Service With(out) a Smile

I’ve bitched at length about Telecom Italia and Tiscali (my current and past Internet service providers), and the lack of customer service nous shown by both. Foreigners in Italy often complain that Italians generally don’t have a concept of customer service, and I’d have to say that’s a fair assessment, amply demonstrated in most chain stores, supermarkets, Ikea, etc.

If you want good customer service, go to the backbone of the Italian economy: the family-owned business. For 12 years in Milan I bought bread, meat, fruit & veg., cleaning supplies, school supplies, ice cream and coffee from our neighborhood shops. All of these were owned by individuals or families, though some had a few non-family employees, and some changed hands over time. We built up relationships with the shopowners. They saw us move into the neighborhood as a young couple. Some used to call us the sposini – newlyweds – because we shopped together, which they found terribly cute. They saw our daughter grow up. Every one had an onboard “database” of customer information, knew our tastes and preferences, and could therefore serve us faster and better.

I shopped at supermarkets only rarely, mostly for things I couldn’t get at the smaller shops. Supermarkets are often cheaper, but to me they were not worth the standing in line and the impersonality (some smaller supermarkets do manage to be friendlier).

I was afraid I’d feel lost when we moved to Lecco, having to re-establish my network of suppliers, but it hasn’t been a problem. I’ve become a regular at some shops, albeit a new regular, and the owners already know me, or at least they act as if they do. And, even if they don’t know me, they are courteous; as owners, they have a direct and compelling interest in my return.

What Italians have yet to develop is a sense of ownership in “mere” employees, especially of large and chain stores. I’ve had some terrible experiences at Ikea,Upim, and Coin (the latter two are chain department stores). American stores are almost all chains, but they have customer service down to a fine art: everyone smiles and greets you in every store you enter; in some grocery stores I’ve been positively spooked by the number of employees offering to help me (maybe I look lost). You could say that this is false friendliness designed to get more money out of you, but that’s what a store is all about, isn’t it?

update: Customer service at Ikea in Italy has vastly improved

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