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 Gone are the labor-intensive factories, which have now been replaced by design, media, and professional service organizations.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.


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