A Volunteer's life in Romania
by Andy Trincia (Romania 2002–  )

    Customer Service?

    MARK MY WORDS: I will never again make fun of the Wal-Mart “greeter,” or any perky cashier back home who enthusiastically wishes me to “Have a nice day!” Or be annoyed by an eager clothing salesman asking, “May I help you find something?” Or Amtrak, or the U.S. Postal Service or . . . Let’s just say that “customer service” doesn’t exist in formerly communist Romania.
         There are many things that I like about Romania, my home of one year now, but the lack of customer service — actually, the rudeness and apathy — is definitely not one of them. It’s easy to blame the old regime, but c’mon folks, it’s been almost 14 years since the Revolution — and many of these indifferent employees are young enough to know better.
         I noticed it immediately upon arriving last summer, and it’s one of the things I’m now accustomed to but don’t want to accept, especially as my Romanian language skills improved. Don’t get me wrong, there are nice and helpful clerks and waiters here and there, and of course I’ve experienced bad service in the States and elsewhere, but nowhere compares to Romania. And it had better change to help a burgeoning tourism industry, one with great potential.
         OK, sometimes the clerks in America may be a little phony — do they really care if I have a nice day? But usually they are helpful, polite or at least efficient. Why? They know that the customers pay their salaries. The customer is always right, right? Simple concepts, no? Not here in the former Eastern Bloc.
         I could fill a book with examples. But to give you an idea, not once — not a single time — in eating out in Romania, from dirty fast-food places to smart cafes, from mediocre pizza joints to Peace Corps-budget-buster splurges at elegant restaurants that could be anywhere, has a waiter or waitress come up and asked if everything was OK or if I needed something. Never. The menu, usually shared among the table, may indicate certain entrees or choices, but that doesn’t mean they have it. You want the check and need to go? Good luck, it may be a while. Nine times out of 10, you practically need to tackle the server to get his attention. If the restaurant has a cash register, bonus! If not, wait while the server painfully calculates by hand.
         The other night, two Italian friends, who also live here, and I went to a restaurant with a nice terrace. None of our orders were that complicated, basically involving the ubiquitous chicken prepared different ways, and we waited more than two hours, even for our cucumber-and-tomato salads. We complained and the waiter shrugged without a word. We asked for toasted bread. “No way, the kitchen is too busy.” My Italian pal muttered, “Incredible. Romania is just incredible.”
         Another time, in the capital of Bucharest, a colleague and I walked into an empty café. Five employees (the Romanian employee-to-customer ratio, also a communist holdover, is another story) were at a table, smoking and chatting. Our arrival triggered only a furtive glance and we had to wait a few minutes for a waitress to finish her cigarette and saunter over to our table. This is nothing out of the ordinary. When I’ve experienced this attitude or flat-out rudeness in the company of Romanians and asked about it, they merely chalk it up to normalcy. “This is Romania,” they are fond of saying.

    Walking up to a counter at a store, or at the farmer’s market, or anywhere else, more often than not you are greeted with a single word, “Spuneti” (spoo-netz) — ironically in the formal, polite form of you — and meaning “You speak” or “Say it (you).” Or maybe an abrupt “Poftiti,” (pof-teetz) or “Ce doriti?” (chay doreetz), or “What do you want?”
         Many a time I’ve entered a store only to get a “You are interrupting me” glare from a clerk, often seated. At a supposedly Western-style grocery store, the cashier scolded me for not bagging my groceries fast enough and clogging the counter. And you have to buy the bags, too.
         Once at a bank, a teller was excruciatingly rude to me, despite my best Romanian and polite salutations, when I tried to transfer cash to an account in another city. She just didn’t want to deal with the paperwork on a Friday afternoon.
         My favorite bookstore recently closed for two weeks for “inventory.” Two weeks? I remember checking into a motel on the Black Sea coast last summer, only to find a filthy room with bed bugs. The front desk manager didn’t care, offering a “take it or leave it” and no refund. I left.
         The “ladies” at Post Offices and train ticket offices — both state-run places with comfy jobs — are almost always curt and rarely make eye contact. I learned the proper terms and most polite way to ask for things, in complete Romanian sentences, but now I waste no time or energy. I just place the post card or letter on the counter and say, “To USA,” or ask for a ticket “to Bucharest, tomorrow, second class.” I once bought a bus ticket for a grueling 7-hour trip, but the bus was oversold and standing-room-only. I refused to go, marched back into the station and asked for my money back. The clerk was incredulous and yelled at me. I had to yell back and demand to see the boss, who reluctantly gave me a refund, creating a scene probably never seen in Timisoara’s grimy bus depot.
         Under the communist system, clerks were powerful and customers were at their mercy, whether waiting in line for bread or a bus ticket. It was their privilege, not the other way around, to be waited upon, and often bribes were necessary, rudeness customary. Unfortunately, this system hasn’t changed much. Tipping in restaurants or taxis is optional but more and more popular and becoming expected, but even that doesn’t seem to make much difference. Nor does complaining to the boss, who probably thinks the same way. Low salaries and morale are partly to blame, I assume, but laziness and apathy are part of it, too. Service, satisfaction, competition and profitability don’t seem to be in many people’s vocabulary. This attitude, sadly, is representative of many things in my adopted country. Depending on the situation, sometimes I call this to people’s attention, politely, in hopes that it will show them a different way. But it doesn’t seem to register. It’s a shame.

    The next time you walk into Wal-Mart, think about Romania, and say hello to the greeter for me.

    Before joining the Peace Corps, Andy Trincia was a corporate communications executive in the financial services industry. Sworn in on August 16, 2002, he is working at the West University of Timisoara, as a business consultant for the Center for Career Development, and is also teaching courses. We have asked Andy to file reports for his two years of service of what his life is like working and living in Romania.