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Honest German Customer Service: We are all idiots

Honest German Customer Service: We are all idiots

Many years ago, I worked in a supermarket in a small town in Scotland. It was a sedate place to work, with the only excitement coming from the wide variety of petty thieves who would frequently try and steal cheese. Not small wedges of edam or a few packets of Dairilea, but massive orange blocks of industrially processed cheese, that we stocked for no real reason other than to give the local shop lifting community something to do on the many wet weekday mornings. Our quiet existence was shattered one day by the arrival of self-scanning checkouts. We were one of the first stores chosen to trial the new equipment and soon the majority of staff that manned the checkouts were trained how to use them. Despite the exhaustive hour and half worth of training we received, we soon ran into problems operating the new self-scanners. The problems were numerous, and all took the form of customers.

Customers would forget to put things in the bagging area, which would cue a chorus of “unknown item in the packing area” in a voice that assume was meant to sound friendly but somehow sounded uniquely threatening when four different machines announced it in unison. Customers would put the wrong coins in the wrong slots, forget to take receipts and clog the mechanism or not scan items correctly. The job of the checkout worker suddenly became a live action version of Whack-a-Mole, with each problem solved another two would appear. No matter how hard we tried to educate customers, they failed to appreciate the limitations of the equipment. I remember thinking at the time that there was no way these things would ever succeed. I may have been wrong on that point, but questioning of customer intelligence is one thing the UK and Germany has in common.

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I imagine many people see Germany as a modern country, mainly because the majority of tourists visit either Berlin or Munich. In many ways it is. I remember the first time I went to buy petrol here and I was confronted by numerous flat screens embedded into practically every surface, advertising cigarettes. “Wow” I thought to myself “Germany really is a tech wonderland”. Obviously, deciding on a countries level of technological advancement based on how many shiny screens they have in service stations is a ludicrous proposition, but I had never seen anything like it in the UK. At that point, video advertising was barely used in Britain, yet here in Germany it seemed to be everywhere. My judgement was also coloured by the fact there seemed to be so many middle-sized tech companies in the area I lived, making GUIs, micro-computers or housing control systems that seemed well in advance of anything I had seen before. It wasn’t until I first saw self-scanning checkouts here in Germany that I began to question my judgement.

I first saw them in IKEA. A bank of four machines, similar to the ones I had trained on years before. However, unlike the checkouts I remembered, there seemed to be no one queuing for them. Anticipating a quick exit from the hell of shopping in IKEA, I confidently strode up to the first free machine and began scanning items. I was quickly interrupted by one of the IKEA staff, who cancelled my transaction and then took over the process. Confused, I watched as she scanned all my products and then cashed me up. I paid and wandered off dumbfounded. My wife went to buy one of the weird IKEA hot dogs and I watched as the colleague continued to scan another customers shopping. Even when a queue formed, she steadfastly refused to allow anyone else to use the free machines and directed them to queue at the one she was manning.

This was not an isolated event. I have yet to be allowed to self scan anything in Germany. Perhaps Germans are less tech savvy than I had initially thought, perhaps shop staff fear they are too simple to do it on their own. One shop I go to on a weekly basis introduced two self scanners only to replace them with normal checkouts several months later. Whether this is due to customer complaints or the realisation that people are idiots, I have no idea.

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My confusion over shopping technology and its application came to head earlier today. I shop at one of the large supermarket chains and among its more interesting aspects is the desire to constantly change the floor plan. One week the cereal lives happily with the tea and coffee, the next week its near to the pasta on the other side of the store. The effect of these continual changes is make it feel like I am sitting a test I have not prepared for, no matter how hard I try, I still end up failing. Today I found that the bread section, easily the most important part of any shop, had been mechanised. Instead of buying bread and then having the checkout person type the code at the till, the bread is now placed in little numbered compartments. The customer picks the bread, types in the code in on a touch screen, inputs the amount and a little barcode is printed out.

The arrival of this new device caused total chaos. As I approached the bread I found many other customers simply staring at the little bread prisons and occasionally asking each other what to do. Like the predatory apes we are, occasionally one brave soul would muster the courage to try out the machine, to which everyone waited in silence to see if they would succeed. Only after several people had tried did someone realise how the machine worked and finally we were able to liberate the bread from imprisonment. I would only question our collective intelligence when my turn came and I noticed a large sign which clearly stated how the machine worked. “We are clearly morons” I said to myself.

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I may spend much of my time wondering about the differences in Germany and making comparisons with the UK, but sometimes it is nice to see how similar we are. No matter how modern we might think Germany is, it still has a cynical understanding of the levels of customer intelligence in the same way as the UK. The only real difference is that shop staff in Germany are honest enough to show their disdain for the general public, whereas in Britain we are confined to our cultural desire to be polite.

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