Sit any number of expats in a room in Budapest and get them talking. Ask them what they least like about living here. The phrase ‘customer service’ will undoubtedly pop out of more than a few mouths. I can’t find any figures to support this claim but a ten-minute reflection on various conversations I’ve had in the past number of weeks leaves me with little doubt.
We all have a view on customer service that is coloured by our experience, where we have lived, and what our levels of tolerance are. When I swing from the semi-robotic, seemingly pre-programmed, smiling service that appears to be the norm in, say, North America, to the dour, hate-my-job, want-to-be-anywhere-but-here servitude that I run in to here on a regular basis, I’m not sure which is worse: happy, clappy Wendy with her ‘have a nice day’ smile or the frozen features of Fuzia.
I was at the post office recently – one of a crowd of 17 (I had time to count). Two employees chatted away ignoring the queue. A third called her mother/aunt/neighbour out of the queue and served her, completely disregarding the dagger looks I was sending her way. No one else seemed all that bothered. The ticket machine ran out of paper – it was Someone Else’s job to replace it and Someone Else was missing. The first stirs of agitation became visible though when the numberless-but-vocal new arrivals were all taken care of while the numbered-but-silent stood fast and watched in something approaching stunned disbelief.
At the polar opposite end of the customer service scale I’ve had the good fortune to eat out at a couple of very upmarket restaurants recently (Costes and Knrdy, if you’re curious) where customer service is regarded with an almost religious-like fervour. I like attention. I like watchful attention, where interruptions are not disruptive, where needs are anticipated, and where I don’t have to play ‘dodge eye contact’ with the wait staff. But it seems as if this costs extra.
No service at all
I tried to buy a washing machine some years ago. I knew the make and model I wanted so I went straight to a white goods shop that specialised in that brand. I had cash. And yet try as I might do you think I could get someone to take my money? We don’t have that model. Can you get it? No. Can I order it? No. Is it a current model? Yes. So why can’t I order it? You just can’t. Do you have anything like it? No. I kid you not.
At Ypsilon Café one night last weekend, a waiter took our order. We were well ahead of the post-Concert posse and the place was nearly deserted. It filled up quickly. Other tables who had come in after us were merrily sipping away while we sat… and sat. Eventually when we asked, again, we were told we hadn’t a hope of being served. They were just too busy.
Service with a smile
But my favourite interaction with customer service in Budapest has to be with the BKV. I’m in the market for a BKV employee selling monthly passes who is approaching pleasant and even slightly tolerant of my abysmal Hungarian. I shop around. My patience was finally rewarded. My chap this month was hilarious. Those of us at the back of the slow-moving queue were treated to all sorts of facially expressive comedy from those up ahead. Whatever they were doing, was creating quite a stir. When I took my turn at the top of the queue, I laughed out loud. The chap seemed either stoned or stocious. By the looks of him, he’d not yet made it home from the night before. He was in great form, full of chat as he watched the hairs on the back of his hand stand to attention. He was actually enjoying his job. Now that sort of hiccup in my service I can tolerate.
First published in the Budapest Times 2 May 2014