Tuesday, May 14, 2013

Customer Service in Germany

There are moments, however few and far between they may be, that make me wish I didn't live in Europe. And those moments usually have to do with people, all strangers, most of them idiots (all the Europeans in my life that I know and love do not belong in the aforementioned group AT ALL. You are all very near and dear to me, and should you in fact be reading these words, please know that I am SO GLAD that my life journey has included you).

Like the issue regarding personal space (good fodder for another blog post, I would say), Europeans have a problem when it comes to providing good customer service. I don't mean American customer service, the old "Hi, my name is Stacy, how are you folks doing today? How's those sliders tastin'? Is your ice water icey enough?" kind of customer service. I mean the old, treat your customer like a person and not like an annoyance whose money you could probably do without. I mean, it's not like you're trying to run a business here or anything. Oh wait, yes. Yes you are.

I guess you can have some food. What do you think this is? A restaurant?

But like many things in Berlin, once the initial culture shock wears off, you get used to the lack of friendly or even civil customer service. You start to expect that someone will grumpily take your money and hand you your food without looking at you. Or that if you put your card into the reader at Lidl before the transaction has been totalled, instead of being asked to reinsert your card, the lady simply says, "Too fast," without any further explanation. I'm so used to this kind of behavior that when the check-out girl at Kaufland asked me if I had found everything alright, I had to ask her to repeat herself because I was certain I hadn't heard her correctly. Or how when I went to Café Nalu and the Canadian waitress was super nice and actually apologized when they ran out of hashbrowns and brought coffee refills (for free! without even asking!), I almost asked for her hand in marriage.

Are you real? Is this real life?

Live in Berlin long enough, and you even start to push back a little against the Berliner Schnauze. A few weeks ago, out to dinner in Potsdam, a waiter tossed a cardboard coaster down the table instead of walking around to set it down in front all civil-like of my boss. When it bounced off my boss's chest and fell to the floor, the waiter simply said "Oh well" and walked off. When he returned, we told him to his face that it was unacceptable and that we were unhappy and that maybe he should rethink his career choices. His manager eventually caught wind of it, and while he didn't scold his renegade employee, he did give us free booze, which I guess is the next best thing.

As someone who has worked in customer service, it is all too tempting to take this kind of attitude towards customers. Trust me. And I don't believe that customers should be treated like 5-year-old children who need their hands held every step of the way.

I know you warned me that this watermelon would be too big for one person! I WANT MY MONEY BACK ANYWAY!

But today's little experience in European customer (non-)service took the cake.

This morning, I popped in to my corner vegetable stand before work to grab the makings of a salad. I'd been doing this little ritual twice a week for a few months - a mini cucumber, a carrot, a few tomatoes, maybe some radishes and either arugula or maché for the lettuce, then combining it all with cous cous at work to make a delicious and healthy lunch. Since it was sprinkling out, I'd decided to take 2 plastic bags with me from the veggie stand, because I had a leather saddle on my bike and some letters to mail, all of which needed some protection from the rain. Normally, I never take bags from the shop - I either bring some with me to put my veggies in, or I simply tuck the veggies into my purse. I shop at this store on the weekends sometimes too - I bought mad amounts of beets, apples, carrots, and ginger every Saturday when I was going through my juice craze this winter.

As predicted by everyone, my juicer has not seen any action starting at about 8 weeks after purchase.

For those giant veggie runs, I always came prepared with cloth bags or a backpack. For some reason, the small, usually Turkish-run shops in Berlin will freely hand out disposable plastic bags, even though the major German supermarkets will only dispense bags in exchange for a small fee. But the free bags from the Turkish shops are flimsy and aren't capable of holding much, so because of that and for environmental reasons, I prefer to use my own reusable bags.

My total this morning came to just over two euros, which I was digging out of my pocket when I heard the cashier say, "Normally, you can only take a bag when you buy something from us."

Confused, I glanced up at her to make sure she was talking to me. She was. Then I looked at my bags. I had taken a small paper bag for the lettuce, and two plastic bags. One held the vegetables, and one held the letters I was about to go mail. That must be what she was talking about. I responded by playing dumb: "Ich hab ja grad was bei Ihnen gekauft." Dude, I did just buy something from you.

She defended her position, stone-faced and unapologetic. "We have to pay for those bags, you know. You're only supposed to take one if you need it for your purchase. But it's fine. This time. Take it."

When I get flustered, it gets really hard for me to continue speaking German. All the thoughts well up behind my eyes at once and get tangled up in each other and leap out spastically in half-formed, grammatically-unrecognizable sentence fragments. I ended up saying something like "Me bring bags! Usually always! If shop 10 times, take 1 bag only 1 time! Reasonable complete!"

Hulk angry! Hulk smash!

What I really wanted to say was: "Look, lady. I've lived in this Kiez for 2 years. Every time I've needed vegetables, I come to you, even if I was just shopping at another store and could have made my purchase there. When the Turkish supermarket down the street opened last year and your shop put up a sign begging your customers to remain loyal, I did just that, even though that supermarket has much better prices. And today, I take one extra bag from you and you decide to scold me for it? Usually your staff are very nearly throwing bags at me when I buy something here. I have to constantly say ‘No thanks, I brought my own, here, please, use these instead.’ But you know what? You can keep your bag. And your other bag. And your vegetables. I'll shop somewhere else. Yours isn't the only shop on Wrangelstraße."

Instead, I defended myself with my pissed-off pidgin German, handed her my 2.11€, grabbed my vegetables and left the shop, careful not to self-righteously slam the door behind me even though it would have lent me a great degree of satisfaction. I made damn sure not to say "Tschüß".

Not saying "Tschüß" = tantamount to German anarchy. Also, this JPEG is the best JPEG in the history of JPEGs.

The next 20 minutes were spend angrily pedaling my bike to work and practicing the tirade (in my head, in German, using perfect grammar) that would have replaced the scene that had just transpired (if I had a time machine). I wished again and again that I would have left the shop without completing my purchase, to the point where I almost went back to drop the veggies on the counter and ask for my money back. But now I ask you, dear readers: would that have been an overreaction? Was it reasonable for the shop girl to defend the bottom line of her family-run business by watching over the bag supply? I don't expect a big hearty THANK YOU every time I bring my own bags, but I do expect to not be harped upon when I take an extra one now and then. And whatever they spend on two plastic bags cannot possibly outweigh the profit they make off me in that one transaction, let alone all the future transactions which I am now considering taking elsewhere. So, your call: privileged, coddled consumer overreacting to a small sleight, or shop girl acting out of line to a longtime customer? Your answer in the comments.


At 13:54, Blogger Sophia said...

Oh, helllll no. I would've been pissed, too. But who knows, maybe the boss had just gotten on her case about the store giving away too many bags or needing to cut corners a bit.

Did I ever tell you the story about getting locked into the Ku'damm Starbucks by accident and then being blamed for it? In the US they would've offered me free coffee for a year as a consolation.

At 16:03, Blogger Kenneth said...

Nice article. Totally identify with this in Berlin! I don't think all "Europeans" are the same though. :) You will find a different style of customer service in the UK or Sweden for example.

At 10:44, Anonymous Nadi Nini said...

even though i'm a berliner - i HATE what is supposed to be customer service here. i totally feel your anger! hit me up next time you need a translation for your tirade.


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