Customer Service Desert

I think we all have this preconceived perception that absolutely everything in Germany is super slick and incredibly efficient. Indeed, German cars are probably the best testament to that, but there is one field where Germany lets itself down in a big way – customer service.

When you have lived in Germany for a while and the locals have started to open up to you, they will tell you of the legendary “customer service desert”. For newbies, that is a bewildering statement, as we all know Germany is nothing but teutonically efficient, right?

You need to have lived in Germany for a few months or more to encounter that proverbial desert, but believe me it is a very real and baron place which can test the patience of a Saint and the stamina of an athlete. Sure, most day-to-day activities such as shopping or eating out are generally a pleasant experience, and even the government departments are not as bad as they are in some countries. In fact, face to face interactions are on the whole quite pleasant. “So what’s your problem, Si?” I hear you ask. Help lines, call centres, email enquiries and anything else that does not require direct eye contact, that’s my problem!

The digital age has removed a layer of interaction that is only possible with face to face communication. When someone is standing in front of you when you demand to know why you were overcharged, they are highly unlikely to do a runner. Try having the same conversation over the telephone then you are likely to find yourself conveniently disconnected fifteen minutes after being put on hold and transferred around the entire office. Don’t even get me started on emails…

Sure, this kind of thing goes on in other countries, but you honestly just don’t expect it to happen here. I have found telephoning many German customer service numbers such an incredibly demeaning affair, much more so than I experienced at home, although I suppose the problem there they just patch you through to a call centre in India where the operators have been brainwashed into repeating a script in an annoyingly pleasant way.

I once filed a complaint with one of the big airlines because they had tried to double charge me, but I swear the guy I spoke to on the phone must have had a 666 birthmark and horns as he was the meanest customer service rep I have ever spoken to. What’s more, he seemed to use some kind of reverse psychology to make me feel like I was the guilty party! And then there was the time when I had problems with my internet. As usual, the “help line” number was not toll-free but a very expensive premium rate and just getting past the vast array of menu options took several expensive minutes, after which I was put on hold for what felt like a month of Sundays. When I did get through, the operator seemed so put out by my call that I actually apologized for disturbing them!

You would think that companies would be happy to receive communications by email as there is more time to study the contents and send an appropriate response without having to directly face an angry customer. My advice is don’t bother. In the past I have sent emails to many companies for a number of reasons – complaints, enquiries, confirmations, etc. However, the response rate was pitiful, less than five percent I would say. The worst offenders are the companies who have no contact numbers or email addresses on their websites, just an online form which obviously is just for show and invariably ends up lost in cyberspace along with all other virtual junk. I seriously do wonder how such companies survive. Only last week, I emailed several driving schools to enquire about course, but over a week later I have had just one response. And before you ask, yes my enquiries were in German…

Don’t take the lack of service personally though – the natives are subjected to the same torment as the rest of us, and like I mentioned above, it was them who coined the phrase “customer service desert”, not me! All I can say is if you have a complaint or enquiry about something, try to do it face to face before telephoning as you will save yourself a whole lot of stress. But whatever you do, don’t bother sending an email unless you are just venting steam and really don’t want a reply!

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