German Customer Service

CONTRIBUTED BY LUCY B. you’ve been in Germany for more than 5 minutes, you’ve probably learned the hard way that Germany is not, let’s say… known for its excellent customer service. Everyone has their stories, but here are a few of mine (normally reserved for parties).

  • When I sent my husband out with a small child to buy a Fusssack one winter, he went to a large and well-stocked baby store. There, the saleslady took one look and told him that they didn’t have the right kind of sack for our stroller. He asked if maybe he could take a look at the selection, or maybe if it didn’t work with our strap system, we could just cut a hole in it. “No!” she said, “That would be a waste of my time!”
  • As I was signing my receipt at the drugstore (which still doesn’t give you the option of just typing in your pin number), the checkout lady sighed loudly and declared that my name was too long and it was holding up the line.
  • When we were looking for baby furniture for our second child, I called a large warehouse type of place and asked if they had any baby furniture in stock. Their reply: “I don’t know that! I can’t see what we have in stock because I’m at the info desk!” When I asked if maybe the person could go check what they had in stock, she said, “I can’t leave the info desk. Someone might call.” (And then, I guess she would give them the same amount of ‘info’ she had given me).

You can set out to boycott every establishment that gives you a very negative experience, and end up very quickly with no place to buy your groceries, or you can set out to favor the ones that are better. Believe it or not, there are a few of them, and I think they deserve my business. In the last three-ish years, I’ve figured out a few tricks for getting a more pleasant shopping experience:

  1. Shop at the right time. If you have the luxury of shopping first thing in the morning, go for it. The cashiers are just beginning their shifts and haven’t had a chance to settle into a bad mood yet. Bonus: the shops are not crowded and there’s very little time pressure. At the grocery store on Saturday around 10:30, expect to have your carton of eggs chucked down the chute like a football once they’re rung up. On my Tuesday morning shopping trip this week (same cashier as usual) it was, “Oh, what a cute baby! Take your time, there’s no one waiting.” And I was offered a fist full of World Cup soccer player stickers and parking validation. Double-Bonus: If you go to the bakery in the morning, the goods are fresher.
  2. Head to the farmer’s market. When we first arrived, my husband kept asking me why I favored the farmer’s market so heavily over the supermarket. When I told him that it was because the sellers there are nice to me, he replied, “Well, they have to be because they want you to buy something.” Exactly. If it’s our mid-week market, they’re usually not overwhelmingly busy, either, which gives me a chance to try out my new vocabulary a little (free German practice at the market!) and chit-chat. Bonus: Fresh food right from the source and supporting farmers in what they do.
  3. Patronize small business and sole proprietors. The large, impersonal card shop near us has lots of beautiful wrapping paper and nice gift items, but a very snippy staff. A few doors down, another shop is clearly run by the woman who owns it and she is a treat. She has lovely little things, and since the store is small, she carefully chooses what to stock. I ask her questions, and she’s always helpful, and lucky for me, she also sells cards. The more you visit these places, the more you will be remembered and the more your patronage will be valued. At the farmers’ market, the workers at the stand we usually favor always make recommendations, ask me about my children, offer a free apple, and put a bright spot in our shopping. Bonus: Supporting local business.
  4. Be assertive, but not rude. This is a very, very difficult balance, and I think we’re all working on getting the hang of it. If you don’t speak up in the bakery line and let everyone else jump in front of you, you won’t ever get served. The employees don’t usually consider it their job to referee, so you have to take some responsibility for your own experience. If the server asks who was next, make sure to take your turn by raising your hand or pointing to yourself. .
  5. Speak up. I have twice been given the wrong change for a 20 Euro bill because it is blue, like the 5 Euro bill. On one occasion, the cashier apologized profusely and was clearly embarrassed (honest mistake). Thank goodness, since it’s my favorite bakery, and I don’t want to have to second-guess the employees every time I go in. On the second occasion, in a different bakery, the employee was very disappointed that I noticed and gave me my correct change very reluctantly. There is a new design for the 5 that seeks to reduce confusion, but in the meantime, make sure to count your change before you walk out the door. That said, I never return to a place that has short-changed me twice, whether intentionally or accidentally.
  6. Learn a little German. I know it’s hard to learn a new language, but skipping some of the basics in favor of learning a couple of polite additions may be the best bet. The subjunctive is the height of politeness, so instead of saying “Ich will…”(I want) , or just pointing, try “Ich hätte…” (I would like to have) or “Ich möchte…” (I would like). A few times saying, “Guten Morgen!” before shouting out your order at the bakery go a long way. When they tell you to have a nice day (if you’re that lucky) then say it back to them. Make sure to say “Bitte” and “Danke” and encourage any small children with you to do the same. “Bitte schön” and “Danke schön” are for the best of the best.



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