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.

cust serve 4We 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 3I 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 2I 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

Value added

It used to be cash or cheque. Then it moved to cash or card. Now the payment lingo has moved up a notch to with invoice or without. I doubt there’s a country in the world (except maybe Switzerland) where the invoice question doesn’t rear its head when it comes to making a purchase. Okay, I’m not talking supermarket stuff; I’m talking services.

You get someone in to paint your house and you pay cash. You get someone to fix your car. Ditto. You go to a flea market or an antique fair and buy some furniture. Same applies. You don’t worry about whether or not they’re paying taxes. That’s their business, not yours. And if you’re one of those strange beings who actually prefer to do things above board, asking for an invoice in some situations can make you look a little deranged. I know. I’ve had the look…the look that is usually accompanied by raised eyebrows and a snort of derision. Well, of course you can have an invoice… if you really want one.

And the cogwheels turn. Why would anyone want to willingly pay the tax due (in Hungary, the valued added tax, familiar to all as áfa, is a whopping 27%), if it’s possible to get can get away with not paying it? The world is rife with tax evaders. Take out the bad boys (and girls), the ones for whom greed is the bottom line and lining their pockets at the expense of the nation is their end goal, and then ask why people choose to evade their taxes.

Because they’re ridiculously high? Because the money paid in taxes doesn’t go where it should go? Because people simply can’t afford to pay the full whack? Because it’s difficult, if impossible, to turn any sort of meaningful profit if you do it all by the book?

I’m not a taxation specialist. I lay no claim to understanding the economics of it all. But it would seem to me that if VAT and the accompanying taxes are so high, then a country should have a great infrastructure, a grade A healthcare system, and an education system that is world class. But sadly this is rarely the case. Is it a mission impossible? Winston Churchill might have been right in his contention that ‘for a nation to try to tax itself into prosperity is like a man standing in a bucket and trying to lift himself up by the handle’.

And if high taxes are putting people off paying them, why not lower the taxes so that everyone who should be paying pays. And if someone wants to do it all by the book, then why penalise them for their efforts?

Yes…you’ve guessed. I’ve noticed the new BKV charges.

The price of a monthly travel pass has been reduced to 9500 huf (~€31 / $42). Great news, I thought. What’s to complain about? But if you want an invoice…then you get to pay 10,500 huf (€35/$47).  The mind boggles.

valueaddedFirst published in the Budapest Times 17 January 2014

The Murphy Ultimatum

It’s her or me. There’s not room in this city for both of us. Either she goes, or I go. End of story.

I’m not one usually given to ultimatums. Personal history had taught me that in the war between either and or, or usually wins. And if or wins, I lose. So I go quietly along my way, occasionally raising my head above the parapet when I come across something untenable. And when the untenable moves further up the alphabet and becomes unbearable, I leave. Or I quit. Or I declare the person responsible persona non grata. But I don’t resort to ultimatums.

In his Devil’s Dictionary, my old friend Ambrose Bierce defines an ultimatum as ‘a last demand before resorting to concessions’. But I’m way beyond conceding. This woman’s presence is driving me demented.

Putting credibility at stake

You know of whom I speak? The new voice of BKV. The one that tells you to connect here for Metro Line 1, 2 or 3. Or for the railways. Or for the suburban railways. Let’s be clear: I have nothing against the woman personally – whoever she is. I’m sure she’s a lovely person who is doing what she can to earn a forint or two in a city where ready money doesn’t come easily. What I am objecting to is BKV’s decision to have a non-Hungarian announcer on its transport system.

I didn’t come to Hungary to hear the dulcet tones of a British announcer over the PA system. Yes, it helps to hear it in English, but give me good old accented English any day. I’m in Hungary. I’m not in the UK. I don’t need the added grief of having to double-check my whereabouts every time this petal makes an announcement.

Holding hypocrisy at bay

How hypocritical, I hear some of you say. Am I not the one first in line to complain about the incorrect use of English in this fair city of ours? Am I not the one who finds it difficult to trust the quality of food in a restaurant that offers chicken stripes and cucumber soap on the menu? Am I not the one waging a none-too-silent war against apostrophe abuse? Én vétkem, én vétkem, én igen nagy vétkem. I am guilty on all three counts.

Ergo, shouldn’t I be happy that the BKV has seen fit to partially compensate for the less-than-stellar English it used to feature on its notices and signs by employing a native-English speaker to make announcements …  in English?

Perhaps. But I’m not. I feel robbed. I feel cheated. I feel misled. And, of course, this somewhat irrational response to what researchers would credit to be a move in the right direction – i.e. the main road to credibility – has me second-guessing myself.

Rationalising with research

A couple of years ago, researchers from the University of Chicago (Shiri Lev-Ari and Boaz Keysar), ran some experiments testing the correlation between credibility and the difficulty in understanding a non-native speaker. They talk of ‘processing fluency’ and ‘processing difficulty’. In a nutshell, they posit that most non-native speakers have an accent and that having an accent could make them seem less credible for two reasons:  (1) The accent is a signal that the speaker ‘doesn’t belong’ and (2) it makes the speech harder to process.  In the case of an accent being a signal, the researchers say that it is the prejudice of the listener and not the accent itself that impacts credibility. This I can buy. They also say that people tend to believe non-native speakers less because they are simply more difficult to understand. mmmm… I wonder.

So, back to her nibs on the tram.

Discovering what lies beneath

Her English is perfect (even if her hammed pronunciation of Moritz Zsigmond tér grates on my usually deaf nerves). Her accent is native. Her speech is faultless. And yet I have trouble believing that I’m in Budapest and that if I get off at Ferenc Korut (oops, I meant Corvin Negyed), I can connect to Metro Line 3. Why do I find this so irritating?

Given that some Hungarians speak more accurate English than many native-English speakers I know, I just can’t see the sense in this. Not being one to shy away from a little navel gazing, I devoted a full 13 minutes to figuring out what was at the root of my antipathy. And it’s simple…really. Borrowing an analogy from a wise man I met recently in Palm Springs, I don’t want Europe (and Hungary) to go the way of the American melting pot where cultures combine to form a hybrid and no-one is really sure who they are any more. I would rather see it adopt Canada’s mosaic approach: individual countries forming a lovely picture, each retaining its individuality. Let’s not cross the narrow line between assimilation and obliteration.

First published in the Budapest Times 31 August 2012

Hat tip to Craig at Clearing Customs for alerting me to this study.

Saps and saplings

I have amused myself to the point of inanity in recent months trying to work out a pattern to BKV’s seemingly random staffing of controllers at my local metro station. Just when I felt I was on the brink of some major discovery, after nearly five months of mental note-taking and complex calculations, they’ve disappeared. And they left without even saying goodbye. For two days now, I’ve had to brave the escalators into the wider world without their customary cheery jó reggelts and köszönöms. I feel like my right arm has been cut off… the one that’s itching to wear one of those armbands.

I’ve heard tell of those who’ve passed through the jegyellenőr gauntlet with the same ticket twenty times or more; or those who’ve travelled for weeks on an expired pass. So I have to wonder what exactly is it that my friends with the armbands think they’re controlling. I’m not the first to wonder why the BKV doesn’t just install ticket machines at metro stations. Or have front-entry buses? And I certainly won’t be the last sap to ask why not? So why not?  

Sledges, skis or saplings?

Don’t get me wrong. I’m a great fan of the BKV. I really am. It’s one of the best public transport systems I’ve encountered in my travels. Its detractors should trying living in cities where buses travel in bunches, if they travel at all, or where timetables express hope rather than intent. Perhaps we’re both on the same cycle but I’ve rarely, if ever, had to wait more than five minutes for a bus, tram or metro to come get me. There are clocks to tell me exactly how long I can expect to be kept waiting. The journey planning tool on the website has demystified Budapest for me making even the remotest parts accessible. And the English-language instructions about what I can carry with me are simple and to the point: one sledge, one pair of skis, one wrapped sapling tree or a pram.

Back in the early days when, although a seasoned traveler, I was a BKV novice, I thought that as long as I stayed underground my ticket was valid. I changed lines and didn’t validate a second ticket. I was nabbed at Nyugati, my book of tickets confiscated, and demands made on me for my passport and 5000 ft. I had neither. I asked to go to an ATM to get the money and by the time I got back, the lady with the armband (the one I’m itching to wear) had vanished. I reckoned I owed the universe about 3000 ft (the fine minus the cost of a book of tickets), a debt I duly discharged using the next homeless man I met as my broker. It wasn’t an experience I particularly wanted to repeat. So, after calculating that I’d cover the cost of my pass by Day 17 (I can be a little dim at times), I decided to cross over to the other side of the tracks and go the Havi Budapest-bérlet route. I also corrected that unwitting mistake I made when first recounting this story: my ticket wasn’t inspected…I was controlled!

Off tramway

My pass is like a front-row ticket to a series of vignettes played out in front of me at least once a day. As the controllers board and take a minute to get in costume, the actors take their cues. The martyred monthlies sigh in exasperation as they root through their bags and pockets, annoyed that their respectability is being called into question. Those on the precipice of pensiondom frown slightly, adding those all important extra wrinkles in their attempt to look just a little beyond the magic age of 65. Those who have already passed this mark smile a peculiarly self-congratulatory smile that admonishes ‘you, too, can travel for free when you’ve clocked up as many miles as I have’. The pubescent plugged-ins barely miss a beat as they languidly show their passes. And then there are the dodgers; highly skilled performers of a different kind.

The starers simply stare, be it out the window or into space or at their shoes, hoping the controller won’t be too persistent. The diversionists get on their mobiles and launch into a very important business call from which they cannot possibly be disturbed. The magicians disappear out of one carriage and reappear in another. The expressionists look amazed at the fact that their passes have expired. The innocents smile and simper…and make like tourists. It’s a Mecca for the method actor.

But because I’m concentrating on not behaving in a way which is scandalous or antisocial, and because I don’t get to wear an armband, I’m relegated to sitting quietly with my wrapped sapling tree and enjoying the performance.

This article first published in the Budapest Times 22 November 2009