Throughout the last couple weeks, something that has stuck out to me repeatedly is the difference in customer service between Europe and the United States. Even beyond the lack of free water, the complete absence of ice, and the fact that we have to pay to use the bathroom, a handful of specific interactions have shown me that quality customer service is perhaps not a top priority for Europeans.
The first time I noticed a difference in customer service was during our first day in Berlin. Our Bravo group decided to stop at Vapiano’s restaurant for lunch. Vapiano’s has an interesting business model: when customers walk in the door, they are handed a plastic card. Customers then move to another counter where their order is taken and food is prepared. The customer swipes the card to put the purchase amount on the card, then pays for the amount on the card when leaving the restaurant. It’s basically a temporary credit card. When we walked into Vapiano’s, Davis had already decided that he didn’t want anything to eat, so he handed the card back to the male employee. That is apparently never supposed to happen. When we went to leave, the employee working the cash register (now a woman, there must have been a shift change) didn’t believe Davis’s story about handing the card back, and demanded that he either produce the card or pay fifty euros. After a short exchange (with aggressive tones from the employee and Davis handling himself with grace), we were able to leave Vapiano’s without paying the fifty euros. Once we had regrouped outside, I chatted with Davis about how, in the United States, if an employee of any restaurant had spoken to a customer the way the woman spoke to Davis, she would almost certainly have lost her job.
We ventured to the Olympic Park on our first day in Munich. We rented paddle boats to play around with in the pond, then strolled around and found a crepe stand. After Sarah and I ordered our crepe to share, we realized that it was extremely hot and would be messy to eat without utensils. I approached the crepe stand for a second time and asked the woman if she had any forks. Her response was a curt “no” without even looking up at me. I was slightly taken off guard in that moment. In the States, I would expect a “No, I’m sorry, but perhaps try [insert another location that might have forks].” While the interaction was minor, I once again noticed that the value of good customer service is not quite as recognized in Europe as in the States.
On our second night in Interlaken, Dr. Pitcock took us out to dinner at a Thai restaurant. Thai food is my favorite kind of food, so I was ecstatic. Martin is the owner of the restaurant and was also our server for the night. When our food was ready and brought out to the table, Martin had a dish for our table that nobody was claiming. It was quite an awkward extended moment where we all looked around, confused, telling Martin that nobody ordered the dish. Martin was simply not having it, and argued with us (like really argued – he was not pleased) that someone did indeed order the dish. Granted, Martin was correct; one of our students didn’t realize what he ordered, and we all laughed about it in the end. In the U.S., businesses usually push the “customer is always right” mentality. I had never experienced an employee/business owner demanding that he was correct and the customer was not. Again, he was correct in the end, so I can’t really blame the man. But it was definitely different than how similar situations are handled back home.
The last instance to be mentioned occurred yesterday at a clothing store in Florence. I was standing in line at the cash register waiting to pay for the item I wanted. As the woman in front of me was paying, the cashier’s phone began to ring. The employee pulled her phone out of her pocket, answered it, and began to have a conversation with her mother (which I gathered from the “Ciao Mama!”). In the United States, most employees are not allowed to have their phones on them while they are working, but are instead required to store them in a back room or tucked away in a drawer. There would surely be consequences in the United States if an employee answered a personal call while on the job, especially while they were also actively engaged with a customer.
Perhaps I notice a stark difference because the United States has become such a strongly consumer-driven society. Americans expect to be put on a pedestal when they are spending their money to consume another’s goods or services. We expect to be told that we can have anything we want and are always right. Even our education is viewed as a product rather than a personal investment; prospective students and parents shop around for which schools provide the best name, professors, facilities, etc.
I feel obligated to note that we have also experienced some incredible customer service throughout our trip. Dr. Pitcock has wonderful friends in these cities that treat us so nicely. For example, Roberto and Miriam own Hotel Europa where we are currently staying in Florence, and they are so kind. We had dinner with Dr. P’s friend, Fabio, who owns his own restaurant. He showered us with good food and a tour of the wine cellar afterwards (one of the oldest structures in Florence). There are some good apples in this European bunch!