Customer Service Abroad: Advice for Travelers
Customer service is one of the most obvious examples of different cultural expectations. From my own experience, I have found customer service to be rough in Europe, ritualistic in Turkey, money-motivated in Morocco, and paradise in Mexico.
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Customer service does not exist in Europe. Travelers who visit high-end, Americanized establishments do not know what I am talking about. However, for those who venture out into the authentic areas, where the locals patronize, the habits in stores and restaurants are vastly different in the U.S. Below are some anecdotal examples.
In Eastern Europe, mostly among the older generation who were adults during Communist times, people in charge of serving the public do so on their own terms. This is because they had so little control over their lives, they exerted it when they could. They will make a customer wait as long as possible. They will do their best to do little to help the customer, unless they feel like it. They most certainly will not go out of their way to help a customer, unless they feel like. However, customers who get a little demanding – but not rude – might just get their way.
- An example of the former: I was waiting in line at the train information booth in Prague, Czech Republic. There was a girl in front of me. She got a question answered from the 60-something booth operator. She took a breath and started saying, "I have one more question-" except the booth operator interrupted with "ne," no, and shut his window in her face. She sputtered, "How rude," but we could both see clearly on the window that his break started at 2:20, which was now. We had no choice but to sit and wait the 10 minutes until he returned. He was more cheerful.
- An example of the latter: I was traveling through the Baltics, and I stayed two nights in Liepaja, Latvia. The pension offered laundry services, so I gave my backpack's-worth of clothes to the receptionist and went to walk the city. When I came back that evening, I started unpacking my clothes but discovered they were still damp. I returned to the receptionist and showed her my damp clothes. She said, "They were run through the dryer." In the circumspect American way, I pointed out that they were not dry. She repeated, " They were run through the dryer." I started to point out again that they were not dry, then I remembered that mostly Russians visit the area, and they are notoriously demanding tourists. I stiffened my voice and stated, "These clothes are not dry. I expect you to run them through the dryer again." She looked at me, shrugged, and took the clothes. The next day she chatted amiably with me while I waited for my taxi. I had shown spine.
Do not touch the merchandise anywhere in Europe. Do not touch fruit in a market or clothes in a shop. There are people whose job it is to help you, if they feel like it, of course. If it is the shop owner, she does not want customers man-handling her merchandise. If it a shop worker, customers only make more work for him, and he does not work on commission. I have gotten yelled at for attempting to choose my own fruit at markets across Europe and 86ed from a vendor's stall in Croatia because I took down a pair of beach shoes from a rack to look at them more closely.
Romans do not care if people think they are rude. They are unconquerable, and they have the Coliseum and Pantheon to prove it. Roman taxi drivers call pedestrians "cockroaches" and pretend to try to run them down – this from my cousins who are Roman taxi drivers. A clerk at a gelateria pretended not to understand my mother, a native Roman, because he overheard her speaking in English to us. I got ejected from a restaurant – a totally empty restaurant during an off-time – because I dared to sit alone at a 4-top table. People have been visiting Rome for millennia and will continue to flock to Italy until the end of time. They are right – I'll return to Rome. You would, too.
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Customer service in Turkey, on the other hand, is ritualized. There are levels of waiters and servers, and one does not do another's job. In the fine restaurants, this works well as they waiters have been trained. This custom can be a little tricky in budget restaurants.
In Turkey, people use rose water on their hands and sometimes neck. In almost every restaurant, waiters offer patrons a squirt of rose water from what appears to be a salad dressing bottle.
In every country I have visited, across Europe, in Turkey, and in Morocco, the bill is not delivered until the patrons ask for it. In Mediterranean countries, there is no limit of time to how long diners may spend at a restaurant. This means that a table is booked for an entire evening. I have been turned away from completely empty restaurants because someone else had a table booked later that evening. The waiter will not come and start asking "anything else?" in the American way of letting a person know it's time to move on. This is the reason I got booted from the restaurant in Italy.
One annoyance in Turkey comes from the sellers in Istanbul. Technically, by law, they are not supposed to harass the tourists. However, for some, the line between persistence and harassment is something they leap over every day. Visitors who are in touristy areas can expect to have wares literally shoved in their faces sometimes; this happened to my brother-in-law outside the Grand Bazaar in Istanbul. However, a useful trick is the Turkish dismissive tongue-click. Turks click their tongues while raising their eyebrows as a way of saying "no." It is actually not rude to them, but when I employed the gesture, the merchants understood I was an insider and tended to leave me alone. Failing that, threaten to call the police. It really is illegal to harass the tourists.
People seem very friendly and helpful in Morocco. Most Moroccan people are friendly and helpful. However, some strangers who help out are motivated by a desire for "baksheesh," a tip.
When I first got off the boat – literally since I took a ferry from Geneva – in Morocco, I stepped onto North African soil and realized I was in a whole new world. This is because three taxi drivers were fighting over who got to pick up my two huge suitcases to drive me to the end of the block. Knowing my destination, the bus station, was literally just around the corner, I wrestled my bags away and marched to the bus station. Unfortunately there was a curb, and I had to release the smaller bag to heft the larger suitcase up. A different taxi driver abandoned his vehicle and deftly carried the small bag to the front of the station. I tried, "Thank you," but he wanted baksheesh, a tip. This trend continued in Morocco throughout the year I lived there.
One of the joys of Morocco comes in the medinas, their old towns. I patronized the medina in my city, Rabat, at least twice a month. The merchants there got to know me. This did not prevent them from ripping me off. Quite the contrary. They realized that the more I got to know them, the less likely I would be to argue. There is even a saying about that in Morocco: they use niceties to grind a person down.
Moroccans are very passionate people, though, and when you do decide to indulge in a fit of temper with perceived mistreatment, they take it in stride. I once lost my temper with a lady selling pajamas. I asked the price, bargained her down a quarter of the way, and then listened while she started with an even lower price for another woman. I knew enough Arabic by then to complain vociferously. The American in me felt bad at my display of temper until just a little while later when I saw a Moroccan woman, unhappy with the price a fishmonger tried to charge her, hurl the bag of fish at his head!
Mexicans really are some of the nicest, friendliest people on earth. Their customer service skills shine from their genuine willingness to please. For that reason, I really do not have any stories to share – every merchant, waiter, and even bus station attendant was perfectly polite to me during both my trips to Mexico. Oh, well, at least I have memories of their beautiful art and architecture.
Being told to leave, having windows shut in my face, getting yelled at… these experiences may not have felt like much fun at the time. However, these are the stories I reminisce over with my friends and fellow travelers. These are the stories we laugh about later. Just not so much at the time.
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