Customer Service Desert

We have a preconceived idea that everything in Germany is super slick and efficient. Indeed, German cars are a testament to that, but there is one area where Germany does let itself down – customer service.

When you have lived in Germany for a while you will hear of the legendary “customer service desert”. For newbies, that is a bewildering statement, as we all know Germany is super organised and highly 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 daily activities such as shopping or eating out are usually a pleasant experience. 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 genial. “So what’s your problem?” I hear you ask. Helplines, call centres, email enquiries and anything else not requiring direct eye contact, that’s my problem!

Globally, 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 as you demand an answer to why they overcharged you, they are highly unlikely to just run away. But try having the same conversation over the telephone and you’ll be on hold for fifteen minutes then mysteriously disconnected.

Sure, this kind of thing goes on in other countries, but you just don’t expect it to happen here. Telephoning most German customer service numbers is most unpleasant as grumpy customer service representatives resort to using reverse psychology tactics to put the blame back onto the customer. That’s worse than back home, where callers generally get patched through to India where brainwashed operators repeat scripted answers albeit in a friendly way.

I once filed a complaint with one of the big airlines because they had tried to double charge me. The customer service representative must have been a relative of Scrooge as he took attitude and misery to a whole new level. He too used his mystical reverse psychology powers to make me feel like I was the guilty party. And I shudder as I recall the time when I had problems with my internet. As usual, the “helpline” was a premium rate phone number, and negotiating the vast array of menu options took several expensive minutes. I was then placed on hold for an eternity following which an abrupt operator demanded to know why I was calling. Being British I, of course, apologized for disturbing her, but that she continued to be aggressive and rude.

Then there are emails. One would think that companies would prefer to receive complaints in this way. Emails borrow time for companies to consider the complaint and respond accordingly without keeping an angry customer on hold at the end of the phone line. But my advice is don’t bother emailing. I’ve emailed many companies for a variety of reasons – complaints, enquiries, confirmations, etc. – yet the response rate was almost zero. How on earth do companies survive with such awful customer support? And before you ask, yes my emails were in German.

Don’t take the lack of service personally though. It’s not because you are an “Auslander”, and the natives get treated to the same torment as the rest of us. The Germans didn’t coin the phrase “customer service desert” for no reason!

My advice is to complain or inquire in person if at all possible as you will save yourself a whole lot of stress. But whatever you do, don’t bother sending an email unless you just want to vent steam and don’t really need a reply!

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