Service with a frown? You must be in Prague. Why is it that customer service here is so often substandard and what – if anything – can be done about it?
Every expat has their favorite customer service horror story, whether the staff they encountered were sour-faced, unwilling to be the least bit proactive, or just downright rude. The venue could have been a shop, restaurant or government office. The perpetrator might be young or old, male or female. In the Czech Republic, a basic lack of understanding of the minimum level of courtesy required when dealing with the public seems all too widespread – and it’s costing companies dearly. A survey by telecommunications firm Genesys estimates that Czech businesses lose 1.08 billion US dollars annually because of substandard customer service.
In an article outlining the pros and cons of Prague as a destination for newly qualified TEFL teachers, Chris Westergaard lists poor service amongst the city’s main drawbacks. “Prague has seen massive improvements, but it's not the same as in the UK, US or Canada,” he warns potential TEFL newbies. “It's not horrible, but you will have, at some point, a 'WTF? Oh no she didn't!' moment.”
Many find it therapeutic to share their “WTF moments” on the Expats.cz forums. Take Bluey1’s tale of woe, recounted in a thread titled “The worst customer service experience of my life.” This gentlemen was unceremoniously kicked out of a Thai restaurant in central Prague, apparently for daring to object to being seated next to a toilet when there were other tables available. The waiter allegedly swore at this hapless customer while his colleagues looked on and laughed.
It’s not so much what supposedly happened – and we do only have one side of the story – but the responses from others which caught my attention. What explanations were there for this shockingly aggressive behaviour? Could it stem from the alleged Czech dislike of foreigners? Apparently not. “Learn to speak Czech, and or speak to Czech people, and you will very soon realise, it's not just foreigners that get this,” one person remarked. “The revolution was twenty bloody years ago!” exclaimed another.
And there we have it – the C word. Communism is the common excuse wheeled out by both Czechs and outsiders for shoddy customer service and surly behavior. The theory goes that of course we must understand that for forty years, striving to meet the needs of customers in case they went off to the competition instead was pointless. It was up to you to as a customer to be as nice as possible to your local shopkeeper as that was the only chance you had of getting your hands on some of the better quality products he kept under the counter for the deserving few.
The problem with this argument is that – if you’ll forgive the pun – I just don’t buy it. If I encounter a twenty year old waitress in need of an attitude adjustment – and yes, let’s imagine that I’m living up to my side of the bargain by being polite – then that has nothing to do with a regime which she is too young to have experienced firsthand. And while we’re on the subject of the C word, I for one am tired of everything that is wrong with Czech culture being blamed on its socialist past. The reasons some Czechs get bolshy have, in my view, nothing to do with Bolshevism.
The other explanation I’ve heard given regularly is “cultural differences”. It is possible that some of the treatment which we interpret as impolite – having your glass snatched away only seconds after finishing your drink for example – may in fact be what’s considered efficient service here in this country. I also understand that the Czechs are not a nation to whom smiling comes naturally. What we outsiders see as a facial expression communicating a deep inner despair might just be that person’s normal face. In any case, I think I’m not alone in preferring an honest frown to a fake grin.
It is also true that Czechs are more direct than the British or Americans. As a rule, Czechs don’t sugarcoat things for you either in the personal or professional world – something I’ve come to find refreshing. Eventually. However, those moments of shockingly poor service can’t be dismissed by a simple shrug of the shoulders and a resigned sigh of “It’s just cultural differences.”
So what’s the right reaction? In a post titled ‘The Seeds of a Customer Service Revolution’, blogger Black Girl In Prague advocates a zero tolerance policy. Don’t just sit and stew – make it clear you’re unhappy by asserting yourself and complaining to a manager. This strategy worked in her case – the gym receptionist with a snotty demeanour who had been giving out bad vibes along with the clean towels did get the sack. However, customer complaints aren’t always taken so seriously. To return to Bluey1’s humilating ejection, the email he received from the owner after reporting the incident was less than apologetic. “If you are so ‘extremely disappointed’ with this restaurant, it’s simple. Next time choose some different one.”
If standing up for your rights often fails and whingeing seems too passive, why not try spreading the love instead? If your complaints won’t be heard, perhaps your compliments will. When you experience good service, make sure you let staff know you’re happy. Tell your friends. Write a review of your favorite hangouts on Expats.cz or tell us about them in the comments sections of this article. Let off steam about the bad times on the forums by all means but make use of the power of the internet to share good karma too.
I’ll start. The Prague Stitch and Bitch group have recently begun meeting at a new location – Vypálené koťátko or the Burned Cat – and we’re all delighted with the friendly waiting staff. Děkujeme!