Customer Service? It Depends on Your Point of View

As someone who regularly travels to different countries, I’ve taken notice of how various cultures view the concept of customer service. The age old phrase, “The customer is always right,” is something we’ve come to take for granted in America. And while we experience different levels of customer service in the States, we feel we have the right to register a complaint if we feel the service is not up to snuff, with the fairly reasonable expectation that our complaint will be heard and most likely acted upon. When traveling within the United States, from Los Angeles to New York, and most places in between, I have come to appreciate and expect this basic understanding of what customer service means. However, after having traveled extensively within Europe, I now realize that America is quite unique in promoting a mentality that is truly customer service oriented.

In Eastern Europe they have no concept of what it means to be customer service oriented. For example, when I walk into a travel agency in Bratislava or Kosice, the two largest cities in Slovakia, the person behind the counter is angry and resentful that I entered the establishment. In one case, I was even told to leave and go to another agency, because my coming in the store meant that the travel agent would have actually have to do some work! And, while that sounds utterly ludicrous to American ears, it makes perfect sense to Slovaks with whom I’ve shared the story. In a society that was based on Communism for 50 years, where people could not be dismissed except for criminal activity, and where good performance is frowned upon because you’re making your co-workers look bad, customers are generally looked upon as an annoyance rather than as an opportunity to increase business. That’s because in a socialist society, where incentives for hard work are lacking, people have no motivation to go the extra mile to satisfy a customer.

For example, in America we tip waiters and waitresses for providing good service, The better the service, the larger the tip, and we feel entitled to withhold the tip altogether for poor service. In Eastern Europe, it is not customary to tip servers. While I appreciate the low cost of dining out, it eliminates any incentive for providing good service. An idea like customer service can only flourish in a society where it is rewarded, and where the payoff of providing good customer service is readily apparent.

This is not to say that people and companies in Europe are not “trying” to provide what they believe to be customer service. It’s just that they don’t have an experience of having received it, so they have no idea what it looks like, making their efforts seem forced or contrived. A case in point is the flight I took today from London to Prague on Czech Airlines. Because I am a Silver Card holder in their frequent flyer program, I can request to be upgraded to business class on a flight, if there are seats available. On this occasion, I was told by the clerk, “Business class is full, so you will need to stay in economy.” However, when I got on the plane, I noticed there were several seats unoccupied in business class. So I repeated by request to be upgraded. I was told that there were no additional meals available for business class. I explained that I did not want a meal and that, on a prior occasion, I simply waived the meal in exchange for being able to upgrade. What I was told next completely floored me. The clerk explained, because so many people complained about there not being enough meals for everyone, they decided to not let anyone upgrade. Wow. Faced with customer complaints, the management of Czech Airlines had three choices:

  1. Supply more meals to the flights for passengers wishing to upgrade to business class.
  2. Ignore the customer complaints, but allow customers to forgo the meal if they wished to upgrade,
  3. Refuse to provide enough meals for upgrading passengers and not allow any passengers to upgrade.

Which option did Czech Airlines choose? Option C. In effect, the airlines chose to punish all customers for the complaints of a few, thereby discouraging customer complaints in the future. That’s what I call a brilliant business strategy! How is it that Czech Airlines can get away with this without driving their business clientele to other airlines? Because if you want to fly from London to Prague, you can ONLY fly on Czech Airlines. They have a monopoly because the Czech government has prohibited any other airlines from flying directly between Prague and London. Voila! No competition, and no need to listen to customer feedback.

Am I annoyed by this anti-customer service attitude? Well, yes, of course. But am I surprised? Not at all, really. Customer service, as a value, is part of a culture, and it takes decades of living in a competitive business climate to fully develop. Therefore, I do not judge other societies for being different than what I’m used to. And I’m not just picking on Eastern European countries – I’ve had similar experiences in London. What I would like to do is offer a word of caution to Americans traveling abroad: Do not expect to receive the same level of customer service in other countries that you receive back home. Valuing the customer is, I believe, a relatively recent phenomenon, arising mainly in market-driven economies. And it will only spread throughout the world as other economies learn to cherish competition and the benefits it brings. So be patient. In the meantime, you may be in for a very, very long wait.

About Tony Sneed

Sr. Software Solutions Architect, Hilti Global Application Software
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