Thursday, September 15, 2005

On The Mark -- Travels in Russia, Series III: May I Help You?

These are not words you’ll hear very often in Russia, especially in the provinces. I’m not even sure “customer service” translates into the Russian language. It’s quite amazing, really. In the provinces, in the bigger cities that is, you’ll find maybe one (what we call) supermarket, about half the size of your local Vons or Ralphs. Most people shop in smaller markets.

In these markets all of the food items are separated into different sections of the store. So, when you want to buy milk and eggs you have to indicate that to the sales clerk, then go to a cashier, pay, and come back with a receipt that allows you to get your designated items. Then, if you need chicken or fish, you must go to another counter, tell the clerk what you want, go pay for it at the cashier, get a receipt, and go back to the counter to get your items. And so on. It’s quite a ritual.

What makes it harrowing is that the clerks act like you (“you” refers to Russians in this case) just murdered their mothers. They ignore you even though they’re about three feet away over the counter. When they do finally acknowledge you, they give you a “stop bothering me” look. Sometimes they acknowledge you, listen to your order, then walk away like you don’t exist. Then you have to start all over again. Other times they just simply start yelling at you. “How dare you ask me to do anything,” is their attitude. You’ll never see a smile (more on this subject in a later post). You can forget about hearing “thank you.” If you get your products, it’s been a good day, and you should count your blessings.

Russian consumers take all of this in stride. They don’t get frustrated or angry. They don’t yell back (except one male customer that I observed after listening to the female clerk yelling at him for a good five minutes). They simply patiently wait until the bad mood has passed and hope to get their purchase so they don’t have to walk to another store.

The problem, of course, is that the clerks have no incentive to be kind. They make less than 100 USD per month and couldn’t care less if customers come back to their stores (although they also know consumers have few choices) because they have no allegiance to the place where they work.

Forget about shopping on the Internet. Some of the New Russians may be taking baby steps into this area, but the bulk of the population – if they even have telephones, yet alone computers – don’t have credit cards to complete a purchase anyway.

At various times I’ve tried to purchase Coca-Cola Light or bottled water at kiosks that litter the streets. I practice my Russian – shaking in my boots – and try not to return their stares. During my first trips, I took it personally, but now I realize I’m just one among the victims.

One variation – the young (16-20 years of age), female personnel will sometimes smile and present a friendly attitude. They’re at the age where they still have hope for a better life..


The Misanthrope said...

I'm surprised they don't have credit cards considering we are told all of our stolen card numbers end up in Russia.

B2 said...

It's depressing when you read a post about the worst customer service ever, and it sounds agonizingly familiar.