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Culture Shock: Fleecing the customer is a service mainstay

Citizens of many western countries have grown up with phrases such as "the customer is always right," sayings that empower consumers and imply that most businesses understand the importance of providing good service.
In Slovakia, however, the customer is still rarely right, and is furthermore almost always wrong to protest at this state of affairs. Whether it's a glass of beer served several centimetres short of full, a pair of shoes which fall apart within a week of purchase, a shop assistant too busy giggling with her mates to serve clients or two-tier pricing which discriminates against foreigners, you, the customer, are expected to pay meekly and without complaint.
Having lived in Slovakia for almost four years, I had come to accept getting ripped as par for the course. But after my latest experience with price-gouging, I've finally had enough.

Citizens of many western countries have grown up with phrases such as "the customer is always right," sayings that empower consumers and imply that most businesses understand the importance of providing good service.

In Slovakia, however, the customer is still rarely right, and is furthermore almost always wrong to protest at this state of affairs. Whether it's a glass of beer served several centimetres short of full, a pair of shoes which fall apart within a week of purchase, a shop assistant too busy giggling with her mates to serve clients or two-tier pricing which discriminates against foreigners, you, the customer, are expected to pay meekly and without complaint.

Having lived in Slovakia for almost four years, I had come to accept getting ripped as par for the course. But after my latest experience with price-gouging, I've finally had enough.

Two weeks ago I got married. My wife and I had arranged with the owner of a certain restaurant in Bratislava that each of our 40 guests would be fed for "certainly no more" than 500 Slovak crowns each. We would provide the wine, and the only outstanding expense would be hard alcohol, coffee and soft drinks ordered from the bar.

The final bill came to 51,075 crowns, or over 1,000 crowns per head. Given the knavery we had witnessed during the meal, however, we weren't too surprised.

The menu had been carefully planned in concert with the owner and the chef, but the actual dinner unfolded somewhat differently. After having been served appetizers, soup and a massive main course, followed by plates of bryndzové halušky and cabbage soup, few of our guests were able to eat another mouthful. Imagine our surprise, then, when we discovered that the kitchen was about to serve another 15 whole roasted chickens and 40 steaks to the assembled company - and of course, to charge us for the extra food.

After we had cancelled the chicken and steak - the owner apologised profusely for the mistake, and called my wife a "little angel" who shouldn't let herself be riled by such misunderstandings - the cake was brought out. Or rather, the cakes - four large ones, to go with the three-tier wedding torte, as well as 450 individual pieces of pastry.

Now, I like cake as much as the next fellow, but even I thought that baking over 10 pastries and a quarter cake per person was a bit wasteful. For an entire week after that wedding, our apartment was crammed with boxes, platters, bursting tins and tottering mountains of cakes, almost all of which went moldy before they could be eaten.

Much of this was our fault. We had had to book the restaurant only three weeks before, and were foolish enough not to insist on an exact tabulation of the expected bill in advance. The fact that the groom was a foreigner may also have had an inflationary effect on the restaurant tab, as half of the country still seems to believe that anyone with a foreign name is a millionaire. But in the final event, the chiselling was so bare-faced that my wife and I were both sickened by it.

It's high time that consumers in Slovakia, both foreign and native, started to kick up a fuss about rude treatment and shoddy service. From pubs to post offices, from restaurants to retail shops, customers are treated as fatted fowl ripe for the plucking. Few businesses act as if they want clients to return, and instead seem intent on squeezing every drop of profit out of each purchase you make.

This is not to say that Slovak businesses should start marching to a foreign drummer. No one, for example, wants to see Slovak waiters imitate their servile North American counterparts and interrupt diners between each mouthful to quiz them earnestly on the quality of the meal. Nor does anyone want Slovak entrepreneurs to start sending junk mail and other varieties of trex to their customers under the pretense of providing better service.

On the other hand, I've just about had enough of incivility and deceit from the people whose businesses our money supports. It is some comfort to know that business attitudes will improve as more foreign firms hit the market. Until then, however, the only alternative to bad service may be to stay at home.

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