28 March, 2015

What I've Learned About German Customer Service

As an American, I grew up accustomed to a certain (high) level of customer service. For the most part, servers in restaurants, cashiers and phone-based customer service representatives in the United States are friendly, helpful and often go out of their way to ask if you need any help. This is especially true in the case of servers and bartenders, because they know that their paychecks depend on people tipping them well, but it is also true of non-tipped employees who want to keep their jobs or be considered for a promotion in the future. Unfriendly or unhelpful customer service is the exception rather than the rule, and Americans are not afraid to complain to a supervisor if an employee has been rude or incompetent. 
In Germany, things are a bit different. I've already written about customer service as part of a previous post, but since writing that I have quite a bit more to add on this topic. In the past few weeks I've had the pleasure of dealing with a variety of customer service people from various offices and companies, so I have gained quite a bit more experience with the particularly German style of customer service. While it is of course impossible to accurately generalize about every situation, here are my observations based on the last few weeks (and the preceding few years) of experience: 

1. German customer service is not excessively friendly. 

Anyone providing customer service, whether it's in a restaurant, a store, an office or over the phone, does the minimum amount of talking to customers that is required to fulfill their job description and does so in a mildly but not excessively friendly way. Workers in stores don't approach customers and ask if they "need help finding anything" (a common occurrence in the United States that can be more annoying than helpful), nor do they make idle chit-chat with customers while ringing up their purchases. Waiters don't come over every five minutes to ask how everything is, and it can require a significant effort to attract a server's attention when you would like to order something else or pay your bill. And on the most unfriendly end of the scale is the man who "assisted" me one time when I was at the Bürgerbüro (sort of like the town hall) in Karlsruhe. He barely acknowledged me when I walked in and then mumbled something indecipherable in response to my request. I sat there for a minute confused as to whether he was actually going to do what I had asked. I had to repeat myself just to make sure he had actually heard me (turns out he had and just didn't communicate that fact). I've been to one store (the cosmetics store Lush) and one restaurant (Bratar in Karlsruhe) the entire time I've been in Germany where I've gotten American-quality customer service. 

2. Public institutions have the worst service. 

The worst service I've gotten while in Germany has been from public institutions such as government offices and public universities, as the example above begins to demonstrate. As another example, when I first arrived in Germany my host mom had to call the Ausländerbehörde (foreigners' office) and the Agentur für Arbeit (employment office) multiple times each to inquire about the status of my visa. Most of the times she tried no one answered the phone. Both of us also emailed the Ausländerbehörde with no reply. She finally got through after calling multiple times over the course of several days. 

More recently, I had questions about the requirements for international students at the university I will be attending, so I emailed the woman who is supposedly responsible for assisting international students. It took her weeks to answer, and when she did it was clear she hadn't read my email at all. She didn't respond to my questions in the slightest but just gave me vague information about the application process (which I've already completed). 

On the other hand, I've had much better experiences with customer service from private companies. The private health insurance company I was insured with as an Au pair always responded to emails promptly and they also communicated well by mail. This is the one big advantage of dealing the private companies rather than public institutions. Private companies know that they have competition and have to keep their level of service high or risk losing customers. 

3. If you really want an answer, you'd better call. 

Although my examples above show issues with email, phone and in-person service, the level of service by phone is generally much higher than by email. This is irritating to me, as someone who highly prefers email over phone calls, especially in German. I have discovered, however, that if I really want an answer to my questions quickly I'm going to have to suck it up and call. In the past few days I've both sent emails and made phone calls, and the calling has always produced better and faster results. I think the same is true in America too, but I've noticed the difference more clearly here in Germany. (Phone reps also tend to be friendlier than those assisting customers in person.) 

4. Customer service representatives are not always competent. 

It's not just friendliness and timely responses that fall by the wayside here in Germany but also basic job functions. If this point wasn't already clear, I'll give you another example. Maxim had to send some university paperwork, and with this paperwork he was required to send all of his grades, his "ex-matriculation" certificate (proving he's no longer a student) and the certificate stating that he has completed his Diplom (the equivalent of a masters degree in the old German university system) and has the title of engineer. His paperwork was all complete, but a few days later the entire stack of paperwork was returned with a note saying he needed to submit a different piece of paper proving he has finished his Diplom, which he hasn't received from the university yet. (The fact that this one piece of paper could take the university six months to send is its own example of horrible service by a public university.) Maxim then emailed the woman who had sent the paperwork back and asked specifically what information she needed that he hadn't sent. She emailed back (it's a miracle!) and said she needed the date of completion of his degree, which is clearly visible on the certificate he had already sent. It's obvious that she didn't even read the paperwork, she just glanced at it, saw that the final certificate wasn't there and sent everything back, wasting money on a stamp and not even bothering to call or email first.
Nonsense like this is rampant in German customer service. It's very hard to fire workers in Germany, which is generally a good thing, but that means that incompetent people can almost never be fired for incompetence alone and are allowed to continue their incompetent work without consequences. This is especially true of publicly funded positions, because the tax money that funds their income is practically guaranteed and does not depend on competition and quality service like in the private sector. 

5. There are just fewer customer service employees here.

It's typical in Germany to have fewer workers in customer service positions than in the United States. Restaurants in Germany always have fewer servers than in the US, and there is usually no host or hostess to seat people when they enter. The same is true for office-based workers; where a German office has one employee for customer service concerns, an American office might have two or three. This combined with the seriously high job security makes for a perfect storm of mediocre customer service.

I've already gotten fairly used to this. Most of the time the level of service doesn't bother me, especially when I'm physically in a store. When I'm shopping I usually don't want to be bothered, and if I am having trouble finding what I need I will ask. There are usually enough employees to make asking possible without much hassle. I appreciate that you don't get what I think of as the "Staples approach" to customer service in Germany: at the Staples in Brattleboro there were always at least three or four employees milling around the store waiting to pounce on customers and ask if they needed assistance. The constant attention got very annoying. 

What does bother me is trying to get answers in a timely manner when there are important papers and fast-approaching deadlines involved. The process of getting my university paperwork together would have been complicated and confusing under the best of circumstances, and the customer service and bureaucratic difficulties from various angles have made the whole thing that much more stressful. At this point, I've sent in the bulk of the paperwork to where it needs to go, but I'm not out of the woods yet. Fingers crossed that everything goes according to plan from now on and that I don't have to deal with any more customer service reps for a long time.


  1. Nice article about "the big blue giant ;) " and unwanted customer services...


    I had to grin a lot while imagine the "welcome guys" getting struck be "the german stare" :P :D =)

    1. I got a laugh out of picturing those welcome guys, too! Thanks for sharing this article. It brings up a lot of subtle differences between American and German consumer and business culture that many people (including Walmart executives, apparently) probably wouldn't realize at first glance.

  2. I recently moved to the US from Switzerland and I must say the chit chat from waiters and waitresses can get pretty annoying. The fuss also usually comes off ingenuine and unnecessary. I prefer the German way, where personal space is respected without being rude.
    I just like eating in peace, without being bothered every 5 minutes.

    1. The longer I live in Germany the more I've started to appreciate the hands-off approach of German waiters and waitresses. Sometimes it's annoying when it takes 10 minutes to get the waiter's attention, but I agree about liking to eat in peace. I also like that in Germany you can choose your own table at a restaurant, rather than waiting for the host/hostess to tell you where to sit like in many American restaurants.