A description of the parts of meat in a Polish grocery store.

As far as customer service goes, America wins hands down. There simply isn’t a better place I can think when it comes to the level of respect, attention to detail, and thoroughness that Americans receive in all facets of life, from basic phone assistance all the way to shops and restaurants. In fact, the bar is set so high, that a poor experience can be met with severe penalties. Despite my criticism of social media, I must cede that it has one positive benefit in that far more transparency is offered to consumers than ever before. In a recent example, consider how quickly word spread about the United attendant who forcibly dragged a customer off the plane.

Having lived for several years in Krakow, Poland, one of the biggest adjustments was dealing with the rather terrible customer service that you encounter in all facets of your life, from banking to customer support and much more. Although the Berlin Wall collapsed some time ago, the ghosts of communism are ever present in Poland as the concept of a positive customer experience is still a new phenomenon.

Dining in Eastern and Central Europe – What to Expect

A good place to start is the dining experience in Central and Eastern Europe. In my opinion, restaurant service in most of Europe is average at best when compared to American standards. Before delving into the details, bear in mind that wait staff in Europe are paid a general wage, which is why they love American tourists who always overcompensate them. As a quick travel tip, when dining throughout Europe, 10% is the way to go. The one exception on tipping would be if you are at a Michelin rated or luxury restaurant, where you may want to give more as the service will be similar to what you receive in America.

As far as service quality goes, the further you east you venture in Europe, the worse it becomes. In most restaurants in Eastern and Central Europe, the server will do the bare minimum: take your order, bring the food, and provide the check. In many cases you will have to physically chase down your waiter or waitress if you want something extra.

Another difference in your dining experience throughout Central and Eastern Europe when compared to America will relate to the menu. Unlike America, where the menu choices almost always reflect what you can order, as you head further east, towards Central and Eastern Europe you should always have 2 choices in mind, your initial choice and a backup. Why is this the case? Many times the restaurant simply doesn’t have what you want and unlike America, wait staff will refuse to apologize for this.

I’m sure we’ve all had the misfortune of dining next to one of those annoying guests who assume that upon entering the establishment they are now crowned royalty. The type of people who believe they are the indeed the king and queen and will shortly be served by the lowly peon staff, whose sole duty in life was to serve them. This is the kind of customer who almost always goes out of their way to complain about the most trivial things. Of course, these type of customers never seem to be happy, and no wonder given their attitude. Now with this image is fresh in your mind, I would truly relish the look on their face if I were to plop them down into a Polish or Czech restaurant after the server proceeds to bluntly tell them that there is no steak available today 🙂

Better yet, consider an experience I had in the Czech Republic. I don’t recall the motivation behind this choice, but for whatever reason I wanted to order fries and rice, I’ll admit, not the best combination but as an American we can do whatever we want! (Notice how entitled that sounds?) Well, these rules don’t apply in Eastern and Central Europe and definitely not at the restaurant I visited. The waitress flat out told me no, refusing to serve me that combination of food on the grounds that it didn’t go together. Once again, imagine how some people would react if their server denied their order? Oh the horror!

Prior to the scandals, Kevin Spacey’s likeness could be found promoting banking services in Poland, ironically this was during the House of Cards seasons.

Customer Service in Eastern Europe

As you head away from restaurants and into daily life, the customer sevice experience only gets worse, especially in countries like Poland. When I first moved there I made the mistake of opening an account with the state bank. I couldn’t think of a better example of how the remnants of communism still live on to this day in Poland. At first I was quite optimistic as the amount I wanted to deposit made me a VIP customer, so I got to use the special queue. What are the perks you may ask? Well I only had to wait in line 45 minutes to make a deposit! Imagine if I weren’t a VIP? I’d probably still be waiting in line 🙂

What’s more frustrating is while you stand there in line wasting your life away, there were about 3 – 4 employees milling about in the background. Who knows what they are doing but it’s amazing that the thought never occured that one could perhaps help reduce the line? This is a common theme throughout Eastern Europe, where the customer never comes first and entities like state run banks seem to be completely disorganized.

My banking experience only improved as my turn finally came to deposit money into my account. When I finally reached the teller, she proceeded to ask how much I wanted to deposit. When I explained I didn’t count it up because there was a money counter sitting right next to her, she gave me the grimmest of looks, angrily grabbing the money from my hand.

As a side note, anything you do in Poland related to banking involves lots of stamps and plenty of paper. With that said, if you have a passion for nostalgia, go no further than a Polish bank where the slogan should be: “For over 30 years, we are still living in the 1980s” In nearly all Polish banks, not just those that are state run, you’ll encounter excessively long lines, at least 20 minutes or more. Sometimes you’ll wait in line 30 minutes, only to discover that the service you require isn’t available in that branch, requiring you to visit another one where you must wait an equal amount of time in line. Although Internet banking is available, certain requests can only be done in person where you once again have to wait in the dreaded lines!

Getting back to my bank account experience, after the funds were credited. I received a deposit slip which was aggressively stamped in about 4 places, a couple less than on your passport when you enter another country. Can you ask yourself, my fellow readers, the last time you received a deposit slip from your local bank teller?

Phone Assistance

I learned very quickly to loathe any experience which required phone assistance. In Poland, if you don’t speak the language well enough, the representative will simply hang up on you, something that has happened on to me on too many occasions to name.  I experienced one situation in particular where I required help with my Internet service which was recently installed in my new apartment. When I initially called the service line the woman who answered hung up on me. I proceeded to call back again and this time she explained that an English speaking person would call me back but wouldn’t say when. After waiting for 10 minutes without a call, I ended up calling the company a third time. I was lucky as I ended up getting the guy who spoke English. He told me to wait and in 2 minutes the problem was fixed. It was a small company so I’m certain that both of them were sitting in the same office but my experience has shown me that the mentality in Poland is to just get you off the phone. Granted, I should know how to speak the language better, and trust me, it’s not an easy one, but as you can see, we Americans are quite spoiled.

Post Offices in Eastern Europe – Not Much Better Overseas

When it comes to post offices, my experience in the many countries I’ve visited throughout Eastern and Central Europe haven’t been so bad, only because the bar was set so low from the start. I have found that when you get away from the regular service desk, those working at the stamp vending areas can be quite nice. In Belarus I had a very positive experience at the stamp desk. Also, in Frankfurt, Germany I met a very knowledgeable man who went at lengths to show me all the stamp collections their post office offered. In Poland, though, I did have a quite shocking experience at the post office once. One of the packages I wanted to ship wasn’t sent because the clerk undercharged me. She said that either it would come out of her pocket since it was her mistake (about an hour’s worth of work) or I could come back to pay. So much for the benefits of state run enterprises!

Grocery Shopping in Eastern and Central Europe Sucks!

No matter where you go, grocery stores in Europe are simply awful when compared to American standards. To start, not all, but most shops make you weigh and put a sticker on your own produce. Being stubborn in my ways, I either don’t buy produce from these stores or get the bulk packages that already have a price on them.

I most definitely sound like a spoiled American with this critique but I would challenge you to try it yourself and see how many attempts it takes before you come to the same conclusion. What’s especially challenging is that there is no uniform system for weighing produce in Eastern European grocery stores. Some have a “tablet” type of system that is neither logical nor organized. Finding your produce in this disorganized list of products is the equivalent of playing a much crueler version of Where’s Waldo. Other stores have a number system where you place the goods on the scale and select the appropriate number but the labels above the produce are often not aligned properly. Choose the wrong item and await the scorn from the cashier who will by no means let a small mistake slip. For example, I once chose the wrong type of apple on the label, perhaps the difference was 5 cents in price but I wasn’t allowed to have it. On another occasion the cashier was kind enough to re-weigh and label the items for me but that caused the entire line to be held up for the 8 minutes.

Secondly, because there is less space in Europe than America, you will find fewer choices in grocery stores and far less room in the aisles. Finding something often requires asking someone else to move out of the way and moving your carriage around the narrow aisles is like playing an adult version of bumper cars with the other shoppers. Because of this, you cannot easily navigate through stores as you would in America. Ever more challenging is that grocery stores have an over representation of the two groups that seem to be constantly in your way: families and the elderly. Many times you simply have to wait for people to get out of the way before you can make your own selection of goods. On that note, the presentation of items is far worse in Europe. Goods are jammed together so you have to really scan through them since you’ll often miss what you want.

Unlike grocery shopping in America, which has evolved to be as enjoyable of a process as possible, in Europe it is truly a chore. Think I’m joking? Just wait until you go to the check out counter.

To start, cashiers in Eastern Europe, along with most of Europe, are not as friendly as in America. You’ll soon discover this as it appears to be their mission to shove your goods as quickly as possible across the scanner. That’s right, nobody bothers to bag your groceries like they do in America and in a trend that is slowly rising now in the states, there are no free plastic bags. Plastic bags aren’t expensive, around 3 or 5 cents each, but if you didn’t bring your own then you need to also plan out how many bags you need during the check out process. Unlike America where the bags are easy to separate, I constantly struggle to open them, it’s almost as if they are glued together.

If you are shopping by yourself it requires a certain skill that you must adapt to as you must plan the bagging in advance but also be quick enough to pay, then collect your change. Why? If you are too slow, your goods will start to get mixed up with the next person’s. That’s right, the cashier doesn’t wait until you’ve bagged up everything before moving on to the next customer. My strategy is to line up the items in such a way that I know exactly into which bags they will go (I always bring on my own bags and backpack). I’ve now adapted but it took time to develop an efficient system.

Finally, I’m of the opinion that Eastern and Central Europeans enjoy waiting in lines. If you ever live in one of these countries, it’s something you’ll need to adjust to. Only on the most rare occasions was I able to walk into a shop, find what I wanted, and quickly check out like you can in America.

Although it is slowly changing with express lines and automated check outs, in most cases you’ll be forced to wait in longer lines that you used to for everything you want to do, not just grocery shopping. The craziest example I can think of was a grocery store in the Krakow train station, where the line wrapped around the corner into one of the aisles. Although the line did move along, I could never fathom an experience in the US.

Final Thoughts on Customer Service in Eastern Europe

I wish to highlight that my criticism comes from an American upbringing where I simply became accustomed to a certain way of life. As I’ve often said, we as a nation are extremely pampered when compared to Western Europe. It’s difficult to truly appreciate this high standard of living you’ve grown accustomed to until you have another country to compare it to. I’ve found myself more patriotic and appreciative of my country the more I’ve lived outside of it as most of the countries – emerging and developed – I’ve visited simply don’t offer the same standards found at home.

Furthermore, I hope it’s clear that my many criticisms are as much suggestions for improvement in Europe as a reflection on spoiled American attitudes. I’ve learned to adapt to much of what I described and if you have an open mind when travelling, you’ll come to discover that it’s not so bad as it may initially sound. Living overseas isn’t for everyone and there are some who simply couldn’t accept the challenges or adjustment, which is perfectly fine. After all, a country cannot exist without its citizens.

For those who have also lived in parts of Eastern Europe, what are your thoughts? Have I gone too far? Also, what do those who live in the US think about this discussion? Looking forward to hearing your feedback!