May 13, 2003
Telegraf (Weekly Telegraph), Belgrade
In a few American businesses, small signs
proclaim: “Don’t Ask”, or, “The Answer is No: What’s the
Question?” That’s irony. In fact, US workers generally try hard to
keep customers happy.
I got to thinking about this the other day.
Because here in Belgrade, if they posted such signs, they wouldn’t
be irony. They would be House Rules.
Too often, I find myself having to force
people to make any effort at all. Travel agents gladly announce
there are no seats to my destination. Clothing shops are full of
only one size – usually XXL – and they don’t seem to care that so
many customers leave without buying a thing. In a pharmacy, I ask
for bandages, and they pull out only children’s sizes, then look
at me like I’m an idiot for not accepting those. A local grocery
carries coffee filters but no filter coffee, which makes perfect
sense to the clerks. At the fast food, the pizza is cold, the
pastry is old, but that’s just the way it is. Take it or leave it.
It’s the old communist ways still haunting us.
Of course, I’ve met people here who try hard
to deliver quality, but plenty don’t. In one shop, when I
explained I didn’t know my exact European shoe size, the salesman
brought a box and began walking away. In the US, the clerk helps
the customer put the shoe on, checks to see if it fits, even laces
it up. I pointed this out, then eased my foot into a shoe – and
bumped into a wad of newspaper. I handed it to him. He smiled:
“Welcome to Serbia,” he said.
Bad service creates a vicious cycle.
Employees are glum in part because they are poorly-paid. They are
also not trained to interact with customers, not encouraged to
treat customers particularly well, not given any incentive to do
so. So customers come and go without buying anything -- the result
being low sales, hence low profits for the owner, hence low
salaries. And so, we are back at the glum employee.
One Serbian friend of mine here explained it
to me this way: “Most employees here measure their success by
disposing of matters.” According to this theory, a transaction
has gone satisfactorily if a customer arrives, is greeted, asks
for something, is told that the desired good or service is not
available, and leaves. Case Closed.
To be fair, employees in Serbia are victims
too. Bosses see them as feudal laborers – easily accused and
easily fired, with few rights. That of course produces the worst
possible situation: employees simultaneously in fear of their
bosses and contemptuous of their clients.
Still, workers can do a lot to break the
cycle. Even stingy bosses won’t want to lose employees who
increase profits by increasing sales. Productivity rewards are not
Personally, I’ve learned you CAN get most
anything in Belgrade – right-sized clothing, hot and fresh food,
bus tickets at a desirable hour on a desirable date. It’s the
positive attitude that’s in short supply.
My local friends accept this because they’re
used to it. I’m not, so I wrestle a little bit with each wrongdoer
until I start to see a spark of life. I point out that unless one
is a sadist and only happy when others aren’t, it feels good to
give people what they want.
I ran into the shoe salesman three months
later, and he remembered our chat. He assured me he was becoming more
attentive. And, he added, finding the experience strangely
enjoyable. But, he said, “slowly, slowly.” Then he grinned.
“Welcome to Serbia.”