Americans and other expats who complain about bad customer service in Germany are looking at the issue all wrong.
Customer service in Germany gets a pretty bad rap. There are thousands of blog posts, forum posts and social media updates about how terrible customer service is here. People often comment on the rudeness of everyone working in any customer service position.
From my experience, the truth is quite different. I feel that these negative views about customer service come mainly from Americans who haven’t experienced customer service in any other country besides Germany and the US. American customer service is very unique compared to the customer service in my home country of Australia or any other place I’ve visited during my travels around the world.
German customer service: a different perspective
People working in customer service in the US are desperately trying to prove that they are providing good customer service, so much so they go a little overboard. As soon as you walk into a shop, you are besieged by someone whose face is plastered with a huge fake smile, asking you a million questions about what you are seeking. I find it extremely overwhelming, to be honest. Here in Germany, people let you shop in peace. If you want to know something, you find someone and ask. I can understand how this is perceived as bad customer service by those used to the the US model.
In my personal experiences, customer service in Germany is pretty good. Yes, of course, you encounter a whole range of people working in customer service from the extremely helpful and friendly to the downright rude and insulting, but isn’t that the same in any other country?
The power of (German) language
On the whole, people here are willing to help you if you aren’t demanding or rude. There is some negativity if you refuse to speak any German and insist on only speaking English. But let’s be real here – would you expect a minimum wage worker in the US to be able to speak a second language? Then why do you expect it in Germany? Yes, kids do get taught English at school but it doesn’t mean that they actually learn how to speak it with confidence, if at all.
Use what German you do know and try and laugh off your mistakes or at least don’t get visibility upset or stressed about it. You will see that the customer service you get back will be a thousand times better than if you insist on speaking English. I even had a running joke that lasted for months on end with my local bakery staff that stemmed from my colossal language mess-up while ordering one day.
Germans get how hard it is to learn their language and they will, on the whole, give you a lot of patience and understanding (and sometimes help) if you just try speaking it. If you are a regular there, they will also remember you, especially if you are the only one who speaks German with an accent. It is a nice way to build a rapport. I have inadvertently trained four different sets of bakery staff over the years to remember my breakfast order, including the current dour-faced grumpy one who will even grace me with a rare smile that the German customers most definitely do not get.
Seriously, a smile and a friendly attitude will get you better customer service than a frown and being difficult. German service staff are not required to be nice to you, unlike the poor ones working in the US. If you treat them rudely, they will not hesitate to do the same.
One last story, because this really blew me away. Just this week, I took a prescription to the pharmacy. One of the drugs that I required was no longer available. Not only did the pharmacist ring to tell me, they also called the manufacturer of the drug, who was located in Austria, to find out why they were no longer making the drug. And then, unbeknown to me at the time, they called my doctor to let him know. When I turned up at my doctor ready to explain the whole story, he was already in the know and had a solution ready. Now, that is beyond good customer service!
Good customer service in Germany is not a myth
Good customer service exists in Germany but you have to be a good customer in order to receive it. Remember to always be friendly, patient and understanding to the person behind the counter. Speak as much German as you able to and don’t get upset if you mess up. In fact, laughing at your mistakes will more often than not earn you a friend behind that counter for as long as you shop there.
This might just sound like common decency, but you would be surprised at the number of people who forget to do so, especially if they take offense to Germany’s different approach to customer service. Yes, the level of customer service you receive in Germany may be different from what you get back home, but it is just different, not worse. And remember, jerks exist everywhere in this world and are not confined to a certain nationality.