consulate two weeks later; the earliest appointment available under the new system.

Following a brief conversation with the local Chinese staff member at the window, and explaining that the error had occurred, she returned 5 minutes later saying that they were sorry but we would have to pay again as it was not their responsibility to fact check the document. That I should read the paragraph at the bottom where it says

“I … , the individual named above appeared before me, and being duly sworn, made the statement set forth in this instrument.  I assume no responsibility for the truth or the falsity of the representations that appear in this document”

At this point I was fairly astounded that someone – anyone in the ‘service’ business – would dodge responsibility and stick the ‘client’ with an additional $40 charge for what was a simple clerical error

I was not holding them responsible for the veracity the document, but the fact that their document and officers failed to properly ensure the document was properly filled out in the first place. That, even though the consulate staff and officer both reviewed the document against my passport, neither alerted me that I needed to provided my name as it appears on my passport.

Following that, I  made another appeal as they (the original staff member was the person who assisted us 2 weeks before) and mentioned the above, which they summarily rejected.  A second woman then joined the conversation, and when I asked her why I as an American not only paid taxes and paid money for this product should still have to pay for their mistake. I was laughed at and she walked away.  When she came back she told me that I was not paying for them to check the piece of paper, or fact check it, but for the act of notarizing the affidavit. My reply to her was that I was paying for a product, the complete affidavit itself.  She again walked away,

Again, the argumentative nature of the conversation was extremely off-putting, especially as I was facing a loss of $40 and no one on the other side of the glass displayed one ounce of concern for this.  A simple ‘I’m sorry’ would have probably solved the problem.  Instead, she walked away.

Couldn’t they simply have waived the $40?

Then the first staffer told me that I needed to pay, and as I began to move from the first window to the second, I saw the visa officer poke his head around the partition with a big grin on his face.  Apparently, my little seen has become office joke, and it only took him 2 minutes to call us to the window.

While at the window, I again tried to make my case and this time was given a blank dismissive look, and while explaining to him that we had made the trip to Xujiahui and been turned around he continued to look away. My final act with him was a suggestion that he and the staffers look out for this in the future and alert citizens to the problem should it be made.  Again, dismissive look and he walked away.

All in all, a horrible experience.  One that I do not believe I deserved, and as I have come to find out over the last 18 hours, I am not the only one who has experienced the same level of service.

However, rather than simply rant about what I went through, I will suggest actions/ changes that I believe could not only avoid a similar experience, but could make the overall ‘service’ much more efficient and customer-friendly:

1) Consulate staff should at all times act in a manner fitting of their position. Regardless of whether or not the official or staff member feels the claim is legitimate, the claim should not be dismissed, and at no time should the person bringing the claim or airing the grievance be treated with disdain.

2) Ensure the American Consulate website is updated on a regular basis to reflect the dynamics on the ground. Two months ago, after the new scheduling process had been in place for several months, a number of the pages had still not been updated, and as of today U.S. Citizen Visa Hour page is down.

At a minimum, the following information should be made available, be up to date, and staff should be trained up:

  • Who should / should not apply for an appointment
  • Electronic versions of documents that are in a consistent format, use consistent terminology, and have instructions/ examples on how they should be filled in  (I suggest looking at HSBC’s Document Library for Best in Class examples)
  • Ensure that all documents, and their explanations conform to current relevant Chinese requirements (for example, instead of asking for “name” on applications, specify “Name as it appears on passport”)
  • Create an internal process within each section to maintain the site on a monthly/ quarterly basis

3) If services are to be paid for, then the consulate staff must accept responsibility for the quality of their product.

In the case of a notarized document, the stamp is not the product.  The completed document is the product, and the stamp and signatures are only part of that product.

And even if one is not responsible for it, it never hurts to take a moment of extra time to ensure things are done correctly.

4) If, in the case there is a mistake found after the fact, citizens should be provided the opportunity to expedite their appointments. In the recent case, it took 2 weeks to schedule an appointment (inconvenient), however in other cases (adoption) the document need is time sensitive.

5) An improved customer service platform needs to be implemented

  • Staff should wear name tags to allow for easy identification
  • Comment boxes (physical and/or electronic) should be made available
  • Expatriate staff should be made available when problems arise
  • Complaints should not be summarily dismissed, ignored or laughed at.

The people who go to Westgate are couples planning weddings, families planning adoptions, business men and women planning trips, and there is no reason for citizens who are paying taxes and 30 USD a stamp to be treated poorly.

A basic measure of customer service needs to exist, the products need to be produced to quality, and when there are problems or complaints a channel needs to exist.

As I said above, I recognize that as 1 of 10,000+ Americans in Shanghai I cannot expect red carpet service, and am I asking for it. I am asking that the process put in place to manage the 10,000+ Americans living in Shanghai is effective, and offers a satisfactory level of customer service at our own embassy.

Those of us in the private sector learned long ago that small, proactive steps taken to improve customer service pay huge dividends  not only through the positive word-of-mouth that it generates among the community, but in heading off problems before they arise.  As a long-term resident of Shanghai, I submit that the biggest impact you could make during your tour in Shanghai would be to improve the view in the community of this service dept in the consulate.

I thank you for your time and look forward to any feedback you might have for me in the future.

Sincerely.

Richard Brubaker

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14 Responses to “Open Letter to U.S. Consul General in Shanghai”

  1. Lisa Reisman says:

    July 2nd, 2009 at 12:14 pm

    Richard,
    Congrats on your marriage! That’s very exciting and Jason and I wish you and your new wife much love, happiness and good health. Unfortunately, bureaucracy is bureaucracy. But given that President Obama is in charge and promises a new “openness” I’d send him a letter and cc Hillary Clinton. Your story is comical (and also I have to admit, not that unbelievable, unfortunately). One day, you will re-read this post and simply laugh…
    Lisa

  2. Zhou Ji-Ming says:

    July 3rd, 2009 at 5:33 pm

    Rich,

    I have a list of people who can add similar stories this one.
    The American Citizen Services dept is a joke.

    Every time I go there for so-called service I witness at least one major altercation and it is almost never the fault of the customer.

    Zhou

  3. Rich says:

    July 4th, 2009 at 12:47 am

    Lisa –

    Thanks. When are you and Jason making your way back through town? One person on facebook (All Roads feeds into my profile) that I contact my congressman… but I think I will leave it here. Obama/ Clinton have enough crap to deal with, and this is a relatively minor thing in the grand context of crap they have to deal with.

    R

  4. Rich says:

    July 4th, 2009 at 12:48 am

    Zhou

    Really is to bad one could not just set up shop across the hall and crush their market.

    R

  5. Doug says:

    July 4th, 2009 at 2:45 am

    Rich,
    Congratulations on your marriage! It’s no consolation but the INS (now the Department of Homeland Security) is even worse for customer service. My favorite snapshot of the experience of getting a green card for my spouse would be when I tried paying for services with a check. The clerk informed me that they no longer accepted personal checks. When I pointed out that the form I had filled in to accompany the check specifically stated that personal checks were acceptable, she reached under the counter and pulled out a form which basically said no personal checks accepted. It was at the point I asked to see a manager. That worked.

    Cheers
    Doug

  6. Em says:

    July 4th, 2009 at 8:06 am

    As a long time follower of your site, your letter is disappointing. Here goes a reply:

    You pay the fee because it is required by law. Waiving the fee creates a document that can be challenged in a court of law, there HAVE been instances where powers of attorney, wills etc have been successfully challenged because an embassy or consulate did not charge a fee. Now while I doubt anyone will challenge a marriage, you of course appreciate that it is no different from any other legal commitment in that it needs to be undertaken properly.

    At the end of the day, and you may or may not be aware of this, marriage requirements across China vary. Significantly. Different provinces, different cities even, may require different proofs and documents – you would have been aware that you are responsible for ensuring the document is correct – of course ‘correct’ is as the end user defines it, the Chinese Marriage Bureau.

    The consulate is simply, as you acknowledge – yet complain about – providing a notarial service. They cannot tell you what to write. To be honest, why would you possibly think your ‘name’ is anything other than your full name? You would write your full name on any legal document at home, as it is your legal name, why do you think the Chinese would be any less judicious at requiring your diligence to their policy and laws?

    Your point 3) (which is the basis of your complaint, or really whinge) is incorrect – to confirm again, yes you ARE paying for just the ‘stamp’, and that’s what the Chinese want to see, and fair enough. I’m sure you’re aware of the legal ramifications regarding responsibility if (as you demand) the Consulate be responsible for the facts that you assert on the document. Have a think about how long, and the delays and costs involved, it would take to set up procedures for them to create legally responsible documents that PROVE your single status. And you thought two weeks was a long wait…..

    Consular staff will always sigh when they hear ‘i pay taxes’ as an excuse for insisting on preferential treatment – and yes thats what you were doing when you wanted the fee waived. They hear this ‘taxes’ line every day, usually thrown when the client insists the staff cut a corner, usually because they have shown up without a document (or written their full name), or any XYZ item needed to on the day for the service. It was not their ‘clerical error’ in as much as the Consul General doesn’t wipe your ass for you either, one hopes.

    ~ a consular worker

  7. Rich says:

    July 4th, 2009 at 11:35 pm

    EM

    Thanks for providing some perspective from behind the glass. Your comment had a few insights that I did not know, and some insights into the attitude that apparently prevails among you and your coworkers.

    Perhaps most interesting about your comment is the divide that it shows between how someone from the private sector would view the above letter, and those from the public sector. That had I (or one of my previous bosses) received/ seen a letter like this from one of my customers (perticularly had I been following them for some time) I would have given more credence to the complaint.

    Not dismissed the comments as being a winge.

    so, with that, here are a few points of my own that I hope you will consider (along with the above letter). I was not asking for, nor do I feel the need for, preferential treatment. I was asking for a quality of service that should be provided to everyone who walks into your office.

    My letter was meant to provide a bit of feedback on how the process can be improved. I say process because that is what it is. We are no longer part of an era where a consular official will show up at the house and take care of matters. Now, we must make an appointment, take a number, fill out a form, and go about our way.

    the process is there to ensure that it is as efficient as possible (that is why forms have moved from handwritten to typed), are compliant (that is why they are updated as needed), and is performed in a respectable manner.

    Through your response, it is clear to me that rather than see that the letter was constructive, that anyone who has a complaint is all the same. Yet, had you waited 10 minutes to dismiss my comments, and taken the time to consider the suggestions, then you would have noticed that I am actually trying to improve the process.

    Yes, I was not happy about the process and there were particular people responsible for that, but my two suggestions were completely unrelated to that. Keeping up to date resources and documents that are clear to uers, that have consistent terminology, and are readily available will go a long way to improving the process. In fact, had either of these been in place as part of the process prior to my visit, then I am confident that this would not have occurred. I was trying to make your job easier, reduce the errors that exist in the system, and in the end reduce the number of windges you and your coworkers are subjected to.

    As for the third point that I made, it is completely valid. Both the officer and the staff member at the window reviewed the document for completion, and checked it against the passport. They bear some responsibility for that, however the suggestion itself was not limited to this specific instance. Since writing/ posting this letter, I have received emails from others who have been given the wrong forms, yet had to pay again. Whose forms were not filled out properly by the consular staff, yet had to pay again. So, I made the suggestion that those behind the window be held accountable for their work.

    With regards to making documents free to Americans, I will take your point that there is a legal issue there. I was not aware of that. However, that being said, why does it need to be 30USD per document when all that is being done is a stamping of the document? Why not 5USD? Why could they have not simply given me a replacement for the original document and not charged me?

    Finally, Of course there are people who use the “why am I paying taxes” in your office. It is because they do, and sometimes those people can be reasonable in taking it too far, but this letter and my situation were not that. I did not call up the consulate looking for expedited service, nor did I request an apology from anyone (formal or informal). when I was being dismissed by the officer, it was not for asking for a refund, it was asking him to be more careful and to let others know this was a problem.

    I wasn’t being unreasonable, and I am not alone in this.

    I have on a number of occasions defended you and your coworkers behind the glass, and I will continue to do so. I have known a lot of people who worked in that department, and understand the environment in which you operate. My letter was an attempt to highlight a gap, and make some suggestions that would lead to an improvement.

    I am not looking for heads to roll, I am not looking for a refund, and I am not looking for an apology. I am just looking to make sure this does not happen to another couple.

    Now, it is up to you and your coworkers. you can either dismiss me (someone who you have followed for a long time) as some strung out whiner, or you can see that through implementing some/ all of the above you will you will reduce the errors of the process (regardless of who is at fault), improve the process for those who need it, and in the end have to deal with a lot less whiners as part of your day.

    – an American citizen

  8. Craig says:

    July 5th, 2009 at 4:18 am

    The US missions abroad have ZERO interest in serving US citizens. The State Department’s job is dealing with foreign governments – citizen services are an unwanted chore.

    Contrast this to other countries, which actually provide *gasp* services. The UK consulate provided free beer mats for all the local bars with spiffy Union Jacks that say “have you registered with us yet?” When a Swedish guy died unexpectedly, the Swedish consulate actually SENT AN INVESTIGATOR to Ningbo to find out what happened. Even the African countries care for their citizens abroad.

    The only thing I ever, ever expect from the US consulate is a new passport. And, frankly, I won’t be surprised when the day comes and they manage to screw it up somehow.

  9. Alex says:

    July 5th, 2009 at 8:53 am

    I’m neither a US citizen nor have I worked for any aspect of the US government. I am a UK citizen and have worked for a UK government owned company.

    I would say it’s less an issue of private vs. public sector, more an issue of what is expected by the US public sector of itself. I would add, that an institutional culture plays a pivotal role, a culture of helping and assisting would not have led to smirking behind screens and blankly walking away. This is quite upsetting since as a US citizen in China working in an international environment you’re surely promoting the US in a business/commercial setting. Even language schools point out that as a foreigner in China one’s conduct is ambassadorial for one’s country’s reputation, and embassies themselves can’t?

    Regarding the UK embassy, in my experience a voicemail with the vice-consulate (whose telephone number is posted on the embassy’s website) received a reply within 30 minutes. And when appearing at the embassy there is a fast-track and prioritisation for issues which have been discussed over email/telephone or which simply appear urgent.

    The UK has a population (and, logically, resources) 1/5 of the US, and they can do this. Why can’t the US?

    I would add name tags for all members of staff, as you mention, must surely be essential. If McDonalds can do it, surely an embassy can.

    * I would add, while my review of the British embassy in China is positive, this does not extend to approving the British government in general!

  10. Zhou Ji-Ming says:

    July 6th, 2009 at 2:50 am

    The previous two poster have it right.

    But I also believe the public-private divide highlights the different mentalities and is essential to address here. It’s not enough to say that ‘services’ section must improve, we must show them how, as they clearly cannot help themselves.

    I refer everyone to the Singapore Quality Institute, which is practically a government dept (not really). But the government there has recognized this initiative as important enough to support officially….and the U.S. consulate is just too overworked.

    For thier reference, as a working professional, our employer insists on all staff focusing on this topic. I have trained monthly over the course of a full year alongside junior and middle staff in programs focused squarely on Delivering Quality Customer Service.

    1. Delivering QS does not increase your overhead.
    2. QS solves burdensom problems early – like this one!
    3. QS leaves everyone wanting to help you in return…and lord knows you need it….which in the private sector = value all around.
    4. Delivering QS is easy.

    I can almost hear them rolling thier eyes at the U.S. consulate at the idea.

    zhou

  11. James says:

    July 10th, 2009 at 10:39 pm

    Government institution with government workers. What more can you expect? Though from what I’ve heard, this is already better than ten years ago.

  12. ACS says:

    July 13th, 2009 at 11:14 pm

    The problem is not so much with the Consul General services but the Chinese staff employed. Typical Chinese heads stuck up their ass attitudes. With power comes responsibility.

  13. Tom says:

    July 14th, 2009 at 12:30 am

    Sounds like an all around crappy situation, sorry to hear it.

    I’ve never been to Shanghai, but I have been to the Consular General’s Office in Shenyang for the same little red stamp, I have to say my experience was the exact opposite. In fact, the lady at the counter did point out a couple of errors that I made and provided me with a new paper to make my corrections. When it was all over, the official we spoke with congratulated me and my soon to be wife and wished us a happy life together.

    I’ll be the first to admit that I know a lot of US Citizens/Government employees that could use a couple bottles of prune juice, but I think it’s unfair to assume all US Consular employees are the same as you experienced in Shanghai.

  14. Rich says:

    July 14th, 2009 at 7:51 am

    @ Tom

    Glad that the folks in Shenyang provided you with a better experience. Perhaps it is a North/ South thing!

    I agree that not all officials are the same, and I have over the years had working relationships with many who were really top. This post was (in the beginning) a post about process and process improvement.

    In the end though, still no response from the CG regarding the above. Disappointing I guess on some level, and not unexpected on another.

    R