Friday, February 25, 2011

Customer, er, Service -- Yeah, That's It

Customer service.  If you ever come to India, redefine what those two words mean:  you’ll get much more of it where you’re not used to it, and much less of it where it seems natural to you to find it.

You’ll be overwhelmed with “customer service” in shops.  This means that you won’t physically be left alone from the moment you walk in to the moment you leave, and sometimes you’ll even me taken by the arm to forcibly restrain you from exiting or chased down the street in an effort to lure you back.  There’s no window-shopping, no peaceful browsing as you make up your mind what, if anything, you want; it’s a hard sell from the first moment.   

Rickshaw or taxi drivers will take the notion of “customer service” to a whole new level, too.  Unless you’re very clear about where you want to go and very firm in insisting that they actually take you there, you might find yourself on an extended tour of the city or on a shopping marathon from shop to shop, or maybe at an entirely different hotel than the one you’d booked for the night.  (The driver will, of course, get a commission on anything you buy or from the hotel he convinces you to stay at, so this extra “service” he provides is pretty self-serving.  He’ll still expect a tip from you, though.)  

In restaurants (where almost anywhere else I’ve been in the world, staff live on tips and will usually jump to serve you) you’ll find “customer service” means, well, ignoring you altogether.  (If you’re a woman, anyway; more on that later.)   I take for granted, walking into a restaurant or cafe, that the waitperson in question will want to sell me food and drink, and who’s eager to keep me happy so that he/she gets a good tip.  

Here?  Not so’s you’d notice.  I tried an experiment one day, walking in to a cafe and sitting down without flagging a waiter, curious to see how long I would sit there before he came over of his own accord; an hour and a half later, I was still waiting.  Having a meal can take hours:  first, I have to plant myself in the waiter’s path to get him to bring me a menu; then I have to either wait till he wanders by again and flag him down with both hands, or go in search of him, before I can place my order; then it’ll be, oh, a good 20 minutes or half an hour, at best, before any food or drink appears; then it’s a constant battle for attention to get anything that’s wrong with your order corrected (there’s almost always something) or to get another drink, or to get the bill.  Don’t even ask me how long I’ve had to wait before they finally bring me my change, after I’ve paid.

There’s one cafe in Varkala run by a no-nonsense Aussie woman named Billy; she was rushed off her feet one morning as she was the only one in the place and told me that all her staff had called in sick.  They were “being Indian”, as she it, “and deciding when they were going to work”; when they do in fact show up, they seem to wait around, chatting to each other, until she gets impatient enough to tell them to go take this customer’s order or bring that customer her bill.  Left to their own devices, she says, they’d sit around all day unless forced by some of the patrons to pay attention to them.

So, customer service?  Non-existent, as defined by North American standards; I’m trying to work out why that is and my best guess is that it’s considered “rude” here to bother a customer too much.  Or maybe it’s a gender thing; perhaps male waitpersons (they’re always male, never female) are shy about, or find it improper to, approach strange foreign women.  I’ve observed a few times that men alone or in groups get prompter service that I do (either when I’ve been on my own or with other women); well, they GET served without having to tackle the waiters, which is more than what happens for me.  

The experiment I referred to above, where I sat for an hour and a half without ever once having the waiter come over?  Well, the three men at the next table got menus presented to them about five minutes after sitting down, had their orders taken straightaway, and had received, eaten and paid for their food all within the space of 20 minutes.  I’ve seen in happen more than once, so I have my suspicions that a gender bias (for whatever reason) really does exist.

I used to wait tables in university, to help pay my way through school; if I’d ever lavished that kind of non-attention on my patrons I’d have made no tips at all.  Here, of course, they still expect that the rich foreign woman they’ve completely ignored for her entire visit to their restaurant will cough up big bucks for the privilege.

Funny, anyway.  I’m not bitching about it, contrary to what you may think; I’m trying NOT to be one of those people who travels to other parts of the world and expects everything to be just like it is at home.  I just find it interesting to observe when things are so completely different, and to speculate why that might be.

I think it’s the girl thing.  Any guys out there who have travelled India alone, I’d be interested in hearing your experience.

1 comment:

  1. Fascinating. I bet that there is something in the theory that it would be "inappropriate" for a male to approach a woman alone. It is interesting, isn't it, how different things are that we take for granted? Which is, of course, why travel is so much fun!