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Customer Service in Prague

 
photo:  (archive of Radio Prague)
 

The first time I heard the phrase, “it is not possible”, I was at a Czech restaurant near Andel in the middle of winter, when my freezing Californian toes were not yet accustomed to the cold weather, and my stomach craved something hot and filling. The waiter did not know enough English to translate the menu for me, but from what I could decipher, I ordered potato pancakes and asked for them to be served without the accompanying pork shoulder. At this time I did not yet grasp how such pork could improve the flavor of a dish like potato pancakes – and I was still transitioning out of vegetarianism.

 

“It is not possible”, the water replied as he shook his head showing his annoyance. I was stunned, as I had seen the dish on another customer’s table, and had noticed that the pork was simply sliced and laid on top of the pancakes, not cooked within. So surely this shouldn’t be a problem for the chef to accommodate, I thought. The waiter seemed angry that I would even consider changing the dish; such custom modifications, and my “stupid American attitude” were apparently an intolerable inconvenience.

Just recently I was out at another Czech restaurant near Old Town Square when the waiter simply chose not to bring my dish at all. I had ordered the lamb chops, but instead he brought out a pork loin, telling me the kitchen had run out of lamb and I should eat pork instead. Before I could even protest the food was in front of me and the waiter had left. The meal was tasty, but I would have appreciated some warning. I felt like I had lost control of my own dining experience. Situations like this occurred often within my first few months here, and I’ve come across many expats with similar customer service horror stories.

The phrase “it is not possible” has become one of the most frustrating phrases that I hear whilst dining out in Prague. In the U.S., the phrase would be considered rude and unacceptable, because the service industry is largely built around working tirelessly to make everything possible. I have rarely heard the word, “no” used in restaurants back home, because waiters will do whatever they can to accommodate a customer’s request. In Prague, and much to my dismay, I have learned to not expect restaurant staff to always bend over backwards to satisfy me. I am often prepared for the worst in terms of how my requests will be received. And so I pre-emptively modify them to be simpler and easier to execute. Is this wrong? I wonder. Why am I lowering my customer service standards? Or should I be adapting my “stupid American attitude” to conform to local norms? I’ve learned to be patient, but I’ve also learned that sometimes I have to be proactive, and take matters into my own hands if I want to speed up the process. When a waiter doesn’t come to take my order, I’ll walk up to them and ask them to do so. The same goes for getting refills and asking for the bill. If a waiter is downright rude, I’ll say something to the manager. These are customs that I do not typically practice in the States, but in Prague it has become almost a natural form of self-defence -a way to prevent myself feeling like some insignificant nothing in the face of rudeness, rather than a “customer king”.

I’ve since learned about the history of the Czech Republic during the communist era. And I learned that there may be a connection between today’s negative dining experiences and the 40 years of communism, when shops and restaurants were owned by the state. Since there was no competition among businesses, managers had no reason to fear that customers would go somewhere else. The lack of incentive meant that there was no “the customer is always right” mantra to live by. After learning this crucial point, I am not as upset when a waiter doesn’t immediately greet me with a smile or bend over backwards to fulfil my every need.

Come to think of it, it’s actually quite refreshing how waiters in Prague are not constantly asking if I am alright with my meal or if I’d like another drink. In the States this practice, often accompanied by excessive plastered-on smiles, can become somewhat annoying and interrupt the flow of a meal or conversation. To this day I have never walked out of a restaurant, or been so frustrated that I have not paid a bill. The service culture in Prague admittedly took me some time to get used to. But it has served as reminder to me that it isn’t just the foods that are different at dining facilities across the world – the cultural backdrop and customs found there can also be sweet, and sour, and everything in-between.

 
 
Author: Český rozhlas Radio Praha
 
Added: 20.06.2015
 
 
 

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