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Oct 5, 2010

We have met the enemy and he is the customer

The Twitter stream from a colleague taking the train back to Berlin after the ProZ conference in Prague was unexpected and shocking. German railway employees assaulting unarmed Czech passengers, abusing them ever more loudly as their confused, embarassed victims waited for the boot to descend and the police arrive, which they finally did to back up their uniformed brothers from Deutsche Bahn. Only spirited resistance by other passengers and reminders that Kundenservice doesn't always mean serving your customer's head on a platter finally caused the uniformed tormenters to relent. Service is a foreign word, taken prisoner to do duty where no native word for the concept exists, and when it comes time to enjoy this serrvice, one is too often reminded that Deutschland ist kein Einwanderungsland, especially not for such ideas.

Face it, customers are the enemy. Isn't that so? My business isn't Burger King. How dare they presume to have it their way! You don't have to be a German railway employee to understand what a bother these people are, disturbing our perfect routines with their perfectly unreasonable projects. Vee muss train zem. Kundenerziehung. Now that's a word to export along with all those Mercedes cars and cool machine tools. Maybe it can come in a boxed set with a leather corset and a whip.

It's simply too much to ask that we recognize, accept and forgive the human fallability of our customers. That we forego the opportunity to enlighten them with brutally frank commentary on their second language competence and offer to let them kiss our college class rings in exchange for the grammar lesson. Emotional intelligence is a moron from Oxy when you're right.

Years ago, Mike (a consulting customer of mine) told me about his "big break" as a salesman for some sort of parts. His stuff was simply the best. Best quality, best price, best delivery time. Probably bore God's Own Seal of Approval, too, since he was in Oklahoma at the time. But the purchasing agent at the prospect was simply too stupid to realize that he and his company were missing out on the real deal. Mike tried for years to get that account, but the dummies just kept buying inferior stuff from the competition. And all the while he had to listen to the puchasing agent's piteous whining, his inferiority complex about being whupped by his brother-in-law at bass fishing. Finally, Mike couldn't stand it any more and brought him a package of his favorite rubber worms and explained how to hook and use them. The next time Mike visited, the guy surprised him with an order and bored him to tears with the tale of the jaw-dropping bass he caught the day bro-in-law got skunked. And he kept on ordering after that. But what did the customer learn about the better product he was now buying? Not a damned thing. Don't be like Mike. Teach your customers a lesson!


9 comments:

  1. I noted this with interest (when seeing the Tweets at the time) and being pretty surprised.

    I can't but think that this was an exceptional situation. Surely, it's a little early for the plans advised re English announcements to have already been implemented? http://forum.spiegel.de/showthread.php?t=20740

    The Bahn has, in my random experience, progressed. During a recent trip, I remember a charming lady boarding a train in Dusseldorf, smiling and bellowing: "Evening ladies and gentleman. Hasn't it just been a wonderful afternoon? Unfortunately, you've got to put up with me now, as I need to see your tickets!" She almost got a round of applause - certainly a round of smiles. During the same trip, an officious Bahn waiter in the 'club car' haughtily approached me to announce that I had underpaid at the bar. I informed him that he was wrong and that - if anything - I had been undercharged. I settled up the missing 80 cents and as he ambled off, remarked loudly to mywife "They really should train their staff better", which caused no mean amount of laughter around us.

    In my experience, customer service (notably in retailing) is better and more polite in Germany than here in the U.K.

    And if all else fails, you can always resort to what seems to work in serious Germany - either taking names (i.e. public servants like the railways) or demanding to see the miscreant's superior.

    You write about 'customer education' and I remember a recent post where you mentioned keeping the customer on your side with unexpected 'goodies' like free term lists - that kind of thing. Absolutely! Fundamental salesmanship is the same the world over and only varies in terms of the respective culture. Maybe your erstwhile friend would have been better to advised to play it by the book and get to know his man better.

    To quote P.G. Wodehouse's immortal character Jeeves "One has to study the character of the individual."

    (I suggest that - in connection with the aforementioned occurence - our mutual colleague makes an appropriate comment in the Spiegel thread above).

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  2. I agree with Chris that customer service has improved - somewhat - in Germany in recent years, at least compared to when I moved here 20 years ago. Having grown up in the U.S. I was shocked at the attitude of salespeople in department stores like Karstadt who acted like I had no business disturbing them if I dared to ask for assistance when they were busy conversing or maybe just standing around contemplating obviously far more important topics than anything I could have wanted.

    It's really not as bad now as back then. However, the example Chris gives from the train restaurant still seems fairly typical: Rather than apologizing for having undercharged him and asking if he would be so kind as to make up the difference, as any reasonably polite person would do, he gets berated for having "underpaid". The customer is always wrong!

    I don't know if the situation on the train on Sunday was exceptional or not. I suspect however that people like the woman Chris described are more the exception, based on individual friendliness (which yes does exist in Germany!), rather than the rule. And I'd still be curious to know if she made her hearty announcement in German or English, and how she would have reacted if faced with the same situation as the DB agents I encountered.

    The problem was that these were two Deutsche Bahn employees responsible for collecting tickets, and when confronted with passengers who had, seemingly innocently, turned up with the wrong types of tickets were not only unable to communicate with them in any English whatsoever (on an international train!) but proceeded to harass them mercilessly and treat them like criminals. Incidentally, this occurred with two separate groups of passenger in the same car, both with similar ticket confusion.

    I totally agree with the comment of another colleage who noted that German companies often mix up being customer oriented and marketing oriented. Deutsche Bahn seems to think that if they invest a lot of money in a fancy marketing campaign they can just skip the part where they actually learn what customer service means and, even more difficult, change the attitutes of their longstanding employees.

    Surely things will improve even in Germany as globalization takes hold and general attitudes change. But IMO we're a long way from a true understanding of customer service in this country right now.

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  3. I agree with Chris that customer service has improved - somewhat - in Germany in recent years, at least compared to when I moved here 20 years ago. Having grown up in the U.S. I was shocked at the attitude of salespeople in department stores like Karstadt who acted like I had no business disturbing them if I dared to ask for assistance when they were busy conversing or maybe just standing around contemplating obviously far more important topics than anything I could have wanted.

    It's really not as bad now as back then. However, the example Chris gives from the train restaurant still seems typical: Rather than apologizing for having undercharged him and asking if he would be so kind as to make up the difference, he gets berated for having "underpaid". The customer is always wrong!

    I don't know if the situation on the train on Sunday was exceptional or not. I suspect however that people like the woman Chris described are the exception, based on individual friendliness (which yes does exist in Germany!), rather than the rule. And I'd still be curious to know if she made her hearty announcement in German or English, and how she would have reacted if faced with the same situation as the DB agents I encountered.

    The problem was that these were two Deutsche Bahn employees responsible for collecting tickets, and when confronted with passengers who had, seemingly innocently, turned up with the wrong types of tickets were not only unable to communicate with them in any English whatsoever (on an international train!) but proceeded to harass them mercilessly and treat them like criminals.

    I totally agree with the comment of another colleague who noted that German companies often mix up being customer oriented and marketing oriented. Deutsche Bahn seems to think that if they invest a lot of money in a fancy marketing campaign they can just skip the part where they actually learn what customer service means and, even more difficult, change the attitudes of their longstanding employees.

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  4. I had my own run-in with three DB employees last Thursday. Long story I don't care to go into, but I actually thought it might get physical at one point. Very, very bad attitudes.

    I'm not surprised, really. Although I've had many good experiences with DB over the years (I love to ride trains and hate driving), most of these are probably due to the personal qualities of the individuals involved. I have also had some very ugly confrontations with rulebook-quoting swine. And then we have the poisoned, Stasi-dominated management culture of DB. Two sources inside the company whom I know in hunting circles have told me how after reunification, state police who had once done an apprenticeship or had some other connection to the railway were given full career credit as if they had worked there all the time and the became the new layer of management. The recent scandal with spying on employees is just one aspect of the culture that developed as a result. Internal resistance to the old comrades is punished very, very harshly too.

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  5. While I know you meant it tongue in cheek, and I appreciate the shocking and entertainment value in the title of our blog, another way to put it would be perhaps to say that only a dumb, cheap and unreasonable customer is an enemy. Some of them are certainly like that ... and the best thing to do with such customers is to get rid of them.

    But most customers are not like that, or at least they can be often reasoned with.

    Ergo, the customer is a challenge, and the challenge is how to turn an enemy into a friend who pays your bills because you help him or her make more money.

    Yet another way to put it would be to say that customers are like dogs. You can teach them stuff. But only the smart ones (I mean both customers and dogs in this case), and only while they're still young (I am referring mostly to dogs here).

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  6. @PT: "...only a dumb, cheap and unreasonable customer is an enemy."

    Now where would you get a silly idea like that? On the contrary, all customers who actually expect to get reasonable service for their money are the "enemy" of the service provider. They should just fork over the cash and be grateful that we condescend to communicate with them. When we feel like it and actually get around to it of course.

    At least that's the way it works for Deutsche Bahn. And, unfortunately, that's the attitude of a surprising number of "translators". While there are wicked customers (agencies & direct clients) who seek sneaky ways to fleece some of us, most customers are reasonable people just looking for some reasonable semblance of service and occasionally quality. But shortly after I published this piece, one of my Dark Continental correspondents shared a mail exchange he had with an XX to YY translator. Shocking stuff full of gratuitous insults and orders for the customer (outsourcer) to "go get therapy". It reminds me of the nasty stuff that the infamous Ron Stelter sent my way a while back, full of sexual innuendo and worse. There is a bizarre subculture out there that seems to think that the only good customer is a dead one. I don't suppose they've ever considered the implications of this for payment.

    But then many of us have days or at least a few hours with a shade of this from time to time. If a customer calls me at midnight and begs and cries for a few hours wanting me to dictate 9 pages of highly complex technical translation on lighting systems over the phone so she won't be fired in the morning for botching that part of her boss's Ph.D. thesis, the part for which a revision had kindly been offered offered because professional judgment determined it to be unusable, I might - just might - experience a brief flash of frustration and impatience. Such things are possible and known in the wide spectrum of human psychology.

    But most of the customers that seem to end up on the receiving end of the whip are reasonable folk who aren't asking for anything unreasonable.

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  7. Hi Kevin,

    Happy New Year!

    I came across your mentioning "the infamous Ron Stelter" in this post on your blog, as I was googling up this guy after a pretty shocking experience a week ago.
    Ron Stelter contacted me with his mass email offering his services. As I was looking for somebody who I might possibly outsource a job to, I made a request, sent the source text and asked him, if he doesnt’t mind, to do a small sample translation (literally a couple of paragraphs) which he did. He offered extremely low rates, but I cannot say I was happy with his translation. Even less so with his increasingly demanding, even aggresive emails which I, unaware of the consequences, promptly and politely replied to. After I finally told him, I decided in favor of another colleague and would be looking forward to working with him on other projects, this is what I received from him, namely three emails, verbatim:
    1. What do you mean? I thought you wanted me to definitely work on this project. If you don't want me to work on this project, then I have no interest whatsoever in working for you. And I hope you have a terrible year, creep.
    2. Thanks for wasting my time, jerk.
    3. (titled XING in the subject line) By the way, I'm contacting a lot of people in Hamburg. I plan on taking away every client you have. Have a nice day.

    I am not going to take it personally. Probably, the guy has some problems, but still, I am wondering if I should take an action against this extremely unprofessional behavior I had never experienced before. Perhaps do a post on the BDÜ forum? I take it you also made acquaintance with this bloke...

    Best,
    Valerij

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  8. @Valerij: Thank you for the good wishes; I hope you are making a pleasant start in 2012 aside from the "RS Syndrome". By now nearly all my agency clients and a good number of colleagues have some story to tell about this individual. I think the post I had with him mentioned by name was modified after I got tired of a long string of sexually explicit e-mails harassing me. It really is a shame that such individuals do not receive the treatment they require in many cases. But as Dante wrote, it is better to "let us not speak of them; look, and pass on". He has his own place in Purgatory.

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  9. Hi,

    Just got contacted by Ron Stelter, in what seems a mass email. Thanks for the useful info, will definitely NOT be contracting him.

    MM

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