Krakow Chronicles: Customer Service

Those of you who have spent any time in Poland will probably have noticed something about Polish customer service: it’s pretty lousy. Of course, there are many exceptions to this generalization. But that is precisely what they are: exceptions. During a typical week of shopping, bill-paying and visiting government departments, we are all too likely to encounter apathy, laziness, boredom and even downright rudeness.

Firstly, a tip for the tourists, refreshing themselves perhaps in the Main Square. Your time is precious. Don’t waste it waiting for the three waitresses chatting idly by the till to deign to serve you. Each waitress has her own tables – and you’re on the wrong table. Even frantic hand waving will result merely in the kind of thousand-yard stare that leads you to question both the girl’s eyesight and your actual existence upon the planet. But look at it from her side: why should she help you when it’s much, mush easier to ignore you? And remember that when you finally do get served, it’s as well to ask for the bill straight away – that is if you want to get to the Salt Mine today, not tomorrow.

But having thrown the book at Polish customer service, let us not immediately throw away the key. Rather, let us first examine the case(s) for the defence. Firstly, Poland is still, in many ways, emerging from a centrally planned, communist command economy, which shut up shop barely a generation ago. The concepts of free trade, competition and customer service all need time to take root within the collective consciousness. It’s a fair point – and to prove it you need merely take a walk to your local street kiosk. There, as in most other countries of the world, you might expect to make contact – eye contact – with the proprietor of the establishment. Instead, you are greeted merely by endless rows of cigarettes. And it is only after having been exposed to such subtleties of emerging market capitalism that you notice the small dark hole beneath. It is here that you must supplicate yourself to the All-powerful Keeper of Cigarettes and Bus Tickets, who crouches, troglodyte-like, inside. They have it; you want it. That’s customer service, Central European style.

Me being me, of course, I refuse to bow down to such low tricks. Consequently, any transactions I am forced to make involve me addressing myself to sun-bleached packs of Lucky Strike. Although it can be frustrating and takes me twice as long to get what I want, I rest easy in the knowledge that I am completely in the right. Indeed, I am confident that kiosk designers have already noticed my corrective attitude and I fully expect the kiosks to be redesigned in a more customer-friendly manner within a matter of months.

Of course, were I a little shorter none of this would be necessary and I would be able to see just how charming and friendly the kiosk-dweller actually is. Maybe I’ve been missing out all this time. Because I love to see a smile on a shop assistant’s face. Really I do. But unfortunately they’re about as rare as pubs that actually do serve “until the last customer”. And here the Polish defence calls its second witness: an excuse for a common lack of humanity which has been repeated to me many times by Poles themselves: shop and government workers rarely smile because – duh! – they’re at work! The inference being that nobody actually likes their job, and because you’re at work you must therefore be miserable, so what should the customer expect? Just be glad you get served at all!

I disagree. Surely, as a customer (the guy with the money), I have a right not to be made to feel guilty for someone’s educational underachievement and/or existential crisis. However, I fully sympathise with anyone working the Saturday night-Sunday morning graveyard shift at 24-hour off-licence/delicatessens. (Had Dante been Polish and not Italian, he would surely have described a tenth circle of hell, illuminated by the cold half-light of dawn and populated by confused, mumbling souls condemned to wander for all eternity in search of potato chips and alcohol.)

In the end, is it so impossible to brighten up the day with a smile and a friendly attitude? It doesn’t have to be false. The tepid English “Hello, sir. And how are you today?” or the ubiquitous American “Have a nice day!” are regarded by many Poles as meaningless insincerities and we are, perhaps justifiably, derided for them. But we’ve all got to get through our days one way or another and, rather than be greeted with a blank expression, scowl or grimace from my fellow man, I’d much rather both give and receive courtesy, respect and a nice big smile.

Selected pieces by John Marshall may be found at at krakowjohnradio.blogspot.com.

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