Service with a … hiccup

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.

Bad service

cust serv 3

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.

Good service

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

cust ser 2

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

4 Responses

  1. Hi Mary, read you each week. You are a great writer!! Last year in Budapest I commented on the poor service in off main tourist area shops, baths and cafes. People looked unhappy which is even worse than poor service. We had a great time but felt that some hated foreigners! WE found a bakery around the corner in Buda where we had an apartment. The young girl was helpful and friendly and so we went back. Why not? We popped in every day even when we didn’t need bread/cakes /pastries. Alas, at the baths we had to queue for customer service for things that went wrong and finally gave up on the promises as our days in Budapest ran out. We felt we were imposing on the people. However, our friends in Australia had friends and relatives in Budapest, and these locals showered us with kindness and generosity. They were well mannered and helpful beyond expectations ,which left us with a wonderful memory of the place. A training school in customer service for cafes and shops would boost the economy in the long run. Cheers, Peter Date: Fri, 2 May 2014 09:10:13 +0000 To:

    1. Before we have training though, Pete, we need to see the need – and that’s what missing. Mind you, when I see the behaviour of some of our tourists, I don’t wonder why people might think staff in Budapest shops and cafés don’t like foreigners. It was in Dubai, I think, that I became conscious of the complete lack of awareness of some travellers of the socio-economics of the country they’re visiting. Flashing money around,bargaining down to the point of extortion, and loud exclamations of how better everything is at home makes me wonder why they travel at all. Seeing someone spend what I make in a month on just one meal, day in, day out… that would get to me I think. I wonder if there’s a connection to communism/socialism and that utopian idea of all men being equal. Or perhaps the connection between better service meaning better tips isn’t made because so often the staff don’t get the tips… and then where’s the incentive?

  2. Many “western” expats who have lived for any time in Hungary I suspect will be nodding at your list. But there are reasons for it all. Since you used “North America” as a counter point to some degree, as an American, I can compare at least America-Hungary quite easily:

    – In the US the customer is still often “always right” in many retail stores. And sales people are often on commission. So they will certainly be friendly and helpful as they know putting a customer into a good mood may increase their sales and their income (basic psychology). And “business is business” in the US, so even two people who do not like each other can put that aside to do business that is mutually beneficial financially for each party.

    – In Hungary the customer is a guest in the store. And sales people often only get a very basic and low salary no matter how many sales they do. So why would they make more work for themselves ordering you a special item? Employees have little incentive in Hungary to make a sale, or even to be friendly. In this case you get the best customer service from stores and businesses in Hungary that are self owned and managed (it is in their interest to make sale). Hungarians are also more relationship oriented in business, so they are more willing to even lose your business if they “don’t like you”. If you want service, you are better off getting to “know” people in the store, as relationships are strong here and do get better treatment. That is why the relatives got to “jump” the line at the post office since they knew the clerk at the window.

    On a side note, if you ever read the book “The Man With the Key Has Gone” by Dr. Ian Clark, you will also notice some similarities. Having spent time in Uganda (where the above book was written) I have also experienced the TMWTKHG scenario in Hungary, but was already use to it, but others may not be.

    Not saying one form of “service” is better than the other, they are simply different and how you perceive either is also about one’s own culture and expectations as well. For example, as an American my own bias is I always like to see happy, clappy Wendy with her ‘have a nice day’ smile. Now watch out for it, duck, because here one comes: 🙂

    1. Perhaps there’s a compromise between Wendy and Fuzia… wonder where we’d find her? Thanks for the TMWTKHG tip – will check it out

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