Customer service once more

Some time ago, I did a presentation in a training Alyssa (whom you might remember from my first entry about customer service) held. We were chatting with the lady who took the training and I said something about customer service (as a German, I like to be right, so now I keep pointing out good customer service to Alyssa). She turned to our client and said “Tell her, tell her!”

Yes, you guessed it, the client had a “bad customer service in Germany” experience. Apparently, Alyssa also likes to be right… And I have to give her that, it really was a bad customer service experience, in fact there were two experiences. However, what really got to me was that this bad customer service resulted from ineffiency. Yes, you read correctly. Not rudeness, no lack of cordiality, but (it hurts me to write this) inefficiency. It taught me a lot about myself – if someone tells me about having experienced bad customer service as a result of a lack of friendliness, I’m not particularly bothered. I don’t approve of it, of course, but I don’t think it’s that bad. But inefficient customer service – yes, that bothered me a lot.

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Be Nice!

Communication is a difficult thing, even among people of one culture, and even more so between those of different cultures. One first needs to understand the context, the unspoken signals, the motivation, and that can be quite a task.

I noticed that when I encountered the American “Be Nice” mentality. Now, don’t think that I’m not nice. I am. Sometimes.

In fact, my mother put a lot of importance on good manners, such as not pointing at people, not screaming in public, being honest, not resting the elbow on the table while eating or being nice.

I soon noticed the problem with “being honest” and “being nice”. As a young teenager, I vowed to always say the truth, no matter what. Then, my grandmother gave me a birthday present, one of those big T-shirts that could also be worn as dresses, the front decorated with a picture in the garish colours popular at the time (a lot of pink, turquoise and purple). The picture was adorned by the word “Hollywood” in golden sequins (it was the late 80s!). Usually, when I got a gift I didn’t like, I smiled, said “thank you” and pretended to like it. This time, in line with my new honesty policy, I thanked my grandmother, but said that it wasn’t quite my taste. The temperature in the room dropped about 10 degrees and my mother told me quite a lot about being polite. My defense was “But I was just saying the truth. Do you want me to lie?”

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Have a nice day (not)

I’m currently reading a book in which the narrator moved to the UK from the US. One of her first observations in Britain was how ‘coolly’ people in shops treated the customers, compared to the US, and she especially missed being wished a nice day and wondered whether salespeople in the UK don’t care what kind of day their customers have.

That got me thinking about several things. First, it’s interesting that Americans coming to the UK notice a more reserved attitude to customer service. If there is already such a difference in American and British customer service, it shows what a deep culture shock Americans probably go through when confronted with German customer service.

The other thing the comment in that book make me think about was the “Have a nice day”-bit. I know that in the US this is a given. People are constantly wishing each other a nice day. I don’t think they are all terribly interested in what kind of day the other person is having, but it’s just one of these nice things to say to each other as a sign of being friendly. Unless it is said in the robotic obviously disinterested way I often heard it in the larger department stores in the US, I like hearing, “Have a nice day”. It has become much more popular in Germany as well and it has no more meaning than it has in the US (though when I still had my bookshop, I made a point of only saying it when I meant it). Continue reading “Have a nice day (not)”

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.” Continue reading “Customer Service”