Customer Service: Are You Being Served?

20 Nov 2015 3:48 AM | FIGT Blog Editor (Administrator)

A big faux pas occurred in July of 2013 when a salesclerk in a handbag shop near Zurich, Switzerland declined to unlock in a display cabinet and let the client, Oprah Winfrey, see and touch the expensive handbag, $38,000.  Ms. Winfrey felt she had experienced racist treatment, although the store management denied any discriminatory behavior.

Not being present, it is difficult to comment on the events, however customer services varies significantly around the world.  In many countries a person should only ask the price of an item or ask to have it taken from a display case if they plan to buy it.  Conversely, in other places you can look at any and everything without any obligation to buy. Behavior by one sales assistant might be perfectly normal in one location but can perceived as rude and unacceptable by one person or insincere and intrusive by another.

Consider the following two examples:

My husband and I went into a furniture shop to look for a new living room table.  We wanted to look around to get some ideas about what was available.  After asking one question about the type of wood, the salesman followed us throughout the store; he was eager to answer all our questions.  While he was trying to be very helpful and informative, I was annoyed by the fact that he always directed his answers to my husband.  Did he think I wouldn’t understand or did he believe my husband made the bigger financial decisions? In some cultures it is more respectful of the couple to address the male of the pair but for someone from an egalitarian culture it can be frustrating.

Robert walked into a shop but he was completely ignored, no acknowledging nod or smile from the sales assistant.  The employee was helping someone else.  Robert wondered why the clerk couldn’t simply say “I’ll be right with you”.  This is the type of customer service that he was used.  However, is this a reasonable expectation?  Perhaps the sales woman has been trained to give 100% to the patron in front of her.  Would you want the clerk to interrupt your service to focus elsewhere, especially if an additional 10 additional customers entered the shop?  It is never easy to serve multiple customers, so who should be served first?   

Frequently, when customer service is different than we are used to and all too often we assume that the sales person is slightly us, because of ethnicity, gender or economic status.  However, it may be much less sinister; it may be simply another approach to customer service. Was Oprah justified in her reaction or should she have wondered if there was cultural reason for the actions and more innocent a foot?

Tell us about the customer service experience that surprised you.

Contributed by Elizabeth Vennekens­Kelly, an intercultural trainer, consultant and author. Elizabeth helps individuals to be prepared for their expat assignments and she encourages assignees to exam all aspects of expat life so they have realistic expectations. Elizabeth combines her familiarity of expat living and intercultural knowledge to help people to develop the knowledge and skills to be successful in multicultural situations. She is a member of various organizations: VOKA, VIW, FAWCO, SIETAR and FIGT. For more from Elizabeth go to

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