Monday, January 19, 2009

Service with a grimace

I’ve decided it’s time to be controversial.

Maybe we shouldn’t, but inevitably expats compare things in their new home country with those in their country of origin. This is where I can’t help highlight something many expats living in different parts of continental Europe comment upon – service standards. So, here we go:

Controversial generalisation number 1. Why is it that point of sale service in continental Europe is so often friendlier and more efficient than in the English-speaking world?

I can imagine now the howls of indignation from many Brits and Americans etc, but many expats find this true. Why it is that in the UK for example, one can go into a restaurant where waiters or waitresses outnumber the customers but they STILL can’t get your order right? Even if it is more or less correct, it arrives to the table with the obligatory “Who ordered the sausages and who wants the pie?” as the server seems incapable of noting on the pad who ordered what – even when there are only two people at the table. A variation of this is the arrival of only one plate to the table where you’re sitting with your guest and in response to your questioning glance you receive the famous phrase that strikes terror into customers in restaurants all over the UK - “what did you order again?”

The USA isn’t immune either. Many restaurants and shops have professional ‘greeters’ that treat even total strangers as long lost brothers upon entry, then immediately service deteriorates to downright rudeness and at times incompetence. Once in a fairly up-market restaurant the bored waitress told me the special included ‘supersalad’. The conversation went along the lines of

“OK, I’ll have the supersalad”

“Sir, it’s the supersalad”

“Yes I know, I’ll have it – the supersalad”

“No sir, it’s SOUP-OR-SALAD and I just don’t have the time for this”.

Charming – an amusing 50/50 accent-related misunderstanding finished off with an aggressive insult to the customer. Upon departure the ‘greeter’ said “great to see you and have a nice day” – yes, right enough!

By contrast on the continent in the vast majority of shops and restaurants service is efficient and very well organised. Quite often one will see one or two people serving a large number of tables without any misunderstandings at all and shops cope similarly. Service also seems spontaneously good-natured and friendly rather than ‘professional and plastic’.

Generalisation number 2. Why is it that post-sales service is so poor outside of the English- speaking world?

Oddly, everything changes around once one has need of help after-sales. For some reason in many continental countries, any attempt to suggest a problem has arisen, however politely and delicately one approaches it, can generate hostility and negativism.

I have lost count how many times I’ve had to explain to people in such circumstances that I am not criticising them personally, but just asking them to accept responsibility on behalf of their organisation to ‘sort it out’. It is as if the phrase “Hi, I have a problem with the xyz I purchased from you…” immediately brings down the emotional shutters.

The most recent example of this was a tax related communication a friend of mine received from the government. At first she didn’t understand the amount demanded, then recognised in about 10 seconds that their calculations on the form contained a trivial arithmetic error that made the final figure far too high. Essentially instead of using 1 month’s figures as a base for projection x 12 for the year ahead, they had added two months together in error then multiplied by 12. As a result the figure they were asking for was too high by far.

Calling the local office of the department concerned, it took her at least 15 minutes to convince the very hostile official that she was not criticising him, and to persuade him to actually look at the figures on his screen. Her statement that there was a simple error at their end was dismissed as “ridiculous”. Once he VERY reluctantly checked his screen, there was - I am told - an almost audible ‘CLUNK’ as the penny dropped that the mistake was theirs. His response? “Well, you should have pointed this out earlier.”

In vain my friend tried to point out she had only received their letter that morning and sadly, her psychic skills were not what they should be. How could she know in advance that they’d make such a stupid error? An apology or even acceptance was not forthcoming and all she received was a grudging agreement that they’d resolve the problem at year-end.

I know what my theory is. I suspect people on the continent are more ‘protective’ towards their job than their Anglophone counterparts. This culture means that service initially is better but the tendency to be defensive means paradoxically that if an issue arises post-sale the customer often them receives poorer service than say in the UK where people have less qualms about accepting that their employer has screwed-up and as a result they just ‘deal with it’.

I said it was controversial! What do you think?

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