Monday, September 29, 2003

New Photos of Prague Are Now Posted

If you enjoyed the last entry about Prague, you now can view the photos that went along with the descriptions. There are two easy ways to see these newly posted photos:

1) Re-read the text description of Prague, entitled "East Meets West & the West is Winning". You will be able to view several hyper-links which will take you directly to the photos.
2) You can always hit the "Photo Archive" link which is listed on the upper right-hand side under the section called Links. This will take you to the Master Photo Directory, where you can view each photo that has been posted (even ones that are not hyper-linked to text descriptions)

Hope you all enjoy!

Thursday, September 25, 2003

East Meets West & the West is Winning

I spent this weekend in the magnificent city of Prague, Czechoslovakia. Today it calls itself the Center of Europe, but for centuries Prague was one of the crown jewels of the Hapsburg Empire. And let us not forget that until only recently (November of 1989), Prague remained stifled for 40 years behind the Iron Curtain of the former Communist Eastern Block. What a change from today, as Czechoslovakia bides its time for a vote next year, when it will be up for admittance into the European Union.

Prague has shaken off its Communist hangover and has quickly embraced Capitalism and free enterprise markets. The Germans could even learn a thing or two from the Czechs, since the labor unions have yet to stifle productivity or hamstring the recovering local economy. Unlike the Germans, Czechs actually keep their shops open on Sundays. They know if they want to provide for their families and achieve a better lifestyle, then they need to stay open to service their customers and earn the almighty Czech Crown (local currency), rather than wait for government handouts at the expense of ridiculous tax rates.

Prague does not escape its own little idiosyncrasies however. Like most Medieval European cities, Prague’s streets are a hornet’s nest of ever-expanding concentric circles. This leaves Americans, like yours truly, schooled in the navigation tactics of the common grid, painfully behind the bell curve when it comes to finding one’s obscure hotel in the middle of the night. Upon arriving to Prague Friday evening, tired from the week and after over a three-hour drive from Munich, I was in no mood to endlessly search for my hotel.

All I had was an address and a phone number. This place was referred to me by a co-worker back in Munich who had stayed there once before. “Oh, its right by the train station”, I recalled her saying. Let me tell you…it was not by the train station! I asked a friendly cabdriver who was parked on the side of the street taking a break if he knew where this place was…. No luck. Unfortunately my MapPoint software ran out of usefulness as soon as I crossed the Czech border, so having an address for the place did me no good. This was compounded by the fact that the person on the other end of the phone number I had spoke little to no English. “Prague Seven” was all I could get out of him. Prague is broken up into numerical districts, so this appeared to make sense, but only if you knew where Prague six and eight were. And even then, numerical order was not a strong suit in Prague as I soon found out.

After driving around for over an hour on Prague’s twisting streets and almost running out of gas, I spotted a Hilton Hotel. I was so exhausted and pissed off from failing to find the hotel, that I decided right on the spot that I would stay at the Hilton if it killed me. I walked into the reception area and fumbled for my Hilton Honors Card. I showed the desk clerk my card and pleaded for a room. Unfortunately, the Hilton was booked solid due to a physician’s conference that weekend, but the friendly agent offered to call this enigmatic hotel for me and get precise directions. He marked up a clear and easy to understand map and showed me turn-by-turn how to get there. He said, “They are expecting you”, which made sense because I had called them three times to get directions in the last hour.

I found the hotel and parked the car in front on the street. The hotel was located on the 5th floor of an existing apartment building. I rang the front bell and my telephone friend grumbled in a way that let me know that he was coming downstairs to let me in. He opened the front door and motioned that it was time to climb to the 5th floor, since there was no elevator. Five floors I thought…no problem. Unfortunately, Czechs must begin counting floors after first reaching what the rest of the world would call the 4th floor, because we surely hiked up nine flights of stairs before arriving at the “5th floor”. Before settling for the evening, I asked if my car was safe parked outside. He asked what kind of car it was. When I replied that it was a BMW, he said, “You should move it”. There was a guarded parking lot one block away, so I moved the car and retreated back up the five, err…nine flights of stairs to the room. Out of wind, out of patience, and exhausted I collapsed onto my bed for the night.

The next morning, breakfast was included in my stay. As I was chomping away at some bread and preserves, the lady who apparently ran the hotel informed me that I would be leaving today, as she had already promised my room to other travelers. OK, I said, but could she help me to find another place? She whipped out the Yellow Pages and started dialing around for me. She soon located a place and showed me exactly how to take the subway to get there. If the Communists did anything of worth in Prague it was to construct three distinct and inter-locking subway lines. This system works great and is very easy to understand and use all over the city.

My new hotel turned out to be a leasing agency. The young man behind the desk helped locate a local Prague resident who had a flat (apartment) with an extra room that they would be willing to rent out to me for the weekend. He had the perfect one in mind. It was the apartment of an adorable 80-year-old woman who had an extra room with its own private bathroom. He called her and confirmed that it would be OK. He then gave me directions to her place.

The woman greeted me in the most friendly manner. Even though she could not speak that much English, I could tell that she was very appreciative to have a traveler stay in her place. My rent money would surely come in handy, as a much needed addition to her fixed pension. Her home was on the 3rd floor, but since she had an elevator I never actually counted to see if it was actually on the 7th floor to prove my Czech Equation. The flat oozed hominess and had the scent of freshly prepared food. She ushered me into my room, which was adorned with photos of herself as a young woman and later in life. I couldn’t help but to notice the smiles she carried in her earlier photos and how these smiles were then replaced by stoic expressions from photos taken at later phases of her life. I wondered if the smiles of innocence and youth were painfully stolen by the oppression and influence of Communism, which this woman had seen come and go in her own time.

What captures one’s imagination about Prague is its rich history, simple beauty, and opportunity for the future. The river Vltava meanders through the city and has provided equal opportunity for Prague’s artisans and architects over the centuries to construct simple yet elegant bridges that cross its banks. The most famous of these bridges is the St. Charles Bridge, which was constructed in 1357. Adorned with 30 heroic and religious statues every 100 feet, the St. Charles Bridge is the most famous entry point into the medieval city. On the highest hill in the city lies the Prague Castle, the center point for political and religious power across the entire region. The Hapsburg’s created a self-contained society within the castle’s confines. Most notable of these castle structures is the St. Vitus Cathedral, which is fashioned in the Gothic style of the day, complete with spires and gargoyles. From within the cathedral’s walls you feel the enormity of its inner sanctum and admiration for its colorful stained glass.

For the best views in all of Prague, one does not even have to leave the cathedral, but rather ascend 287 steps within a spiral staircase that transports you to a lookout from the church’s highest spire. Red tiled rooftops as well as pointed and domed church towers adorn your line of sight down to the St. Charles Bridge.

Prague takes on a whole new look at night, as some of the cities most famous landmarks are bathed in luminescence. The Prague Castle casts a glow from its perch high above the city and the National Opera House stands majestic and bright along the banks of the Vltava. Down on the St. Charles Bridge darkness does not stop the bustle and goings on.

To frame Prague up, it is a city with rich history, grandeur, and beauty. It is also a working model of how enterprising young Czechs, who once given the freedom of democracy, now are bringing their country out from under the ashes of a failed ideology to experience rugged individualism that serves not only to bolster national pride but also to spur on economic development. It is yet to be seen if Prague can capitalize on its own vision to become the center of Europe once again, but to call Prague a relic of a by-gone and forgotten era is a grave underestimation of these industrious and freedom-loving people.

Wednesday, September 10, 2003

Time to Play Catch-Up

I knew it was bound to happen: lots of work, many more activities, and none of the time to write about any of them. Two weeks have passed and my responsibility to document these goings on has passed right along with them. In order to make good, I will try and play a little catch-up.

Two weekends ago, Keith and I struck out for Salzburg. We were primed and ready with our trusty MapPoint Europe 2003 printouts that would show us every turn and nuance on our way from Munich. The only problem was, we did not take into account that severe thunderstorms the night before had closed main traffic arteries from Italy, and the stretch of Autobahn we were planning to take was choked with weekend traffic. We were told this information by my landlord, who just happened to be over that Saturday morning to repair my TV antenna. When he heard of our planned route, he immediate snapped into gear and mapped out an alternative one.

The new route was not going to have us break any land-speed records, but then neither were any of those sorry saps that had turned the world’s fastest highway system into a parking lot. Keith and I were not fazed, and if anything we were excited. Our new pathway took us through some marvelous countryside. I can’t tell you the number of small and charming towns we rolled past. Each one looking sleepier than the next, with green fields of grass and corn stalks that were twice as tall as the average man.

As we approached the border with Austria, I suddenly realized that I had forgotten my passport. “Think they’ll accept an Oregon Drivers License”, I said to Keith. “You better hope so, cause I am not turning around”, Keith responded. It was no worry at all because the concept of a “border” seems like a formality in the new European Union. The only indication that we were actually in Austria was a sign that said, well “Austria”. Simple = Good. Keith didn’t even have to stop the car. We were wondering if armed guards, who may be distant cousins of Arnold and who wanted to act like him as an action hero, might soon be attempting to shoot out our tires for not stopping. We just kept motoring along however, and soon found a parking spot along side the Salzach River.

Now Salzburg is known throughout the world for primarily two things. First, it is the city where Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart was born. You can actually tour the actual home where he spent his youth. Second, the surrounding mountains and hillsides just outside of Salzburg were used in the filming of the musical classic, The Sound of Music. The actual sound of music, the kind you hear when people play real instruments, could be heard all over the old town section that Keith and I explored for the day.

Keith and I wanted to journey up to the city fortress that once protected and now overlooks Salzburg. We discovered that there is a tram that ascends the almost vertical incline directly to the fortress, but Keith and I were too proud, and too cheap, to buy a ticket. We instead thought it would be much better if we took the winding cobblestone street that lead to the entrance. Along the way, we had some impressive views of Salzburg.

When we got to the entrance gate, we discovered that no one was manning the tollbooth. To me, this meant it was time to hop the turnstile and continue with our journey. I wasn’t two paces beyond fully executing my plan however, when the toll operator, coming back from a bio-break, caught me red handed. I received a few scolding words in German that needed no translation. Keith and I both paid our admittance and headed up into the bowels of the fortress. The views from atop the structure were breathtaking. From one side you could see the city below, and from the other you could see the hills that were surely alive with the sound of music still to this day.

As we descended back down through the fortress, we noticed that the tollgate was now fully open and my good friend had turned in for the evening. Maybe if I hadn’t tried to sneak my way in, our little friend would have let us in on the secret that if we waited just 10 more minutes, we could have got in for free.

To be honest, Keith and I didn’t even scratch the surface of what Salzburg has to offer. Only being about 1:30 minutes from Munich however, I am sure we will go back. We decided to take the Autobahn back on the way home, but Keith wanted to fill up with fuel first, since it appeared gas in Austria was about 20% cheaper than in Germany. Americans will get a serious case of sticker shock the first time they go to top off Ole Betsy in Europe. To fill up your tank costs about 55 Euro, or the equivalent of $60. Ouch! Yeah, that is exactly what I said! No wonder people use public transportation so much. Poor Frank was the first one of us to discover this pummeling at the pump. He is now reconsidering whether he really wants a car during his yearlong assignment. I told him he could always get a SmartCar if he is worried about economy. He’d have just enough room for him and his laptop (maybe), but oh just think of the savings.

The next day on Sunday, Keith and I headed to Olympic Park, the site where the 1972 Olympics were held in Munich. Olympic Park contains one of the few groupings of hills within the confines of Munich proper. From atop these hills, you can see the world headquarters for BMW, as well as the observatory tower that is one of the most famous landmarks in the whole city. Also from these hills is a small set of benches that tell the story of the seven Israeli athletes that were held hostage and eventually killed by Palestinian terrorists during these games that will forever have the mark of death upon them. It is sad that after 31 years not much has improved the relations between these two peoples.

Keith and I went to the top of the observatory tower, riding the elevator that makes the 250-meter climb in about 20 seconds. Out on the deck you can see all of Munich beneath you. On a clear day, we were told you can even see the Alps in the near distance.

While we were looking out from the tower, we spied a basketball court within the park. Upon exiting the elevator from our trip back down to earth, we made a beeline for the courts, as there appeared to be some action. When we got to the court we saw several Dirk Nowitzkis in the making. Basketball still lies in the shadows behind soccer in Germany, but it is catching on nonetheless, thanks to the play of Dirk and other Europeans in the NBA. Unfortunately the popularity of the NBA has brought out a lot of flashy wannabe crossover, behind-the-back, no-look-pass, and then puke up a shot with two men in your face kind of play. Now this is all done, mind you, exclusively with the player’s right hand, as the players I observed could not dribble with their off hand.

I really hated the NBA at that moment. I hated what they had done to my game…our game. It is no longer a game about teamwork but rather how flashy you can be and how many endorsements you can generate. These German kids probably didn’t know or understand that the last time the Americans played in International competition with an ensemble of NBA individuals, they finished a miserable 6th place. They were beaten soundly by teams such as Argentina who functioned as a cohesive unit and broke down the American’s lack of defense and poor shot selection. Keith and I both wanted to play so bad that we must have had the look of depravity on our faces.

At one point we were motioned onto the court by two young German kids for a little game of 2-on-2. Keith and I were taller and more basketball wise, but we each gave up about 13 years on these kids. Needless to say, it wasn’t even close. We built a 9-0 lead before letting the kids rain in a few three-pointers to make it close, but the game was never in any serious jeopardy. Keith and I agreed to come back to the courts again, and this time look for a little more competition. We walked back to my apartment sweaty in our jeans and sweaters that were definitely not our preferred gym attire. We didn’t know that we would be called into action to represent our country by playing our game. We halfway expected this to be our duty as basketball loving guys, and we felt good that we had defended her honor proudly.

Wednesday of last week, I had a 3-day offsite meeting in the resort town of Garmisch. Alexei, my Russian co-worker who I am closely working with on my European Marketing Program, joined me on the drive. Alexei will be taking over for me in Europe once I return back to the States. He and I are working great together, but this was a special time for us to bond more effectively during the trek to Garmisch.

We left work at the end of the day on Wednesday, maps in hand of course, and struck out to navigate our way to Garmisch. Why in the world the maps had us go right through the center of Munich to begin our voyage, I have no idea. Just think of this for all of you back home: You have an American at the wheel, who never pulls over for directions; and you have a Russian in the passenger seat acting as navigator, who like his American comrade cannot read or understand road signs written in German. If this is not Glasnost personified, then I don’t know what is. “I think you should have turned there”, uttered Alexei in flawless English. “You think”, I questioned. It didn’t help that in Munich the name of a street can change three times in one square block. “Yep, you definitely should have turned back there”, urged Alexei. “Maybe we should ask someone”, he volleyed. “Naw, I think I see the river, and I got lost here the other night, so I think I know were I am”, I said confidently. Just before Alexei was about to teach me some curse words in Russian, we found the on-ramp to the Autobahn. “Patience is a virtue young Jedi”. Not sure if that line ever made it to Moscow.

Alexei was just as enamored with the limitless speed of the Autobahn as I was. “How fast have you driven your car here”, he said in a way that sounded very much like a challenge. “180 KMH”, I answered, which was the equivalent to 112 MPH. “I guess you don’t drive that fast in the States normally”, said Alexei. “Not unless we want to go to jail”, I quipped. Feeling much more comfortable with one another, Alexei asked to see what Old Girl had in her. I dropped the throttle and watched both the speedometer and the tachometer climb. The smile on Alexei’s face was priceless. I noticed his hand had slowly migrated to the “Oh Shit” position towards the roof liner of the car. I looked down at the speedometer at one point, and it read 230KMH, which is approximately 140MPH. The funny thing was that my foot was still not on the floor. My hands were sweating profusely as I had never driven anything this fast before. “You are flying”, Alexei let out with a burst. I guess this would be the next closest thing to flying a jet I may ever encounter. We were screaming by slower cars in the far left lane at this point. I tried hard to make only minor adjustments to the wheel to make my turns. I knew I had become accustomed to driving at that speed, when we had to break because of slower traffic ahead. I had to slow down to about 100MPH and it felt slow!

We found our hotel that evening, nestled amongst the Alps of southern Germany. In the winter, Garmisch possesses some of the best skiing anywhere in the Alps, but in the late summer, I couldn’t imagine a more serene and strikingly beautiful place. The Alps literally ascend before your very eyes in this little mountain village. While on one of my only breaks of free time during the days of meetings, I strolled alongside a wonderful lake that was replenished with glacier runoff. The trail winded through a marvelous meadow that appeared to be the front yard for the imposing yet grand Alps. I continued on the trail past the meadow and was soon swallowed up by a forest of firs, which were nice enough to let a few rays of sun fall through their outstretched canopy.

That night, we walked from the hotel to a structure that resembled a winter cabin, now converted into a lovely Bavarian restaurant. Along the way, we saw the last glimmer of sun as is shined onto the open fields and then as it reflected back a pink hew at the very tip of massive peak amongst the Alps.

This past weekend, I stayed put in Munich. Keith and Frank were both back in the States for meetings, and to tell you the truth, I was looking forward to relaxing and getting to know Munich a little more. Friday night I didn’t do anything. I was at work until 7:30 that night trying to coordinate things with the States and I was beat.

Saturday I got up and did some minor maintenance on my bike, which was part of my shipment of contents that had finally arrived from the States last week. It was so great to have my things with me. What I cherished the most besides my bike was my CD collection. I finally could listen to my CDs and forgo the torture that has become German radio. It is not that German radio is bad, but the consistency of good music played in any one stretch of time does not measure up.

Once I pumped up the tires on my bike, I was off to the English Garden. I decided to take the trails through the garden that headed north out of town alongside the Isar River. I traveled outside the park’s bounds and right on ahead for another 10 KM. I took a break in the small German town of Giesling outside of Munich. I grabbed two bottles of apple juice and watched the locals carry out their afternoon errands. Life seemed so much slower outside of Munich.

I jumped back on the saddle and headed back the way I had come. I rode back to the Seehaus, which I have discussed in earlier entries, and enjoyed a Bavarian lunch. That night after a much-deserved shower and nap, I head out for Leopold Strasse. This is the main artery that delivers life to the Schwabing neighborhood, and on this night they were having a street party. For about a mile stretch of road, the entire street was closed off to cars. Food booths of all ethnic variations were represented, as well as the local breweries. Live music was abound every other block and a sea of people meandered from place to place. Leopold Strasse is known for artists marketing their wares and that night was no different. Handmade paintings, etchings, and photography were visible to all who passed by.

Sunday I headed for Olympic Park to see if I couldn’t scare up another game of basketball. I sprinted on my bike back to the courts that Keith and I had played on just a week prior. To my utter disappointment, there was no one there. I decided to camp out on a park bench and see if anyone might show up. My patience was rewarded as a group of five guys emerged one after the other. I stood up and asked one of them if we could play “drei-on-drei” (3-on-3). The guys were really friendly and two of them asked me where I was from. I always say America out of habit. Of course they know you are from America because you talk really funny. When they ask you where you are from, they want to know from which State. When I told them Oregon, one of them said he had always wanted to snowboard on Mt. Hood. Amazing! Here I was seeing some of the most beautiful ski resorts amongst the German Alps, and I have a German express to me his desire to board down Mt. Hood. I loved it!

My new team and I took the court and succeeded in winning a hard-fought first game. My shot was a little rusty, but my ball-handling skills allowed me to get as close to the hoop as I wanted, so I could at least draw some defense and open up shots for my teammates. This collection of guys was much better than the week prior. I had to get use to the fact that when the defensive team rebounds a shot here, they only have to take it back outside the trapezoid shaped lane, this includes towards the sidelines. I’ve always grown up playing that you must take it out to the top of the key. This new rule cost my guys a few points and the Germans loved catching me at it. Its ok, I got them back in spades several times and shut down their hottest shooting threat. I had watched this guy warm up and he was pretty good, but I had wondered what he would do if he had someone on him who could play defense, other than the “matador” style I had seen in Europe thus far. My thoughts proved correct. He could not get around when I shut off his strong hand, and it drove him nuts that I actually moved my feet on defense. He was left to pass the ball to teammates who couldn’t or wouldn’t shoot from outside. They tried running a few screens for him, but the guys on my team knew exactly what to do without any translation, when I hollered out “switch!”

The game helped beat some rust off of me and it was good exercise on a nice sunny day. I even made some friends with some guys who said they would come back next weekend to play. I think it would be nice to get some consistency playing hoops again. The nicest thing that occurred was when one of the German guys on my team, hearing that I did not bring a basketball with me, offered and then gave me one of his basketballs to keep. He said it was rough and worn, but if I wanted it I could have it. I thought this was great and I thanked him immensely. So now I have a basketball, a place to play, and some newfound friends who enjoy the game like I do. Hopefully this will be a good sign of things to come.

Wednesday, September 03, 2003

Service With a Smirk

Many academics and business leaders have acknowledged the social and financial transformation of numerous regions and countries into what is commonly called a Service Economy. It is the phenomenon when traditional manufacturing and industrial industries are slowly replaced by those businesses that focus on providing pure or semi-tangible services. This evolution is usually brought on by populations who experience higher wage growth, are more educated, and who deal increasingly as knowledge workers, as opposed to partaking in physical labor. Germany, and Munich in particular, with its explosion of multinational companies and their high-income employees, is a prime example. Gone are the labor-intensive factories, which have now been replaced by design, media, and professional service organizations.

One local German employee at Intel pointed out that there is currently a nation-wide glut of lawyers coming out of the university system in Germany, because no one wants to be a craftsman or a tradesman anymore. The only problem is that there is not enough turf for these lawyers to divvy up, and many are forced out of necessity to work in restaurants, bars, hotels, or other places to help pay the bills. Too many lawyers…sound familiar?

The above analysis is of course a macro view. What I was trying to hint at with the title of this entry was much more basic in nature. Although Munich has emerged from its migration as a Service Economy, it still lacks many of the basics that one generally accepts as principals of giving and receiving good service.

Principal #1: The Customer is Always Right
Maybe I have a guilty conscious, but there have been numerous times during my short three weeks in the Fatherland, where I have been made to feel responsible for service interruptions. My simple pleas for assistance in resolving these issues have not been met with a Can-Do attitude, but rather Can-You-Fix-This because I have better things to do.

For instance, my own Intel IT Support person made me feel personally responsible for having not found the appropriate ISP (Internet Service Provider) in order to effectively configure my DSL and get onto the Internet from home. I stood there for two minutes receiving a lecture, conducted with all the charm of a public flogging, on how nothing can be done without an ISP, and how he could not possibly imagine why I had not set this up. When he finally paused to take a replenishing breath, I interjected quickly, “Look, we can stand here for another five minutes and you can tell me all the things that I did not do, or you can come to the realization that I am in a country that is foreign to me and I was never told all the components I would need in order to get technical support. The fact remains, telling me all the things I have done wrong does not get either of us any closer to a solution. What I would like right now is your suggestions on how we both can resolve this situation.” He looked at me like I was crazy for a few seconds and then snapped back to life, “OK, here are a couple of local ISP’s that you can contact.” WOW, was that so hard?

Keith and Frank have had similar encounters with individuals that are supposed to be providing them with essential services, like finding an apartment in which to live. Both have had apartment tours where they visit potential units with their respective Housing Agent. Keith was told that he needed to make a decision quickly because he was coming dangerously close to exhausting his 5-visit maximum. Yes, that is correct, if you can’t make up your mind in five showings, you are on your own. Keith tried to explain to the Agent that in order for her to get paid, he needed her help in finding the appropriate apartment. If it happens on the first, fifth, of fifteenth visit, his satisfaction is the gateway to her commission check. He was informed that after the fifth visit; it would be up to him to find an apartment. And to add insult to injury, she suggested that when he did eventually find a unit, either through the newspaper or I suppose tribal knowledge, that he should contact her so she could confirm he had found a unit (and of course relay to Intel that their employee had found housing and to please forward the commission). Keith laughed and asked what possibly would be his motivation to tell her that he had found his own apartment. That was of course not the service for which Intel was paying.

Principal #2: Conduct Yourself with a Friendly and Warm Demeanor
We have all interacted with unenthusiastic service folks. It is obvious their minds are light years away from your situation or issue. Unfortunately, far too many times, the three of us have encountered this lack of sincerity and coldness. I want to add this disclaimer here and now that we have had a handful of very helpful service people, but by far the vast majority have sadly been of the former. To give the locals an ”out” I could possibly try to explain this behavior for one or all of the following reasons: 1) Warmth may not easily transcend to a person who is not operating in their native language. 2) Foreigner fatigue. Locals in Munich, because of its cosmopolitan nature, constantly have to endure people from all over the world speaking an array of different languages. You can just imagine how exhausted Americans would become from this. 3) Germans are not typically known for showing their outward emotions. OK, yes I just played the stereotype card, but I was scrambling for a third choice.

Keith and I, this past Saturday evening, retired to the Executive Suite at the Munich Park Hilton, where guests can partake in party snacks and free beverages, all while enjoying the views of Munich from the 15th floor. We arrived about 15 minutes before they were about to close, but figured we could grab a quick snack. We snatched our own bowl of pretzels and Chex Mix and a fruit juice and headed for two plush leather chairs overlooking the balcony. Before we even sunk into our chairs, we were approached by a twenty-something young lady that by all appearances looked to be our hostess for the evening. Rather than welcome us or explain that they would soon close down in 15 minutes, she instead told us that they would be closing and to please not settle-in but instead leave. Now this lady’s English was impeccable, so my only thought was that she must have had a date with her friends right at eleven o’clock and we were two people that would cause her to be late. The only problem was that there was an entire room of about 12 people that were already seated and enjoying their snacks. When Keith brought this up to our Hostess, she said, “Well, they have been here for a while and are already engaged in conversation, whereas you and your friend have only just sat down. So Sir, would you please leave.”

I barely withheld my laughter from pure astonishment. Keith took her aside and tried to plead our case, since it was still 15 minutes before they officially closed. First thing she did was to go to the guest registry computer and verify whether he was actually a guest. Keep in mind that Keith has been staying at this hotel going on three weeks. After that, Keith said he could not understand why only he and I were asked to leave when all the other quests were allowed to stay. She retorted by saying that if he wished her to inform the other guests that they must now leave, she would gladly accommodate that request. That was not what Keith wanted at all. He didn’t want to inconvenience the other guests; he simply wanted the two of us to enjoy the last 15 minutes of time. She would not budge and instead then walked over and informed each table of guests that they would now have to leave, upon which everyone looked at us, as if it was our fault. Maybe in this bizarre service culture it somehow was. What was astonishing was that Hilton Hotels are a global entity and their regard for service is well renowned. How this element of their service stopped short at the German border is beyond my understanding.

Principal #3: Exhaust All Means to Satisfy the Customer
Customer satisfaction is the ultimate goal for any service organization. What apparently gets in the way of this result here in Germany are narrowly defined job functions which few are willing to bend, even if that means it would assist the customer. Keith was in an unfortunate no-man’s land as he was immigrating to Germany to work for the next two years. Because of numerous failures on all sides, he had yet to be paid for the last month of work and was unable to obtain any local health insurance. When he went to the local Munich office’s HR department pleading for assistance to help resolve this matter, he was told that his HR representatives in the States should have told him what to do and that their role was to simply hire him and process his local employment permit with the German government. There was no outward willingness to knock down barriers and provide urgent assistance to someone that was new to a job, a country, and wasn’t even being paid for his efforts. From their perspective, Keith’s dilemma was someone else’s responsibility and therefore their own hands were tied. Fortunately Keith did not stand for this and contacted the Head of European HR for Intel and explained the situation. By the end of the day the same HR folks that could not possibly render assistance were kicking off the process to get Keith’s payroll and health insurance needs resolved.

This is by no means an outlying example. Another co-worker, who is originally from Russia, expressed to me his experiences with German service and how it contrasted from that which he had experienced in America. In Germany, he explained, if you can’t find the right item from a shop, the experience ends right there. You are out of luck. In America he said, he was astonished when a local shop owner, who did not have his specific item in stock, referred him to a competitor down the street. The focus was entirely different. In Germany, if one customer is not satisfied, then there will soon be another one to replace them. It is almost transactional in nature. In contrast, the American shop owner viewed the customer’s ultimate satisfaction as key, and the possibility of delivering a relationship experience was the motivation. A nice analysis from a third party source who has experienced a wide range of service delivery from the Communist bread lines in Moscow as a youth, to the fancy high-end shops of San Francisco’s Union Square.

By no means is this entry meant to reflect on the local German people that one would meet on the street. We have all found the locals extremely helpful when trying to navigate through twisting streets and crowded train stations for example. It was simply an analysis of the common experiences we are having when trying to receive services for which our organization or we are paying. The divide between our service expectations and the relative apathetic attempts to meet them may be more based in culture and how locals define their roles within this Service Economy. It might also be explained by the German pension for process and transactional efficiency, which generally leaves little room for customization or out-of-cycle decision-making. Either way, it is the small differences that we are leaning to appreciate. And if we can have a good laugh in the process and tell stories on one another, then I guess we are getting by just fine.