Although the U.S. offers its share of great customer service, Japan is the best place that I have lived where customer service reigns supreme. “Irrashaimase!”, as any who has entered a Japanese restaurant or sushi-bar hears, is the ubiquitous greeting welcoming new customers as they enter an eating establishment. From there, the hospitality and service blooms and improves. Whether it is the waitress running to get the pitcher of green tea or sake or the warm hand towel that is placed in front, so that you can wash and freshen up, the Japanese know how to treat their customers like royalty. Sadly, that doesn’t exist in Germany.
When I first asked my teacher the German translation for customer service, she replied, “Customer service.” Our class laughed, but that should have been the clue, and we should have cringed. Walk into any German department store or shop and it is rare that someone greets you. Try to find a salesperson at department stores like Kaufhof, Karstadt, or Peek and Cloppenberg to pay for a purchase, and they are usually nowhere to be found. The salepersons usually stand behind a counter talking on their cellphone, talking to other salepersons, or trying to hide behind rows of WMF knives. They avoid eye contact with shoppers or rarely approach shoppers to ask if they need assistance.
Today I stopped in the Galleria Kaufhof at the Hauptwache to look for some linen place mats. As I walked through the housewares section, looking at different items, not a single salesperson approached or asked if I needed assistance, which I did. When I finally managed to find a saleslady over by the glasswares, she was standing by the wine glasses staring into space with a look of boredom and apathy. As I approached her, she looked right through me: no greeting, no eye contact, no acknowledgement that another human being was within her presence. After I said, “Entschuldigung Sie bitte; koennen Sie mir helfen?” she didn’t answer, but her expression was loud and clear: “Why are you bothering me? I don’t want to help you. Why can’t you let me daydream in peace about my six weeks of vacation that I am entitled to take any day now? Whether I help you or not, I still get paid and I still get my vacation.” Normally, I would have allowed her sour mood to affect me, but for some reason, I didn’t this time. Maybe it was the festive Christmas music streaming throughout the store. But no matter what the cause, I didn’t react to her. Instead I ignored her unpleasantness, her rudeness and just peppered her with my questions, talking to her as if I could not see how uncomfortable she was or how she, obviously, didn’t want me to interrupt her peace and quiet. Why does she work in a service industry when she obviously has no desire to provide service to customers? For that matter, why do so many Germans who work in a ‘service’ industry lack any aptitude, skill or even feigned interest in customer service?
Obviously, I am not being completely fair comparing Japan, the epitome of customer service, to Germany, where even the word doesn’t exist in the language. But come on, I don’t expect salespersons to throw bouquets at me when I enter a store or carry my shopping bags to the front of the store and bow to me as I leave (as they do in Japan), but a little smile, a greeting or eye contact surely isn’t going to kill anyone?