Customer Disservice


Among the few things that anger me is bad customer service, especially in Iceland. Now, I know Iceland’s economy suffering, and businesses are going bankrupt by the day, and the last thing we’re told to do is avoid the shops, but I have to draw the line somewhere.

What is so difficult about looking at a customer when you serve them? Perhaps even saying hello, or at least replying when you are greeted? Actually, how about serving the customer in the first place?

I have numerous examples of terrible customer service here in Iceland. There was the time I was at the local electronics store. As I approached the sole cashier, a teenage girl, she stepped back and starting chatting casually to another staff member, aware that I was waiting. She then pulled out a chocolate bar, devoured it and even had the nerve to throw the wrapper in my direction—it landed just in front of me.

By this time, another customer had begun waiting in line to be served, yet the girl continued to chat and laugh with her colleague glaring in our direction. In the end I walked out. I have avoided another store for the same reason: staff too busy chatting to be bothered with actually doing their job. Another time my friend and I waited for half an hour for our teenage waiter to bring us two cups of tea despite the café being almost empty. Unbelievable.

At one supermarket chain in Reykjavík, items are often scanned for more than they are advertised for. When I point this out, I’m usually treated like it is somehow my fault that the staff hasn’t yet changed the price tags on the shelves. At the supermarket I worked at during high school back in Australia, the customer got the product for free if it was scanned at a higher price.

A while back I wrote about how asking for no plastic bag is generally unwelcome. “I regularly ask not to be given a plastic bag, only to be greeted with a look of surprise, and even disgust. Earlier this week I bought a memory card for my camera and said that a bag would not be necessary—the package was quite small and there was no reason why I couldn't simply put it in my handbag—but the cashier had already whipped out a bag from under the counter before I had even finished the sentence. After a heavy sigh and look of disgust, the cashier allowed me to leave without a plastic bag. I'm not always so lucky,” I wrote.

But, my all-time worst experience happened recently while traveling in Reykjavík by bus. I had planned to get off at a stop that I don’t usually get off at. Being night, it was particularly difficult to follow exactly where I was, so thinking the bus was approaching my stop I pressed the button requesting the bus driver to pull over.

I quickly realized, though, that I had done so one stop too early. I called out to the bus driver that I didn’t want to get off just yet. He was clearly angry. I pressed the button for the next stop but when it was clear that he wasn’t going to pull over I called out for him telling him that I wanted to get off. To my surprise, he ignored me. I walked to the front of the bus and asked him why he hadn’t stopped. He replied that no one had gotten out at the previous stop despite having requested it, so he wasn’t going to stop now.

There are few things that make me furious in public, and bad customer service tops the list. I reminded him that it was his job to drive and stop the bus and asked him if just because someone had requested to get off and then didn’t, if that meant that he wouldn’t stop for the rest of the evening.

I let him know that I didn’t usually get off in that area and that he should be used to passengers unfamiliar with certain routes and that it was essentially his job to deal with that. The guy just looked at me; probably a little shocked at my outburst, and let me off at the next stop so I could walk back to where I had wanted to get off.

But seriously, not stopping the bus when a passenger requests because you don’t feel like it, what bad customer service! And, it’s certainly not the first time that I, or friends of mine, have experienced such lack of service. And don’t get me started with the bank or tax office (although, I would like to report that recent dealings with tax office staff suggest an improvement).

Then there is my experience with plumbers. Earlier this year my boyfriend and I noticed a leak in our bathroom so we ordered a plumber. Instead of fixing the problem, the guy ended up breaking something and essentially made the problem much worse. However, he still demanded payment and refused to come back to fix the new problem that he had created. Two plumbers and a small fortune in bills later, the problem still persists.

When I first arrived in Iceland, I worked at a restaurant for a few months. The place was always busy despite the food being horrible and the service a joke. Naturally, complaints were common. But, instead of trying to do something about it, and apologizing to customers, staff, including the manager, would argue with customers or, even worse, ignore them. What ever happened to the idea that the customer is always right? Businesses should never take their customers for granted.

Bjarni has also written about this issue. He wrote that teenagers these days have it easy and that hard labor and a strong work ethic among teenagers is a thing of the past.

He recalled an experience of a friend who had visited IKEA and had been told by the male teenage staff member that he “just couldn’t care less” about serving her. He wrote that behavior like this was “becoming somewhat of a norm among young Icelanders who work in the ever-growing service industry.”

Bjarni also commented that many people working in the service industry are “young, inexperienced and with very little knowledge of what they are doing or what they are selling.” He went on to say that there was no pressure for people, teenagers in particular, to keep their jobs as they could easily find a new job if they decided to quit or if they were fired.

So, perhaps there is less incentive for them to actually try and do their job. Bjarni also wrote that a friend of his in the construction industry had told him that many young Icelandic workers that he had hired had “very poor work ethic” and that he prefers Poles.

“They don’t hang on the phone all day and come up with bad excuses like having to go to the dentist every two hours of each working day. They simply work better and for that I am willing to pay,” his friend said.

Now that the country has gone into recession, young Icelanders will no longer have everything handed to them on a plate. Will this have an impact on how they perform at work? Customers are what pay salaries and keep you in your job after all.

It’s true that there may not be many incentives for individuals to provide good customer service, unless they are working on a commission basis or customers tell their boss what a great job they did. But, what ever happened to the pleasure of simply doing a job well?

A friend recently mentioned that a friend of his who owns a café is, in light of the current economic situation, trying to improve customer service in the hope customers will keep coming back. I hope others will follow suit.

I’m not suggesting that all customer service in Iceland is terrible. Of course I have experienced people doing their job at the minimum level—but I wouldn’t say that I have experienced anyone going that little bit further to help a customer.

Apart from perhaps a hotel owner in the West Fjords who went out of her way to give us advice on how to best explore the region. I found customer service in the West Fjords in general to be better than in the capital, perhaps partly because people in general seem a lot friendlier and more laid back in the countryside.

In any case, providing basic customer service is simple. Surely, most consumers only expect to be greeted with a smile (at least be given the illusion that staff care) and have their request dealt with. It’s not rocket science. Failing that, customer service employees should all be shipped off to Japan for training where they take customer service (or at least politeness) to a whole new level.

ZR –

Views expressed here are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect the opinions of Iceland Review.