Category Archives: Service

I have to WAIT to pay?!

Last Sunday afternoon I made the grave error of going to a central shopping mall which is notorious for being a crowded cluster fuck. I had a grand total of four items and, when I saw the line of people snaking away from the “express” check out lane, I nearly dropped my items and walked out, filled with rage at the prospect that *I* would have to wait in line to *give* them *my* money.

I feel Americans harbor a unique indignity and resentment for queuing. Rather than being seen as an unavoidable fact of life that must be endured, waiting in line is tantamount to a violation of one’s rights as a consumer and a citizen. I find Americans are much more likely to complain about having to wait and are much less patient about doing so. In the land of customer service, the customer is king and should not be made to wait. Especially not for the bill or to make payment. Who is serving who here?!

The British, on the other hand, are master queuers. British people are in their natural state while waiting in a queue; they do it automatically and naturally. On more than one occasion when I was living in the UK, I saw a British person join a queue as a default behavior, even if they could have easily avoided queuing.

For example, there were usually two registers at a Boots drug store: the main check out area near the front, and then a secondary check out in the cosmetics or pharmacy section. I would routinely do my check out at the latter two, where there were few to no customers. Meanwhile, there would usually be a long line of people at the front check out.

The queue was not something you questioned.  You just got in it. And across the pond, Americans (such as myself) are suffering from queue rage. How dare you!

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Filed under Practicalities, Service, Shopping

My name is Kim, I’ll be your server and your BFF!

Flair

Serving you with 37 pieces of flair.

The US is known for its good standard of customer service, and famously so in restaurants. The good reputation is that in an American restaurant, you will get better service, get served more quickly, get the bill more quickly  (whether you like it or not), and, for the privilege of all this excellent service, you will have to pay a tip of 15 to 20% above and beyond the cost of the meal.

Compare this to my experience when I lived in France, where table “service” fully lived up to its negative Gallic reputation. The waiters, who were supposedly professional career waiters, often seemed annoyed by my very existence and begrudgingly served me. I have a distinct memory of being in the south of France with  my ex-boyfriend on a particularly wet and windswept day. Despite the inclement weather, we had gone for a stroll along the waterfront (he was English and stubborn like that) and, to dry off  a bit, we decided to stop into a beachfront restaurant for a glass of wine.

We walked in, folded our umbrellas, and the waiter seated us at a table. But when he came to take our order and realized we only wanted to have a couple glasses of wine and not eat a meal (mind you, it was the middle of the afternoon and not even mealtime), he promptly told us we would need to move to another table. The restaurant was not in the least bit busy and there were plenty of tables free. But, when we went to move to another table, he said we could not sit there either; those tables were also reserved for people ordering a full meal. Where, then, could we sit to drink our glass of wine? He explained to us that we were welcome to sit at any one of the tables… outside. Needless to say, we promptly left.

American wait service is a breath of fresh air in comparison. But sometimes it is too much. Waiters and waitresses can be over-attentive to the point of suffocation. Saturday night I went to a café with my friend; we wanted to order a tea and dessert. I think the waitress must have come to our table at least 4 or 5 times. At one point, she even pulled up a stool and sat down while she took our order. She told us about her boyfriend and joked about where I’d disappeared off to when I went to the bathroom. She asked us several times if we wanted anything else. YES, I would like for you to GO AWAY and leave us in peace to enjoy our tea.

In Europe, I think this level of “service” would be considered invasive. The waiter or waitress is there to serve you, while causing as little disruption as possible to your personal meal and conversation. But here in the US, not only do the wait staff personally introduce themselves (“Hi, my name is Kim, and I’ll be your server today!”), but they have to be absurdly enthusiastic about it, and repeatedly visit your table every 5 to 10 minutes to inquire (again) “Is everything okay here?”

I guess you just can’t win.

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Filed under Food, Service

The bill, please. Or not.

Pay up and get out.

Pay up and get out.

I went for dinner with a foreign friend the other evening at a Thai restaurant. As soon as we had finished eating and the waitress had cleared our plates, she brought the bill and left it on the table. As she walked off, my friend looked at me funny and said, “Why did she bring us the bill? We didn’t ask for it.”

It takes living abroad, or interacting with foreigners visiting your own country as outsiders, to see yourself and your own habits. “Fish don’t know they’re in water,” as they say. Well this is a perfect example of a typical American habit that I had forgotten about.

In Europe, the waiter will never bring the bill to your table until you ask for it; indeed, to do so would be considered very rude. People take their time in restaurants, eating several courses and often hanging around for a while after they have finished eating, perhaps drinking another glass of wine or taking a coffee as the conversation continues.

In the US, restaurant meals tend to be a lot faster, in all respects. The waiter comes to your table more quickly to take your order, the food generally comes more quickly, people eat more quickly, and often the waiter will bring the bill (without you necessarily asking for it) shortly after you have finished eating (or sometimes – oh the horror – before you have even finished eating).

Of course, all of this depends on how fancy the restaurant is or isn’t; many lower-end eateries will make a habit of just delivering your bill to you along with the check. Nicer restaurants are less likely to bring your bill without you asking for it (or without them at least asking you if you want anything else). But generally speaking, I find restaurants in the US have a much faster customer turnaround, pushing diners out the door so they can fill their tables with the next set of paying customers.

If you do get a chance to actually ask for your bill, you can practice another Americanism by saying, “I’ll have the check, please.” This never made much sense to me, since calling a bill a check seems counter-intuitive. But whatever you call it, hurry up and pay and get out of the restaurant!

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The glass is always full

Stuck in the refill loop.

Stuck in the refill loop.

I got a coffee at the café the other day (yes, my life is full of excitement). It was your no-nonsense American black filtered coffee, served in a utilitarian white mug. I washed it down in no time. And then I asked for another. What I got was not another cup of coffee, but a REFILL.

The “refill” is a quintessentially American practice. It applies not only to coffee, but also to soft drinks (sadly, not alcoholic drinks… that would be a delightful but disastrous business model). You buy the drink once, then refill it to your heart’s desire without ever being charged for a second, third, fourth, or fifth cup.

If you’re at a diner, the coffee refill is likely to be repeatedly offered to you by a smiling, middle-aged, rotund waitress who perpetually circulates around the tables with a coffee pot in hand. If you’re at a fast food restaurant, you’ll probably have to get up to refill your own soda (yes, Americans drink several sodas in a row). But either way, you ain’t paying for it. Just like drinking water, it comes free and plenty.

Now some Europeans would say that the reason you get so many coffees is because you might as well be drinking water. For sure the coffee your’e getting free refills of isn’t an espresso or a cappuccino. It’s probably a pretty weak brew. Which is why you’ll likely agree to another. And you’ll never see the bottom of your cup for long.

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Life, liberty, and free drinking water

Free tastes so good.

Free tastes so good.

I loved dining out in London, but I always remember that awkward moment when I would ask the waiter or waitress for water and they would in turn ask, “Still or sparkling?” I would always answer, a bit under my breath and with slight embarrassment, “Just tap water please.” I often felt like I was being a cheap Plebian by opting for free tap water instead of buying the “fancy” bottled water.

People who live in the UK, US, or other developed countries are tremendously lucky to have access to clean, healthy, high quality potable water straight from the tap at an affordable price.  This is a privilege that many people in the world don’t enjoy. So why shouldn’t you drink it? Indeed, I feel like having access to drinking water, especially in public places, is a service that should be provided to citizens (and to the environment… think of all that wasted plastic).

And that’s one thing I love about being back in the US. There  are drinking fountains (aka “water fountains”) all over the place – in schools, in parks, in malls, in libraries, in airports, in stations – where you can quench your thirst for free. While drinking fountains seem to be on the rise in the UK, they aren’t nearly as prevalent as in the US. For example, the first water fountain installed in Hyde Park in more than 30 years was in 2009! And that is one of the most famous parks in London that must receive thousands of visitors per day. Yet it had no public drinking fountain. And now it has… one.

When I eat at a restaurant in the US, there is definitely no shame in asking for tap water to drink. Indeed, I don’t even have to ask for it – glasses of water are usually brought to your table as soon as you sit down! And of course it’s complimentary.

Tap water is 1,000 to 2,000 times cheaper than bottled water. In fact, bottled water is about three times more expensive per liter than gas. As a point of comparison, with the $2 that you spend on an (inexpensive) 1-liter bottle of water, you could buy 1,000 gallons of tap water. And, you wouldn’t be throwing a plastic bottle in the trash can after you slaked your thirst. Now there’s some food (water?) for thought.

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Can you hear me now?

That's all the love I have to give.

That’s all the love I have to give you. Click.

In many of the countries I traveled to in Africa, it wasn’t uncommon to find myself in places with no mobile phone reception. But, this was almost always in rural areas, on the road between towns, or out in the bush. And even then, it always amazed me how you would see cell phone towers in the most remote locations (often guarded by one lone man employed to watch the cell phone tower and usually living in a windowless, one-room, cinder block “house” next door).

Before I started traveling in Africa, it hadn’t even occurred to me that you could be out of cell phone network. I was a naive city girl used to living in densely populated metropolises like London, where the only place you couldn’t connect a call was in the underground. I honestly don’t think I can remember a single instance in which I tried to make a call in London and wasn’t able to connect it because of lack of coverage. I’d often draft text messages while I was in the tube, hit send, and as I was tapping out on my Oyster card and before I’d even made it up the stairs to street level, the message would go through.

Now, for the first time, I’m regularly using a cell phone in the US – the last time I lived state-side, I was using land lines like everyone else (!), and my visits home have been infrequent and short enough that I never needed a US cell phone. But now that I’m back for a while, and thanks to the “old” iPhone my brother generously donated to me, I find myself a regular cell user.

And my cell “reception” makes me want to throw my phone and stomp on it, pull my hair out, or both. I’ve repeatedly had calls drop, found myself in buildings with no reception, and had to huddle near windows and doors to make calls. Most of the time my phone displays only two bars for the level of reception. I’d complain about this more if it didn’t go down so often to just one bar.

Three or four bars is doing really well; I don’t think I’ve ever seen it display a full five bars, and I wouldn’t hope for it – I just don’t think it has that much love to give. What little bars it has in its heart it doles out meagerly, and when it needs some alone time, it pulls the silent treatment on me, that loveless dotted line of zero bars. Or worse yet, it walks out the door, leaving only a note that says “Searching…”

I just don’t get it. This is the service I have experienced in downtown San Francisco and Washington D.C., not on a dairy farm in Indiana. How on earth can the cell phone reception in the US be this bad? Am I missing something? Or does T-Mobile just suck salty cell phone towers and I need to switch carriers and/or install an antenna on my phone?

But even then, I just don’t understand how such a major carrier can offer such patchy service. My impression from my personal experience is that the extensiveness of the coverage and the quality of the calls is just much higher in many European countries than in the US.

I can understand that the US is a large country, with many rural areas, and many states probably have a notably lower population density than comparably sized European countries. But surely in the nation’s capital, I should be able to have reliable reception, no matter what street corner I’m standing on or no matter what building I’m inside. Am I being unreasonable?

I tried to do some research online to find some more concrete information that might back up my anecdotal evidence, but I wasn’t able to come up with anything. I’d really like to get to the bottom of this mystery. Any ideas? Anybody else have a similar experience?

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Filed under Communications, Service

Have a nice day!

It is universally known and accepted that America is the land of customer service. It is the place that has made the purchase and receipt of products or services so smooth, so pleasant, and so utterly effortless that you barely notice that you have just parted with your money. Welcome to the crib of coddled consumerists. Now what can I help you with today?

I’ve been back in the US for about 3 weeks now and I am working my way through a lengthy “To Do” list of bits and bobs that I had left unattended for the past several years due to being in Africa or on the road. As my return to the US approached, and as my list grew correspondingly longer and more detailed, a ball of dread started to well up in my stomach. I thought to myself, this is surely going to be a pain in the backside to attend to all these chores.

Wrong. I had completely and totally forgotten how EASY it is to get things done in the US.  I keep preparing myself for the worst, expecting all sorts of setbacks, and I am continuously (and pleasantly) surprised by how simple it is to achieve things, from opening up and closing bank accounts, to doing government paperwork, to buying anything you need. Surely something is going to go horribly, terribly wrong? Or is it really that simple?

It reminds me of the first time I moved back to Europe in 2011 after an extended stay in Africa, and I found myself persisting in compulsively hoarding paper products (napkins, tissues, etc.) in my purse and pockets in preparation for visits to the toilet. Every time I went to the toilet, I just couldn’t believe there was toilet paper and soap in there. It wasn’t until I was on the train once, and even the toilets there had toilet tissue – the train! – that I finally let go of the habit. (This time around, my issue is that I can’t come across a free pen without grabbing it.)

When I lived in the UK, I used to hate calling my British bank, Barclays. Firstly, I’d have to call a customer service number which was NOT free to call, pay 5 pence (8 US cents) per minute for the pleasure of being put on hold (for at least 10 minutes), and then cope with a nearly incomprehensible Scouse accent from an ill-trained and under-paid customer service representative in a Liverpool call center.

When I call Bank of America today, I dialed a free 1-800 number, glided easily through an automated system that is actually functional (clearly there have been major improvements in this technology since 1999), and then conversed with a well-spoken and well-mannered representative named Mindy with impeccable phone etiquette and a relentless desire to satisfy my every need as efficiently and effectively as possible. Any necessary holds were excused with profuse apologies, I was continuously addressed by name, and the call was ended with a question: “Is there anything else I can do for you today?”

Sometimes I find myself inventing additional questions to ask, just so I can be further soothed and pampered. I mean, Mindy just makes me feel like the best customer in the world. And, after she has made sure there is nothing else she can do for me, she always wishes me good-bye: “Now you have a nice day!”

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Filed under Consumerism, Service