Customer Service

When I talk to American or British expats about how they like life in Germany, the feedback is pleasantly positive. But then, many people sigh, their expressions become glum and they add “Except for the lack of customer service.”

I always find it interesting that this is mentioned so frequently because I personally don’t think the customer service in Germany is all that bad. (Not anymore. There were times when one felt guilty for even entering a shop and bothering a salesperson with the impertinent wish to make purchases.). Still, generally my experiences with German customer service are positive. So when people mention a lack of customer service, I now ask them what exactly they are missing. The replies showed me that, like almost always in cross-cultural encounters, it’s a matter of different expectations. A British lady said that she regularly (about twice a week) shopped at a bakery and that the saleswoman was bound to recognize her. Still, the British lady never received a personal word or any other sign of recognition. An American lady missed the cheerful “How are you?” she was used to hearing when entering shops in the US. She was greeted in (smaller) German shops as well, but less cordially.

I have a good American friend with German parents, Alyssa. She is not only an excellent cross-cultural trainer, but has lived abroad for many years and so has a lot of cross-cultural first-hand experience. We often chat about customer service. Like all other Americans I talked to, she finds it severely lacking in Germany. She has a keen eye for cultural peculiarities and an entertaining way of telling about her experiences. So I enjoy listening to her and often have to chuckle. But usually the conversations end with me asking “So, why was that bad customer service? It sounds normal to me.”

Which then makes her laugh, but with a spark of desperation.

The first time this happened, we exchanged our opinions on what constitutes good customer service. I, like many Germans, like the no-frill service. I don’t need an enthusiastic greeting, an overly attentive sales assistant or profuse apologies if something isn’t in stock. As I said to Alyssa, “I want to be left in peace until I have a question or need to pay.”

I tend to avoid shops where shop assistants follow me around, constantly asking whether I need this or that in a different colour, whether I’d like them to find something that goes well with the item I’m just looking at or jumping at me the moment I leave the changing room, asking whether the item I tried on looked good and whether I want to buy it. For me, that isn’t relaxing shopping.

As to smiles and small talk – of course I don’t mind people being friendly. It would be weird if I did. But I don’t expect it and I’m not that keen on small talk anyway. Germans are not big small talkers. I think it’s this that Americans especially miss in Germany. There’s a lot of small talk there – in waiting lines, in shops, at bus stops, and it’s a friendly integral part of life. In Germany, most people don’t quite see any purpose in small talk with people you’ll never see again anyway.

Of course, not all Germans have the same expectations of customer service. I remember a heated discussion about customer service in a German forum. It started with one person venting her frustration about a grumpy salesperson. As usual in a forum, several others shared their experiences with salespeople and the general consensus was that a grumpy salesperson seriously harmed the shopping experience. Then, one person jumped in and told everyone off for whining, before snapping (yes, you can snap in writing) “You have a right to get goods in exchange for your money and nothing more!” So there! If that wasn’t a no-no-no-frills approach to customer service I don’t know what is. You don’t have a legal right to friendliness and that’s it. Stop being a cry baby.

Fortunately, this didn’t find much agreement. After much back and forth, the majority agreed that unfriendly behaviour was not acceptable (legal right or not) and that shops with unfriendly staff would – if possible – not be frequented anymore. So, yes, Germans want friendly customer service. But I think our expectation of friendliness is different – I don’t say “lower” on purpose because I don’t think that would be the right word – from the expectations Americans have. Too much cordiality makes many Germans a bit wary (unless it’s with close friends) because it has a ring of insincerity. Intercultural experts use something called a “peach and coconut model” to explain this and I’ll also talk a bit more about that issue in a later post. A business relationship calls for politeness, not for cordiality.

Of course, as with all things, this is not universally valid. In small towns or villages, people usually know each other well and there will be friendly chatting with shop owners and salespeople. Still, that is mostly based on long standing relationships outside of the shopping transaction.

A shop owner or salesperson in a smaller store might be more personable than a salesperson in a big department store, simply because the surroundings are less hectic.

It might be helpful to keep in mind that most Germans have different expectations of customer service: politeness, efficiency and good knowledge about the product/service being sold. So if you enter a shop and a greeted with a mere “Guten Tag”, you might think you’re being shown the cold shoulder, but you’re not. You’re in the more reserved surroundings of German “coconuts”. When you have a complaint and instead of receiving extensive apologies, you just stand there while two salespeople discuss how to solve the issue, that’s not polite. But it’s the German task-orientation. At that moment, the priority is to solve the problem and most people will think that solving your problem quickly is the best customer service they can give you. You could argue that a friendly word in between all that problem-solving just takes a second and makes a big difference, and I would agree. Still, I think it just doesn’t even cross most people’s mind – not from a lack of manners, though. Task-orientation is just a pretty dominant brain activity at that moment.

Now, I’m not saying that all is well in German customer service land. Of course there is bad customer service as well (isn’t there in every country?). Alyssa told me a story that made me laugh. She had gotten internet tickets to a museum, which was supposed to gain quicker access. The tickets were only valid for a certain time period on a certain day. When she arrived at the museum, armed with her internet ticket, the machine that was supposed to scan the ticket code didn’t work for some reason. Several museum employees gathered, trying to solve the problem. Just letting Alyssa into the museum was not an option – the ticket had to be scanned by the machine. Alles muss seine Ordnung haben, everything must be in order. The time period for which the ticket was valid was running out. That’s an absurd situation, task-oriented culture or not. It got even more absurd because then the museum employee not only didn’t apologize to Alyssa, he instead started pouring out his heart to hear – about the machine not working so often, how annoying that was and what a hard day he had anyway. I don’t think anybody in the whole world would consider this good customer service. But it made for a pretty funny story :-).

PS: Today a lady from the Finanzamt (IRS) called me. I had made a mistake with something. She told me about it, immediately offered to correct it and gave me an extension of the deadline so that my mistake didn’t result in a late fee for me. She did all that without me even having to ask for it and when I thanked her and apologized for my mistake, she told me that it was no problem and that she was there to help. She heard from my voice that I have a bad flu at the moment, so she wished me a speedy recovery and told me to take things slowly and take time to get well. Now, that’s exemplary customer service and I was impressed by it.

I can’t wait to tell Alyssa…


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