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The customer is always wrong

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I like to think of my experiences in the Czech Republic as character building, and it’s usually the aspects of life here that are the most different from my life back in the US that prove the most thought provoking. During the five years I’ve lived in Prague, I’ve learned that living abroad necessities keeping a sense of humor, and that precisely when I think I’m losing perspective and my good mood, I usually find that I learn the most.

Still, there are days when I stand facing a disinterested grim-faced Czech salesclerk and vow I’ll never come back until the Czechs learn basic manners. Even with a decent command of Czech, all too often it seems that a straightforward task when met with a disgruntled employee sucks all my joie de vivre and leaves me in frustrated tears. But after talking with friends and watching the same thing even happen to Radek on occasion (not the crying, just the frustration), I’ve at last learned that it’s nothing personal.

For a country that has adapted so many aspects of western society, it seems particularly strange that 20 years after the Velvet Revolution, communist attitudes still pervade Czech service culture. Dealing with the lack of quality customer service has been one of the more challenging aspects of my cultural adjustment in the Czech Republic. In terms of good service, I don’t mean five-star hotels, seven-course menus, or perfectly stocked supermarket aisles. Prague boosts more than its share of fine dining and lavish accommodations, but I’d bypass all those for a simple smile from my local bank clerk when I make a transaction or a pleasant “Good morning. How can I help you?” instead of the exasperated “Good morning. Now, what is it you need?”

Now that I’ve lived here long enough, I’ve gotten over my original complex about being treated differently because I’m non-Czech. Although I remember a few instances of obvious prejudice when I was rudely told no appointment was possible or no space on a castle tour was available, only to have my husband retrace my steps and procure with ease the desired appointment or ticket. However, by and large, these situations are the exception.

Most of the time, I think I have an advantage, particularly when I have the children with me, because while it’s easy to be disinterested, gruff or unresponsive to an adult, it’s much more difficult to keep a stony disposition when a smiling toddler is waving profusely and shouting repeatedly “Ahoj pani!” or a 4-year old is selectively bagging the groceries with only the items she’s chosen. Plus, my efforts to communicate in Czech sometimes bring a smile to an otherwise emotionless attendant.

Whenever my family or friends come to visit one of the first things that catches them by surprise is a typical supermarket scene. First, they’re not accustomed to “renting” a grocery cart from a line of chained carts. This custom exists in other European countries and assumes that lazy or rushed customers would leave carts scattered through the parking lot or alternatively attempt to make off with them. Perhaps true, but it causes frustration if you don’t have the correct coin in hand. Having not grown up with this custom, I’m often caught with the wrong coin and have to approach passers-by to exchange my coins for the one I need. During the actual store experience, I’ve had several experiences when I’ve asked a sales clerk to help me locate an item and the clerk has just stared and said, “I don’t know” and given me a withering, “why are you bothering me, lady?” look.

I also remember watching my wide-eyed mother staring in disbelief as a Tesco store clerk ran my groceries rapidly through the scanner into a haphazard pile which she then pushed aside to make room for the next customer who sighed at me in impatience when I had to stop the clerk to request a shopping bag. I had to repeat the process 3 or 4 times before I had all my groceries bagged, since on each occasion the exasperated clerk threw one shopping bag on the counter. The clerk continued sighing louder and louder, but she never made eye contact. My mother, accustomed to living in a small town and knowing the cashier personally, thought the Prague clerk was unbelievably rude, but I tried to assure her the clerk’s actions really weren’t personal.

On recent visit to the Kooperativa car insurance office in Dejvice, I chanced to read the company’s slogan displayed prominently on a banner behind the clerk’s desk. The words were overwhelmingly positive, something to the effect of “We’re glad to welcome you and hope to fulfill your desires.” Hmm, I thought, this could be interesting. However, the clerk’s barked, “What do you need?” and her obvious annoyance about being asked to come out from the back room and perform her job made the banner seem nothing more than a bit of misplaced western marketing.

When the conversation of services comes up among my Czech friends, particularly those in my generation who’ve lived or traveled abroad, most of them are even harder on their country’s pessimist attitude than I am. On a recent weekend get-away with five other Czech moms, the topic of services in restaurants and shopping centers came up. Overwhelmingly, the Czech mothers were disheartened that their country doesn’t offer a corresponding quality of service attitude for the wide range of choices available today in the Czech Republic. When I mentioned this to Radek, he commented that Czechs are by nature complainers, so the attitude actually exists on both sides.

My friend Honza cautioned us from over-criticizing, saying that more beneficial than pointing out the flaws in the system would be a one-on-one educational approach. He claimed that the cynical attitude left-over from communism exists, but that it’s up to those of us living in the Czech Republic who wish for something more, to actually voice our dissatisfaction in a constructive way. For example, he suggested that I tell the supermarket clerk that throwing my items around wasn’t going to speed me up and that if she wanted me to leave in a hurry, she could slow down her pace. On a few occasions, I’ve been bold enough to ask outright if there’s a problem, and I’ve usually found that even this statement sometimes is enough.

Overall, I don’t really believe that the mentality can change overnight, but it’s clear that in some pockets of society a different approach (for better or worse) is already underway. When I went into a Czech store last week to buy a gift for my friend who’s expecting a baby, the salesclerk came from behind the counter and asked, “Are you looking for something specific? Do you need any advice?” When I said I was looking for a gift, she unleashed a string of advice.

While it seemed intrusive and annoying, particularly since I’ve grown used to the Czech hands-off approach and really just wanted to have a look around the shop in silence, on the other hand, it was admirable customer service that I wasn’t used to experiencing in Prague. I don’t really want the Czech Republic to become a mini-replica of over-exuberant customer service, but, perhaps because it’s not customary here, whenever I experience above-the-norm service (a.k.a. a smiling waitress or a gracious shop employee), I’m much more likely to become a loyal customer.

Next week, we’re traveling to America, and I’m certain there are aspects of life there that will seem out-of-place with the life I’m growing used to here, but I’m eager for the chance to balance my perspective, and perhaps return to the Czech Republic thinking just how lucky I am.

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