As a seasoned American expat, living in Frankfurt, I feel very thankful to be experiencing a different culture, learning a different language and enjoying (sometimes) an environment different than I grew up with. However, with the good comes also the not-so-quite good. For all the positive things I love about living in Germany – better quality of life, ubiquitous mass transit, German beer, wine and sausages, ideal location in the heart of Europe – there are still things that drive me nuts about this country. One in particular, which continues to baffle me and other expats, on a daily basis, especially when we have to shop, is the lack of customer service. Everybody knows what bad service is, don’t they? It’s like pornography, you can’t describe it, but when you see or experience it, you know it. I experienced another bad service again yesterday, at Muji on Kaiserstrasse in downtown Frankfurt.
For those not yet familiar with Muji, it’s a Japanese store that carries simple and streamlined products including stationary, organizers, candles, as well as clothing and other home furnishings. Muji has a presence all over the world and they pride themselves on the ‘less is more’ principle of design. However, each time I have shopped in their stores in Japan, Great Britain, Singapore, France, Hong Kong or even Korea, their customer service was always ‘more’ welcoming and ‘more’ attentive than other similar retail shops. Sadly, somewhere between Tokyo and Frankfurt, their customer service commitment seems to have taken a plunge.
Yesterday, I stepped into Muji Frankfurt, attracted by a display of candles near the front of the door. Unlike the other Muji stores that I have been in, which tend to occupy larger retail areas, the store in Frankfurt is narrow, small and cozy. I stood in front of the candles, picking up different types of candle jars to decipher which scent I preferred. As I was holding one in my hand, reading the bottom of the glass, a young woman stepped directly in front of me, separating me from the shelf of candles. Her interruption forced me to step backwards to avoid her hair ending up in my mouth. I thought, “Geeze, how rude. Why don’t Germans say ‘Please excuse me.’ before stepping in front of someone? Had I been in an English-speaking environment, I would have reacted immediately with a “Ah, excuse me, but I would prefer to smell the candles and not your hair. Would you mind moving out of my way PLEASE?” Unfortunately and because I am not a native-German speaker, I rarely say anything when Germans are rude or do something so contrary to how I was raised. Again, as a foreigner I bit my tongue and said nothing. As I stared at the back of her shirt, which was irritating my nose, I thought to myself, “Why are some German so rude? Why the frequent lack of consideration for others?” I took a step to my right, cleared my throat and that’s when I saw that she was holding a sheet of paper with a bunch of numbers on it. Unbelievable: Instead of being a rude customer, as I had originally suspected, she was one of the staff! She never acknowledged me or looked back at me. She expected me to step out of her way, even if she had to trample me in the process. She was completely oblivious to my presence or the fact that I was trying to select a candle jar to purchase. She was so intent on her sheet of numbers and trying to match it to the candles or whatever her task was that nothing else came into her vision, even when she could probably feel my breath hyperventilating with anger on her back. Is this what they call customer service in Germany, a ubiquitous state of perceptual blindness? And if she has it, what is she doing working in a customer service field such as retail for a Japanese company? I expect more from a retailer, especially Japanese one. If anyone knows the management of Muji Frankfurt, please let me know. I would love to share with them some clues on how they can improve their customer service training for their staff. Yes, ‘less is more’, but not necessarily in customer service.