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Case Solved
May 13, 2003

Nedeljni Telegraf (Weekly Telegraph), Belgrade

by Russ Baker


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 unimaginable.    

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.”



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