Russian service without the smile

While Russians have embraced capitalism it seems many businesses care little about return visits or keeping customers happy.

Russia's growing economy has led to more consumers in the retail market.
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MOSCOW // The young Russian woman and her husband, a United States citizen, were purchasing a car insurance policy from one of Russia's leading insurers, and the transaction seemed to be going smoothly. That is, until the young woman commented on the merits of the US system for vetting drivers to the sales clerk. "Quit spouting drivel," a nearby salesman for the company barked, and proceeded to accuse the woman of not adequately respecting her homeland.

After a sharp exchange of words with the salesman, the woman and her husband did what many in Russia do when confronted with rude customer service: they meekly paid and left. Consumerism is flourishing in Russia's booming economy, which has grown an average of seven per cent annually over the past five years. But while Russians have embraced capitalism, putting up with often surly, incompetent staff and long queues, it seems many businesses care little about return visits or keeping customers happy.

"Everything is growing so fast that the supply can't keep up with demand," said Mikhail Krasnoperov, a consumer sector analyst with Troika Dialog, an investment bank. "Once the growth slows down, the quality of the service will catch up." While snaking queues were a hallmark of the Soviet era, they persist as a phenomenon in contemporary Russia, particularly in such state institutions as the post office and state-owned bank Sberbank, where millions of Russians come to pay phone and utilities bills.

A survey made public last month by the European chapter of the Mystery Shopping Practitioners Association found that Russia had the slowest queues compared with its European neighbours. Those queuing in Russian establishments waited on average more than 10 minutes, compared to less than three minutes in Ireland, which topped the table in the survey. Some businesses, such as IKEA, the Swedish furniture giant, and the Russian airline Aeroflot, have implemented electronic numbering systems for clients waiting in queues. But where such systems are not in place, scheming and intrigue remain popular pastimes among clients eager to be served first.

Once one makes it to the front of a line in Russia, it is not unusual to be greeted by a cashier gruffly asking: "What do you want?" Impatient wait staff at Russian restaurants and cafes often express visible frustration should a diner be perusing the menu a bit too long for their taste. "Service at chain restaurants is particularly bad because of the high employee turnover," Mr Krasnoperov said.

Annual employee turnover at chain restaurants in Russia is about 120 per cent, meaning staff work nine or 10 months before quitting or getting fired, Mr Krasnoperov said. "It takes them a month or two to learn the system, and once they start getting better, they're already leaving," he said. The rampant terrible customer service in Russia is "clearly connected with our [Soviet] past", said Guli Bazarova, head of the Centre for 21st Century Personnel Technologies, which conducts training programmes on improving customer service. "There is this feeling that it is a huge country with an endless supply of customers," Ms Bazarova said. "So the mentality for many is, 'If the customers are going to come anyway, why should I bother trying to be friendly or helpful'."

Businesses often make few efforts to select qualified employees and train them how to interact with clients, said Ms Bazarova, who is also the head of the Institute of Practical Psychology at the Russian State University's Higher School of Economics. "They only think in the short term, how to hire a waitress right now for the high season," she said. Increased competition in certain sectors has seen some improvements in customer service, Ms Bazarova said. "Service at petrol stations, for example, has improved drastically over the past two years," she said. "There are now lots of different companies vying for consumers, and almost all of them are paying attention to how they treat customers."

Service at supermarkets and many chain restaurants, meanwhile, remains very much at Soviet levels, she said. Russian consumers on the whole are too forgiving of poor service and thus help perpetuate worst practices, Ms Bazarova said. "As long as they continue to accept it, nothing will change," she said. But Mr Krasnoperov said consumers in Russia have "no influence whatsoever" on the quality of customer service. "Businesses know the consumers will keep coming. If one customer decides never to return, they know another two will show up to take his place."

Alex Shifrin, a Canadian businessman and head of The Creative Factory, a Moscow-based advertising agency, said Russian consumers accustomed to poor customer service tend to bring "a certain amount of ready aggression" with them when patronising a business. "You never bring a knife to a gunfight," Mr Shifrin said. "I do believe that good customer service is ultimately appreciated by anyone, and the right approach will result in a very positive response from a Russian consumer."

Mr Shifrin recalled a recent incident in which he called the customer service hotline for a major Russian internet provider because his connection was down. After being put on hold for over 20 minutes, Mr Shifrin said, the technician explained his internet was down because of recent system upgrades that required some rather complicated technical adjustments. "I complained about this unannounced and slightly complicated procedure, and he explained to me that the internet provider was not to be blamed for my ignorance, as all information about what I needed to do was found on their website," Mr Shifrin said.

"The obvious issue of accessing said website seemed secondary."