Expatria · Prague

The Customer is Always Wrong?


Jirka Chapeau and the Czech service motto.


After weeks of great and thoughtful treatment from the Kölners, I finally had a horrible customer service experience. Of course it had to be the telecom man who came to unlock my permanent internet connection, and to date I’m still not connected.

For someone who had been waiting for that morning for three excruciating weeks, I was wholly unprepared for the technician’s visit. I thought the phone jack was in one place, it wasn’t. As I frantically ran around the flat trying to locate it, on the phone with my husband, almost figured it out, the technician up and leaves the apartment as I beg him in my broken German to wait a moment. “Nein moment!” He screams at me as he picks up his case and storms out the flat. “Bitte, bitte, eine moment, eine moment!” I screamed back, feeling like Lola in Run, Lola, Run as she tries to convince her boyfriend not to rob the supermarket. Just as I found the phone jack, hidden behind a tower of boxes as tall as me, I watched the jerk drive away. I wept for two hours straight.

One furious Facebook post later and my stream filled with horror stories of these telecom workers from around the world. I chalked the disaster up to the monopoly they have over their services and the fact that we need them more than they need us. Maybe he was hoping to get paid to come back, but thankfully I didn’t sign the paper he kept shoving in my face. His return visit will be gratis. September 15 is the new switch-on date, and this time I am ready for him. I’m planning to lock the door after he arrives so he can’t run away if he doesn’t do his job. I’ve been too long already without a proper connection.

This encounter got me to thinking about customer service in Prague. When we first moved there the only good customer service experience I had was ironically with the telecom technician. I was in the same situation as a week ago in Köln, didn’t speak the language and didn’t know where the jack was, but the Praguer was very kind and helped me locate it. The cord wasn’t long enough so he fixed it. That was one of very few good encounters I had with a serviceperson in Prague in the four subsequent years living there. Example: My husband had to go and pay rent every month because whenever I would go they would charge me a 50 koruna service fee. Even though I had an account in the bank myself. And I always asked to deposit the money in Czech. Racist much?

In Prague that kind of double standard was normal. Restaurants had two menus with two different prices. One for Czechs and one for everyone else. Even if you spoke a bit of Czech, if you looked like a foreigner then you got the more expensive menu. The service industries are notoriously stern-faced and unhelpful, even to the most polite of people. I never was able to figure out why they treated other human beings with such a lack of respect. The legacies of Communism and hundreds of years of constant occupation probably played some role, the overrunning of annoying hordes of tourists in the city might contribute a sense of frustration, the cruel weather surely doesn’t help, but none of these fully explain how out-and-out mean the people are no matter where you encounter them.

My favourite haunt in Praha, Chapeau Rouge, went so far as to emblazon the Czech service motto of “The customer is always wrong” on the shirts the barmen wear. Very funny, and very true. Interestingly enough, I was one of the few expats/foreigners who got wonderful treatment from the staff at Chapeau Rouge; the inverse of most other people’s experiences there.

Here in Köln, great customer service is generally the case. Within one minute of walking into a shop the people here ask if they can help me find anything. I’m still not quite sure how to say in German, “No thank you, just looking,” but regardless they give me a big smile and reply in English, “Let me know if I can help you, okay?”

At the bank they say, “Good morning, Mrs. Koehler, how can I help you?” At the end of the transaction, “Is there anything else I can do for you today?”

The lady at the cornershop tells me, “Shon tag!”, “Have a great day!”, not just when I go to buy my 5-litre jug of water but even when she sees me walking on the street.

Cue warm fuzzy feeling.

I’m not yet 100% used to being treated like human being again, but it’s getting easier to remember that this is how life should be lived.

Is the customer always right or always wrong where you live?

©2011 Sezin Koehler, photo by Zuzu Arbus


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