People who gas on about Europe’s need to liberalize labor markets, privatize state-owned industries, and reduce the paperwork burden on entrepreneurs and so forth in order to facilitate the transition to an information-age, service-based economy, blah, blah, blah (and I gas on like that a lot these days) could save much time and breath with a single pithy recommendation:
European business needs to learn to call you back.
I long ago stopped counting the times merchants have told me, “I’m sorry, the person who handles that isn’t in right now. Can you try back in the afternoon?” Usually they don’t even say sorry.
It goes without saying that since I need something from them, I should be the one making the effort. It doesn’t enter their heads that they need something from me — namely business.
Some months ago my wife and I stopped getting voice-mail messages. After a couple of days, finding it hard to believe that all our friends and relatives had blown us off at once, I called the phone company to ask what was wrong.
“The system’s down while they reconfigure it,” said the customer service specialist.
“Well, I didn’t know that,” I said.
“Oh, that’s all right,” he said cheerfully. In other words: I wasn’t to feel bad about having bothered him.
Telephonic exchanges are predictably frustrating this way, but it’s not as if they treat you any better in person. The other day my wife and I were in a cutlery store to buy a cheese knife. The utensil lay there in front of us. I held my credit card, ready to pay.
“Hmm,” said the woman on the other side of the counter, after rummaging around for a quarter of an hour, “I can’t seem to find the price. Can you come back tomorrow?”
Please note that this wasn’t some nose-studded, vacant-eyed, minimum-wage-earning teenager. This was the owner.
Small shops in Italy are almost always owned and run by families. The profit goes directly into their pockets, often without stopping at the tax man’s. Yet they still won’t make it easy for you to hand over your cash.
The other evening my wife went into our neighborhood florist, looking for a simple bouquet of something to put on our dinner table.
“I thought I locked that door,” the proprietor said when she saw my wife, whom she surely recognized as a regular customer. “We’re closed.”
My wife went away without any flowers, the euros she had planned to spend still inside her purse.
At least the woman didn’t attack her customer, like a certain parking attendant at a local restaurant, who came running up and shouted at us after we unwittingly pulled into a reserved space. When my wife tried to ask him what was going on, he only raised his voiced further, and his posture suggested that he might turn violent. A DEA agent busting a gang of cocaine smugglers would have treated his suspects with greater delicacy.
When I told the man that I would report him to his boss, he scoffed — and with good reason. The restaurant owner rolled her eyes, as if I were recounting the antics of some lovable scamp. “Thanks for telling me,” she said, with no hint of apology.
With things this bad in the private sector, you can imagine how they are in the public. In case you can’t, here’s an example.
Earlier this summer we needed to contact a certain government office in Rome (which I won’t name, for fear of provoking reprisals). For a couple of weeks we phoned at least twice every workday, never getting an answer. The switchboard operator assured us that we had the right number, and that the people at the other end must be in meetings, out to lunch, in the bathroom, etc. We seriously considered making a five-hour trip to resolve the question in person.
Then one day somebody answered — and immediately hung up again. At which point we did what any self-respecting Italian in confrontation with an intransigent and contemptuous bureaucracy would do. We gave up.
My wife assured me that it would all sort itself out eventually, and in choosing to believe her, I took a huge step toward thinking like an Italian myself. Yet the epilogue still came as a shock.
Some weeks later my wife met an employee of the very ministry we had been trying to deal with, and told her about our frustrations.
“But those numbers are for the public,” the woman explained. “Nobody ever answers them.” She gave us a different number and told us to use her name. We did so and at once found out what we needed.
The next time you’re tempted to curse American bureaucracy, by all means go ahead and do so; but it might console you to know what it’s like on the other side of the Atlantic. The District of Columbia Department of Motor Vehicles runs like a Rolls Royce engine compared to the equivalent department in my town. (I’ll spare you an account, at least for this week, of my epic struggle to obtain an Italian driver’s license.)
Apologists (and I frequently am one) for the Old World way of life like to point out the bright side of bad service. People here, they say, aren’t driven by the single-minded pursuit of profit. They maintain a healthy balance between work and leisure. So what if you miss a chance to make more money? That’s a price well worth paying for more time with family, meals of civilized length, and vacations in which you truly leave work behind.
Never mind that courtesy is supposed to be an Old World value too. The main flaw in this excuse is that you end up wasting your leisure time visiting shops that won’t serve you, phoning offices that won’t answer, and standing helplessly at the counter while two clerks finish their chat. You know there’s no point in taking your business elsewhere, because they’ll treat you the same way there.
This has got to change, I tell myself. When European companies lose their state subsidies and have to face global competition unprotected; when shopkeepers lose the crutch of legally enforced closing hours and have to survive against 24-hour superstores; when workers lose their lifetime-employment guarantees and have to perform to keep their jobs — then it might occur to them to stop taking customers for granted. And when European governments get leaner, well, they’ll probably be even harder to deal with, but at least they’ll employ fewer people to ignore and insult fellow citizens.
All this will be painful, of course, but there are times when the aggrieved consumer in me looks forward to that. Maybe the process of my Europeanization is not as far advanced as I thought.