An American in Athens: Customer Service
Customer service in Greece is an oxymoron. It tends to run in the bipolar direction. Either you have it all or none. Sometimes salespeople, agents and others gloat over you, following you around the store, pouncing at you “Thelete voithia;” the minute you walk into an establishment.
The pharmacist around my way is an expert in hard sell tactics. “This vitamin tonic is what you need for the child” she pounces unasked when she sees me eyeing the vitamin shelf.
“That won’t do,” I shake my head. “It is in liquid form, my little one is picky.”
She then disappears into the back and comes back with strange purple pills.
“She will like these,” she announces. “There is Solgel and this one from the Netherlands,” she continues.
I look at the package; the directions are in pure Spanish. There’s no such thing as just browsing. She comes around me to pull off packages off the shelf for products I have no need. I feel so pressured, so suffocated, I walk away empty handed.
And then there’s the opposite. “Can I have a glass of water with that?” I ask the noodle guy at a fast food place in the center. He grills me with such a look, I almost regret asking. A look that says, “What the fuck lady? Don’t waste my time with water.” And then I collect myself—“What the hell? I’m entitled to just water if I want?” It’s part of the business. “Thank you,” I tell the noodle Nazi and take my food into the square to eat in peace. Well, almost in peace as the two Roma brother and sister pair, smudged with dirty faces yet so cute, approach from a neighboring bench and point to the container bearing noodles. I wind up giving my noodles to them in the plastic drinking cup. I can’t say no to little kids pointing to food, even if logically I know it’s emotional extortion.
It is hard not to fall into stereotypes. It is hard not to fall into judgment and critique when it comes to the work ethic in Greece. Work like everything else is a cultural thing. “How’s the crisis?” I ask the taxi driver taking me from the airport. “What crisis? There’s only a crisis for those who refuse to work. If you ask me who works the cab 10 hours, there’s no crisis.”
There is some truth to this. In order to help his situation, I try to put the unemployed to work. I call Kirios Yiannis, an unemployed electrician with two adult children, to try to find the “leak” in the electric system in the house. We are in mortal fear of turning on the faucet in the shower because it bites back with a buzz. Kirio Yiannis comes, looks at the electrical panel, removes the oven and checks the wiring, does a bit more sleuthing, collects 100 euros and goes home. The next day, I think the electric problems are gone. I grab hold of the “telephone” in the shower. Did I feel the buzz? No, it must me my imagination. The trauma of getting shocked in the shower with the silver snake in your grip stays with you for a while. I jump out of the bath soapy with shampoo in my eyes.
“Kirio Yianni I need you to return to the apartment and give it another look,” I call his cell wrapped in a bath towel. “There is still some shock.”
“There is no shock,” he says. “It’s your imagination.”
“Entaxie,” he replies. “I am busy today. I will give you a call.”
I am still waiting for a call. He might call, someday. When it suits him. But he might not.
I have found that for every so-called “professional” that walks around you must have a back up or two just to make sure the job gets done on time. Speaking of time, that’s another oxymoron. It takes a lot more time, period, for anything to happen.
How long does one take to hear back from a firm after a business meeting? In NYC it takes 24 hours if not 48. After coming out of discussion with a design firm very enthused about the possibilities, “we will get back to you about a quote,” the rep says. One day goes by, two days, three days, four days—and then I write an email to follow up. “It was a pleasure meeting with you, but our firm needs more time to give you an estimate.” I am still waiting for an estimate.
The call center for the phone company tend to be rather good. Most of the reps were able to guide me through most of my problems. Except it takes 10 minutes to talk to them. But I guess this is normal anywhere.
All this really confuses me. Are people that desperate to work or not? Is it just me with my cultural expectations demanding that things be done more systematically? Do the Greeks, especially unemployed ones, really want to work? Are they coming to grips with the changing realities of the post-crisis work climate? Sometimes I fear they will not be able to compete in the global marketplace given the cultural mores that have governed work standards for so long. But I know they are resilient and intelligent and very clever. Somehow they will make work fit to their standards, not the other way around. So much for customer service.