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Inside Job: Grabtalk customer service operator

This month Frank Hersey helps out lost and hungry foreigners

‘Do you want to be a hero or a talent?’ asks Qian Haiyang, one of Grabtalk’s three co-founders. ‘A hero!’ I answer. ‘What’s a hero?’ Working at personal assistant service Grabtalk you get to choose: heroes communicate over WeChat with users about their problems, talents work away alongside to find the solution.

With the huge increase in customer services in China (think massages in your own home, individual coffees being delivered and laundry taken away), I wanted to try a job in the burgeoning service sector. So I spent a week at Grabtalk, a WeChat customer service operator on the frontline of expat emergencies.

If tourists or expats can’t speak Chinese and need some help with, say, buying something online or paying a bill, Grabtalk operators are on hand to help.

Here’s how a day as an operator unfolds. Unlike more traditional jobs in China, this one has a late start because Johnny Foreigners don’t generally start having problems until after 10am.

I’m led into the operators’ office and am surprised to recognise the staff from their WeChat profile pictures. For some reason I’d expected fake profiles because, well, cynicism.

With Chrissy as my WeChat wingman, the Robin ‘talent’ to my Batman ‘hero’, I get logged in to the software, fingers hovering above the keyboard, poised to problem-solve. Nothing happens. ‘It’s a reactive job,’ says Chrissy. Then up pops my first request. Someone wants to buy fruit. I’m initially delighted. Then perplexed. What I want to type is ‘go to a fruit shop, choose fruit, pay for fruit’. Then I get over myself, remembering what that first trip to China is like (and I still get overcharged for apples). I realise I don’t actually know how to have fruit delivered. Chrissy does.


There are a few more enquiries, mainly about booking cars for people who don’t speak Chinese or can’t pay. In fact, this turns out to be one of the biggest issues facing visitors and expats alike. They might have the money, but just can’t get it into the right places.

Later, I deal with multiple requests, including a certain gentleman in Suzhou who wants not just a massage in a couple of hours, but a translator for the next few weeks. One talent is not enough and others join the hunt to help me out. ‘You’re not using enough expression,’ chides Chrissy. ‘Er, like being enthusiastic?’ ‘No, inserting these expressions,’ she says, loading up the emoji panel. I need to add more smiley faces, apparently. As it’s becoming quite an endeavour trawling Suzhou for translators, I plump for a smiley face with an army hat to more clearly express the severity of the team’s undertaking. ‘Good,’ says Chrissy.


It’s after 8pm when things really pick up. That’s when people start getting lost, hungry, drunk and lonely. At 8.45pm everyone wants Indian food delivering. Not long after that, the Beijing taxi force is coming under strain and people start using us to get a ride even if we suspect they can speak Chinese, are Chinese, or have the necessary technology.

It wouldn’t be a proper shift if there weren’t a few of the more ambitious or downright salacious requests. ‘Can you teach me Chinese tonight?’, ’How can I get a Chinese girlfriend?’ and ‘Do you want to be my girlfriend?’ are fairly common enquiries. Nobody wants a boyfriend tonight, though. ‘We just send back links to dating sites,’ explains fellow hero Hiatus.

A skateboard is delivered for some reason, causing a distinct drop in productivity and evoking a laid-back, start-up vibe. Generally, we manage to help keep visitors in food, drink and cars throughout the day. As time goes on I get more and more into my customer service job, wondering what that says about my inner desire to please. I end the shift on a group discussion where we’re trying to decide on the best moisturiser for a user: ‘But has she got oily skin?’ ‘Is that rude to ask?’.

Everything works out fine, the moisturiser is delivered and everyone gets the hang of the skateboard.

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