germany, where the customer is never right

We didn’t like each other before we’d even met.

It was nothing unusual. This was, after all Germany, and we were, in fact, in a restaurant. The hungry passerby and the German waiter are natural enemies.

“Can I get you started with some drinks?” the waiter wanted to know. He’d eagerly watched us from the bar, waiting for us to take off our coats before pouncing with the menus. I had high hopes. Maybe here, in a tiny, old-school German restaurant that proudly proclaimed “Futtern wie bei Muttern!” (Chow down like you do at Mom’s) on the sign, we would find a unicorn, a revolution, a miracle: the German waiter who had not only heard the words customer service, but who had actually looked them up in the dictionary.

“I’d like a coffee, and we’d also like two waters, not sparkling.”

“Ah, we only have sparkling water,” he replied. He said it resolutely, firmly. Oh you silly child! No one ever taught you about how everyone in Germany drinks sparkling water? Silly tourists, tap water is for National Socialists.

(This aversion to tap water had, in fact, once been mentioned to me in a small high school German classroom over an out-dated book filled with pictures of badly dressed people named Heike, Sven, and Lars who liked to go hiking and introduce themselves to each other over and over and over again. Upon arriving in Germany, however, I learned that sparkling water was not the sole monarch, and that while many people preferred it, still water and tap water were not, in fact, extinct. Or poisonous.)

I looked at him, and then at the faucet hanging smugly over the bar sink. “Well, we’ll have tap water then.”

Up until this point, he had managed to maintain the front of polite etiquette he’d put on that morning with his little white chef’s hat. But this was the last straw. The sausage that broke the waiter’s back.

“I can’t sell you tap water!”

“Why not?” (And by ‘Why not,’ I of course meant, “Oh! So you can give it to us for free!” If only I could manage to be so pert on cue.)

“I can’t legally sell you tap water. There are German grocery laws!”

He started waving his arms around, as if to point out all of the invisible food inspectors who would shut down his restaurant if he sold us two glasses of tap water. I glanced around. We were the only three people in the restaurant. Maybe he thought we were the inspectors.

“Listen, I live one block away. Am I supposed to go home, fill up my glass there, and bring it back?”

He threw his hands in the air. His eyes said “Who do you think you are!!?” His fingers said “This is GERMANY!” And his shoulders cried, “THERE ARE LAWS.” Then he disappeared into the kitchen. We never got our water.

Ladies and gentleman, I’d like to present to you German customer service. Or perhaps, quite simply, the stubborn insistence on following the prescribed rules that is as common here as dandelions in midsummer. I might even go so far as to say that certain historical events could not have happened if people…oh never mind. Point is, it doesn’t just apply in restaurants.

For example, telephone “customer service” agents have repeatedly told the residents of my WG that they would, in fact, send a technician to set up the internet service we’d ordered from them. That was two months ago. Approximately one month ago, another customer service representative told my house mate, in the first sign of intelligent life we’d seen from the company since signing up, that he would do everything he could to figure out why it was taking so long. He then proceeded to say that he would email his findings to my house mate later that day.

I guess he’d forgotten that they were talking about how we didn’t have any internet service in the first place.

And I had been under the impression that internet providers were interested in collecting as many paying customers as possible. But after considerable thought, I’ve decided that I’d misjudged their business strategy.

I sometimes try to imagine what sort of training German customer service representatives receive. Do they skip the training all together? Or are they just too underpaid to give a shit? The latter I can understand. What I cannot understand is how any of these restaurants and companies are still in business. People complain, but nobody complains as loud as the expats. And the “there is no fucking customer service here fuck this country” is a complaint I’ve heard from almost every expat I’ve met here.

It’s not that these situations wouldn’t and don’t piss your average German off as much as your average Amie expat, but it seems that, in the end, most people just sigh and resign themselves to the policies of whatever company they’re currently at the mercy of. At the end of the day it’s not the customer who is always right, but the rule or policy being enforced. And to be fair, anyone who’s worked in any service industry anywhere knows that it’s full of asshole customers who treat you like shit and expect you to wipe their asses in return. Clerks at the mercy of policies, customers at the mercy of clerks who had no say in the policies that they’re enforcing. Bitters anyone? Perhaps the disrepute of German customer service is not due to misguided training programs or incompetence, but a subtlety planned workers’ revolt. Dear Capitalism, I want a divorce.

0 Comments on “germany, where the customer is never right

  1. A friend of mine from California in a similar situation at the Pizza Hut on Prager Straße did the following: After being denied tainted tap water, she walked up to the counter and asked for a cup of ice, no water. The waitress obliged. “Where do you get your ice from?” my friend asked her. Checkmate.

  2. There was supposed to be an image of a german crusader there. damn wordpress, ruined my joke! maybe wordpress is german too.

  3. Hi,
    It isn’t about water, it’s about money. They want to sell you an overpriced bottle of sparkling water. Sometimes it goes for 7 euros a bottle. WTF? Yeah, but if you’re out with friends, and don’t want to appear cheap, you just have to play along. I like to carry a litre bottle of good water around in one of those metal, Swiss-made hikers’ bottles, and I NEVER order drinks in a restaurant, unless it’s got something useful like alcohol in it. 😉

  4. Chris: That ice trick is fucking priceless. I wonder what Herr Waiter would have done with that one.

    Ian: I really should start carrying around some water of my own then shouldn’t I. Because you see, it’s not even about the money for me, it’s about the sparkling. I don’t like it. If I’m really thirsty gulping down a glass full of bubbles exploding in my throat just doesn’t do it for me. I wonder if there’s something in carbonation I could develop a sudden allergy to, so I could insist that waiters legally cannot force sparkling water on me.

    Geff: I don’t know what Captain Beefheart song you’re talking about, but I’m pretty sure it should become my theme song.

  5. It’s not capitalism that prevents customer service or the general German idea of “service”. Europe has a regulated market that protects its workers so much so that they can’t be fired even for being rude or combative to the customer. Even incompetency won’t get you fired in Europe. In fact, that customer service representative is better paid and better supported than his counterpart in the US (or India).
    You don’t want a divorce from capitalism, it’s capitalism and freedom of choice you want! Let the free market reign!

  6. N: You are right. I love capitalism. It is all I ever dream of. In fact, we are getting married next week.


    I can always count on you for an ornery defensive of capitalism’s virtues, can’t I my dear? Of course capitalism isn’t entirely to blame on this point—after all, the countries where it works somewhat more efficiently are, in fact, capitalist. The whole situation is simply ridiculous. Laws that say a waiter can’t give you tap water. Laws that say the baker legally MUST give you a bag with your bread. Companies that sell you a broken product and then charge you to call a helpline where the representative on the other line has no information that could possibly be of any use to you.

    I suppose I should be thankful that it is all so obviously broken and money-grubbing and ridiculous and corrupt. At least then you notice when you’re getting fucked in the arse.

  7. Your beef is not with capitalism, it’s with the socialist state that inflicts these regulations in order to protect the customer, supplier and society as a whole. What you’ve got there is socialism with a salting of capitalism. The Germans WANT these rules, laws and regulations. They feel safer with them. If you were to open a store across the street that sold bread minus the cost of the bag, then people might go and buy from you, but then that would be undermining local business and giving jobs to foreigners who support subversive acts. What say thee to that?

  8. Pingback: the peanut gets shelled: a home birth turned hospital birth turned c-section delivery | click clack gorilla

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