Wednesday, January 23, 2013
After close to two years in Albania, I am still befuddled by the concept of what constitutes good customer service in this country. For the most part I have found the sales clerks (who are often the owners) in neighborhood markets to be exceedingly friendly and helpful, but those working in larger supermarkets and retails establishments are across the board unhelpful at best and rude and hostile at the worst. I have yet to shop at a large grocery store here where I have felt as though customer service has been satisfactory. More often than not questions are met with terse "yes" or more often than not, "no" responses. In what is probably an attempt to deter shoplifting, stores are overly staffed with numerous people who will stalk you through the aisles yet are unable to direct you to the item you are looking for. If something is out of stock no one can ever tell you when more will be available. On more than one occasion I've brought items to the register only to be told I can't buy them because they "aren't for sale". Never mind the fact that the shelves are filled with the said item; if for some reason it can't be scanned, you can't buy it. It is as simple as that. No one ever offers to retrieve a substitute item for you rather they just tell you no. How is that for making you feel welcome?
I don't think I'm alone in assuming you get what you pay for and more and more I find myself willing to pay for good service. This past weekend we stayed at the very nice Le Meridien Hotel in Vienna. As I expected, from check in to check out, room service to concierge, the customer service provided by the hotel was exceptional. Would I have expected the same type of service from a Super 8? Absolutely not. Similarly, I have few expectations for receiving outstanding customer service when I am in a fast food restaurant yet if I am eating in a fine dining establishment I expect the quality of service to match the quality of the food. In Albania, however, this simply isn't the case. Ironically, customer service at byrek stands and other "fast food" establishments is often better than that at sit down restaurants. (I suppose this might be due in part to the owners being the ones who are actually working behind the counter). Smoking in restaurants in Albania is illegal and most restaurants have signs to this effect. This does not deter many people from smoking and if you are the foolish customer who actually requests that other patrons put out their cigarettes you are met with scorn and disdain but restaurant workers and fellow diners alike.
Many restaurants have impressive looking menus that read like novels. You will be presented with page after page of dining options only to have the majority of the food items not available. Seriously, who runs out of pasta at an Italian restaurant? I've eaten out in groups where we've all had to request a couple of separate items before finding something that is actually on the menu. (More than one person has told me that menus are printed with what restaurant owners think their customers want to eat; not with dishes that are actually available). At all but a few of the best restaurants that cater to international clientele, waitstaff are apt to ignore you. Often we have to flag down a waiter to order and again to receive our check. In between it is the exception rather than the rule to have a waiter check on you to see if the food is acceptable or if you need a refill on your drink. When dining in large groups--i.e. any event with four or more people-- it seems to be the norm that at least one dish will not come out to the table with the rest of the food. Or each person will receive their food at a different time resulting in a table full of people actually dining solo with the others looking on. And forget about being a woman and expecting to receive any service. Even caterers in our own home have refused to acknowledge me or the direction I gave them. (Needless to say, we no longer use this restaurant for our catering needs.....)
Not all customer service here in Albania is bad; we have found a few restaurants that have become favorites due in part to their good customer service. Unfortunately, however, these establishments do not seem to be the norm. In our travels through other parts of Europe we've also experienced both good and bad levels of customer service. If nothing else, these collective experiences have taught me that American customer service is actually pretty darn good. Sure, I still get aggravated when I sit on hold for what seems like hours waiting to be served by the "next available representative" or the agent at the other end of the line speaks barely understandable English. Is this frustrating? Yes, but since I don't have to deal with this type of customer service every day I can deal with it. I'd much rather have a pleasant clerk in the check out line at the grocery store, a waiter who doesn't make a point of avoiding our table, and a retail clerk who knows which aisle cup hooks can be found in. Perhaps I am asking too much but I think not.