If there’s one thing I can say for my home country, it’s that customer service is, for the most part, such that you leave feeling as though you “won” the encounter. This is largely because of all the lawsuits and sue-happy freaks who will descend on you if you don’t cater to their every whim, and while it has created a “friendly” service environment where the staff are always smiling and helpful (for the most part), customer service around the world varies. By a lot. As you begin to explore other countries around the world, you’ll find yourself coming up against the good, the bad, and the downright horrific. You either learn to roll with the punches, or go home crying.
I’d already been living in Bulgaria for a couple of years before I had a truly “bad” experience, and by that point I thought I had been pretty hardened to the customer service of Eastern Europe and the Mediterranean after 12+ years traveling there on top of living in the region.
For those of you who haven’t been, the basic store operates as such: you walk in, and the workers are mostly either smoking cigarettes, on their cell phones, or browsing something on the computer. If you ask them a question, you are either answered curtly, with no pretense of smiling or friendliness, or you are outright ignored. If you don’t bring exact change, you are ignored, or you will be asked to come back later when you have exact change. The overall attitude is “I’m only here because I have to be, and I’m not going to give you any service because…well, because fuck you, that’s why”.
It’s worse in the old Communist countries where the older generation (50+) automatically hate anyone who hails from the United States due to cultural brainwashing back in the day (similar to how anyone from the U.S. who grew up in the previous generation fears Russians, or in the current generation, fears anyone from the Middle East). Long story short, I had just purchased a laptop (the same one I’m using now, actually) and a laptop bag and had gone home, only to find that the laptop didn’t fit into the bag; they had sold me one that was an inch too small. So the next morning I went back to the store with my receipt to exchange it for a slightly larger bag.
Upon arrival, I presented my receipt plus the bag to the attendant, which prompted her to call her manager. Who obviously had better things to do because she came storming down the stairs with her face all scrunched up and yanked the bag out of my hand while snapping at the girl, “What is the problem?” I explained (at the same time as the girl behind the counter) that it was too small and I simply needed to exchange it for a new one, to which the manager promptly replied, “Well, you obviously didn’t try hard enough.”
I’m not usually one to be struck speechless. I almost always have a witty comeback. But in this case…it was a first. I just stood there, slack-jawed and feeling my blood curdle a little, while the manager stalked off, grabbed the laptop model I had purchased the day before…and then spent the next five minutes trying to shove it with all her might into the bag. Complete with grunts and muttered cursing. When it finally was proven that the bag was indeed too small, she handed it off to the first girl and stomped back up the stairs…all without a further word (much less a glance) to me.
I had similar experiences throughout most of Eastern Europe in my 6 years of traveling there and 2.5 years of living in Bulgaria, although that was by far the worst. Several times I was asked to come back later when I didn’t have exact change; that only happened during my first year of traveling there. After that, I made sure to save all my coins and smaller bills for those “you never know when” situations so I didn’t have to leave and come back.
Colombia, on the other hand, has been one of my most pleasant experiences out of all the countries I’ve visited. Rather than the faked (forced) politeness out of fear of being sued in the United States (or having some hipster 99%er freak out over not getting their way and their 1st place medal just for being born) and the cold indifference of Eastern Europe, everyone in Colombia was just plain friendly.
I had one shop owner close up shop after I simply asked where I could find a shoe-repairman. He literally closed down and then took me on a 45 minute walk around the local neighborhood, showing me all the local eateries, the banks, the ATMs, the key-makers, the seamstress, the furniture-guy, the carpenter…all of whom were his local friends and who he was happy to support through referred clientelle.
Meanwhile, here in Mexico I’ve seen both sides. Before I learned Spanish, it was a 50/50 chance I’d get someone who was genuinely friendly or someone who was “fuck you gringo, go home”. Once I got Spanish under my belt, however, I’ve yet to have a bad customer service experience here….although I’ve had to learn how to roll with the mordida system of pre-tipping people to get them to get things done in a reasonable manner. Some call it bribery, but really it’s just an express fee.
Even though customer service might seem like it is the “best in the world” in the United States, there is an uglier side to the “customer is always right”. And that is the hipster generation of entitled lowlifes who actually think that just because they are a customer they have the right to be right 100% of the time, no matter what. And because the laws of the country have catered to this type of customer for so long, you now have businesses who are terrified of getting sued so they bow to the whim of customers, no matter how ridiculous.
And if they don’t, you have instances such as this freak of nature who exploded at the drive-through in McDonald’s because they weren’t serving chicken McNuggets yet because it was still too early. Best part of the video? When she screams, “Don’t make me assume my ultimate form!” (Video is NSFW!)
This has also directly led to most Americans being viewed with disdain outside of their own country when traveling abroad, because they make the absolute worst types of clients when visiting restaurants, hotels and beyond. Because they are used to the extreme end of “the customer is always right”, they’ve been brainwashed into believing that they have an inherent human right to be right, 100% of the time.
As a result, you’ll see Americans (and Brits to some degree) leaving some of the most ridiculous reviews on places like TripAdvisor. Comments such as, “The staff didn’t smile at me sufficiently” or “the bowl of fruit wasn’t fresh enough” or “they had white towels and I wanted brown towels”, all associated with low ratings for the establishment because the customer wasn’t satisfied with something or another. Usually things which have absolutely nothing to do with the service being offered by the company. Honestly…the staff not smiling enough?
Think I’m joking about that one? “No melon is ever ripe enough for people on TripAdvisor,” says travel analyst Jared Blank. “There are hotels that rate in the top five in the world, and people are still complaining. I’m always shocked by the comments: from the quality of the fruit, to the mobile-phone reception on an island in the middle of nowhere, to whether the person on the front desk was smiling sufficiently upon their arrival. It blows my mind.” You can read the full article, as well as my own take on the nature of the industry, here: Review Sites – The Good, The Bad and The Ugly.
What’s ironic is that all of my Mexican, Bulgarian and Colombian friends have always said the same thing about the customer service in the United States: “It’s the best in the world. Everyone is always smiling and it’s just so damned efficient and everything always works and everyone is always on time!” What they don’t see is the uglier side of the how and why the system is the way it is…or the extremes. Just as I’m sure most don’t always see the extreme side of bad customer service, such as what I fell prey to in Bulgaria a few years back.
Consequently, I don’t believe in the “customer is always right” approach, because guess what: the customer isn’t always in the right. Sometimes the customer is a condescending prick who deserves to be treated accordingly, and sometimes they are as shown above in the McDonald’s video. Just because you breathe doesn’t mean you are “right”, and in my mind businesses do not have an inherent responsibility to make you feel good about yourself. They have a simple requirement to provide you with the service or produce they tell you they have. Nothing more and nothing less.
What about you? Do you have any horror stories in customer service to share? Or any “above and beyond” stories on the flip side, such as my above-and-beyond impromptu tour guide in Bogota? What are your thoughts on the subject? Let me know in the comments below!