Expat/Immigrant Experience · opinion

The Customer Isn’t Always Right

If you’re preparing yourself for a move to Germany, or even just a visit, you may have come across complaints about customer service. Or, more accurately, the lack of customer service. I certainly did, which led me to dig a little deeper into the subject before our 2015 visit. Sure enough, googling “customer service in Germany” gets you a lot of results saying that it’s awful. Most of these results are generated from expats venting their frustrations on discussion forums or their blogs, but you can occasionally find (old) news articles on the subject.

During our vacation, I didn’t really notice a big difference between American and German customer service; other than in restaurants, of course. Every employee I interacted with in Germany was helpful and polite. Full of smiles and fake enthusiasm? Nope. As someone who finds that style of service really annoying, though, it was a welcome change.

Of course, two weeks of vacation can’t really give you an accurate picture of customer service in a country. So, have my views on German customer service changed now that I’ve been living here for over half a year?

Not really! Overall, sales assistants have been just as kind and helpful in Germany as they were back home. There are also some differences that I think make the shopping experience more pleasant here. For example, if you tell a German sales assistant that you don’t need help, she will actually believe you! In America, it often seems like they ask you every five minutes if you’re “still finding everything OK.” German employees also don’t try to make pointless small talk with you. Most important of all, the check-out lines at grocery stores are much faster.

That being said, I have had a few not-so-great experiences here. I already have a post about the differences between American and German restaurant service. Since my opinions haven’t changed on the subject, I’m only going to focus on issues I’ve had while shopping. I also don’t want to generalize based on a single incident; so, I’m only going to focus on two specific problems that I’ve experienced multiple times. These are situations I’ve heard other expats describe, so I think they’re good examples of where customer service occasionally falls short in Germany.

In the US, if you accidentally bring up an item without a price tag to the register, the employee (rightfully) treats it as the fault of the store. They will look up the item, or send someone to find one with a price tag. Often, the best-case scenario in Germany is the cashier putting your item under their counter and telling you that you can’t buy it. Worst-case scenario, they will look you dead in the eye and tell you to go find one with a price tag. Now, I try to remember to check every item for a price tag. I shouldn’t have to, of course; it’s the store’s job to make sure there’s a price tag, not mine.

Another big difference is that, if a product is mislabeled with a lower price in the US, the store will usually honor the lower price. There have been a number of occasions where I’ve brought something to the register, only for it to ring up at a higher price than I expected. Often, the employee will take my word for it and change the price right then and there. Or, they will send another employee to check the display. Once the discrepancy is confirmed, they will change the price to reflect the store’s mistake.

Contrast this with Germany, where I’ve been told twice now that the display is wrong and the price is whatever it rings up as. One of those times, I was actually brave enough to challenge this over a computer mouse. I had an employee come with me to the display, and I showed him the clearly lower price. After close examination, he said I was right, but the display is wrong so I had to pay the higher price. He didn’t even apologize for the incorrect display.

I’m not going to talk about the surly cashiers I encounter several times a week because they were often just as grumpy back in the USA. Considering they at least get you through the check out lane really fast, I’d say Germany definitely comes out ahead.

One last thing. I feel I must defend the over-eager customer service employees of America. Yes, it’s annoying, but most of them aren’t doing it because they want to bother you; they’re doing it because it’s company policy. Someone higher up the corporate food chain decided that they can sell more products if the employees are relentlessly positive and constantly “just checking in to make sure everything is OK.” So don’t get too mad at Rebethani when she asks you for the tenth time if you need any help; she doesn’t actually care, she just doesn’t want to be fired.

2 thoughts on “The Customer Isn’t Always Right

  1. Hey,
    I laughed out loud for this one! I’ve been to Germany a handful of times over the past decade, lived in Austria on a study exchange (which never call an Austrian a German ;)) and in a week will be heading to Leipzig to have a life sabbatical. I was there for 2.5 months in the Fall, and customer service experience with a phone company was exceptional(ly bad) – for my Canadian standards. What I’ve learned from Germans: complain! In German, and you’ll likely get what you need . If it’s in English, they’re very likely to be unhelpful. For example, having a friend of mine call the DB hotline when my train was cancelled due to flooding in the North in October = a lovely experience and how to move forward with the situation.

  2. Never been to Germany before, but I’ve seen/heard similar complaints about the Netherlands, Switzerland, Sweden, Poland and the Czech Republic. If the natives in those countries can get around those establishments without the same problems the expats have, then they (the natives) must be doing something right.
    I hate how those expats you mention above act so entitled. They need to get a clue and realize they are responsible for their own stuff.
    I see no reason for those same establishments to pander to the English-speaking expats at the expense of the natives. It’s just disrespectful.

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