Customer Service

by Katie Brutocao (Gonzaga University)
in the United States is willing to bend over backwards to ensure that you, their customer, are 100% satisfied. As a person who has worked through college as a waitress and barista, I know how much employers emphasize customer service and I also know that good customer service equals big tips. What starving college student doesn’t want to make a little extra money even if it means plastering a huge smile on your face when you don’t feel like it? Here in Italy, however, it seems as if customer service is far less important. That isn’t to say that the people who work in restaurants, shops, and cafes are rude. In fact, in my experience they have been extremely warm and friendly. It just appears to be a natural and unspoken agreement that customers won’t expect any special treatment.

In the US, Burger King touts “hold the pickles hold the lettuce, special orders don’t upset us.” When I went to the Florence McDonald's and asked for no pickles or mustard on my cheeseburger, however, the woman looked at me like I had asked her to give me her first-born child. Wide-eyed and jaw dropping, she stammered that it would take a really long time to make a special order like that, so wouldn’t I just rather it the way it came. Being an American and used to my picky palate being catered to, I couldn’t imagine my first cheeseburger in 3 weeks to be tainted by the taste of mustard and pickles (ew!), and so I agreed to wait however long it took. She rolled her eyes, sighed, shouted something in Italian to the cook, and I felt like I had made a huge cultural faux pas.

This wasn’t my first, or only, run-in with hesitation or flat out refusal to confirm to customer requests. Just a couple days ago after an early morning and no breakfast, Tamra and I went to CaffĂ© del Corso to grab a panini at 10:30. We understood it was early, but figured it wouldn’t be a problem since we get paninis there almost every day. But when we tried to order, the woman behind the counter told us no paninis because it is breakfast time. I know that if that happened in my restaurant in the US, I would have had to serve the panini no matter what time it was because it was what the customer ordered.

In trying to reflect as to why customer service is such a priority in the U.S. and less so in Italy, the only reasoning I can come to is the collective vs. independent culture issue. In the United States, individualism isn’t just the norm: it is praised and celebrated. Who cares if you hate pickles and mustard? That is your choice to make as an individual and we will do whatever we can to help you stand out from the pack! In Italy, though, collectivism appears to mean that people do not just spend a lot of time in groups and with their families and friends, but they don’t expect to be treated differently from anyone else. I also think that the “work to play” Italian culture and the “work to live” U.S. culture influence customer service. In the U.S., any cafĂ© owner would be worried to lose us as customers if they didn’t give us a panini at 10:30 and so they would bend over backward to us so that they could be sure to earn as much money as possible. In Italy, however, I guess that their adherence to manners and a particular way of doing things overshadows any desire to make an extra 3 euro that day on a panini.

Although customer service can sometimes be a little over-the-top in the United States, I will be glad to go home and be able to order my cheeseburgers how I want them and my paninis at any time of the day.