A time to make friends … but how about friendly customer service?

The motto of the FIFA World Cup 2006 in Germany is “A time to make friends”. Germany wants to build on this slogan and promote itself as a visitor-friendly country, described as Germany’s new pitch in a TIME article. When it comes to businesses serving these visitors, this would require though decent service levels. And here is Germany’s biggest deficiency.

Customer experience offered by most German companies has a very low priority, if any at all. Customer service is not defined by the company, but depends heavily on the customer-facing employees, which leads to varying levels of customer service with a hit or miss experience for the customers.

In fact, for most German companies the business objective doesn’t seem to be about satisfying customer needs, which then naturally leads to meeting financial objectives. The business objective seems to be to execute predefined processes, regardless of how well they help meeting financial goals.

If a customer request deviates even slightly from the predefined process, the first response you hear is “Es ist unmöglich!” (It’s impossible!). If the customer insists on the solution she or he wants, it turns out many times that it is actually possible. However, it’s simply ridiculous that a customer needs to fight with a company to get things done his or her way. And how many German customers never demand what they actually want?

World Cup visitors can experience the poor service levels with every business they interact, whether it’s a restaurant, a hotel, or a retail store. This poor service experience isn’t always “in your face”, but comes in nuances that may not be obvious at first. However, over time these incidents accumulate and become annoying.

So, what can World Cup visitors expect? For example, when sitting down in a restaurant and asking for a menu after ten minutes they may be greeted with a sigh indicating how bothersome that request is to the server. Or when asking a sales clerk in a store in which aisle to find a particular item, the response will most likely be just a silent arm movement pointing in a particular direction. Some clerks place more importance on unloading merchandise, taking inventory or chatting with their colleagues than on serving customers.

Some World Cup visitors may actually be lucky and interact with service personnel, which took special “customer friendliness” training as preparation for the World Cup. Yes, it’s true; some German businesses are aware of the poor service offerings in comparison with other nations and trained their employees to be more customer-friendly.

Take the Bavarian hotel and restaurant association for example. With Bavaria hosting some of the football games, the association provides information and training to its members on how to act friendly towards international visitors. What will happen after the World Cup? Will consumers be exposed again to the typical “charm” of the Bavarian servers?

Let’s see if attempts to teach customer friendliness will be successful. And let’s hope that World Cup visitors will make friends in Germany, although this may not be with businesses they have to deal with.

Stay tuned for more on poor service levels in Germany, their causes, implications for Germany-based companies, and opportunities for service-friendly businesses.

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