Customer Service, With a Russian Twist

Daniel Brooks

Those who have lived in this part of the world know that when faced with abrupt Russian customer service, two paths can be taken. The customer can make complain and become grumpy.  Another approach is to break the ice, make a quick joke and flip the mood from grumpy service to honest human contact. I try as often as I can to take the latter path.

Russia’s legacy of customer service has its roots in the Soviet era whose economy was defined by the supplier, not the consumer. In those days, customer service was an afterthought. In terms of supply and demand, the USSR was on its own side of the looking glass. Producers had monopolies, taking away the need for market competition. Most customers competed with each other for the goods produced by the monopolies. This put suppliers in the driver’s seat, removing the need for thinking about quality customer service at all, let alone improving it.

In the USSR, retailers and suppliers needed to make sure people took their fair share. Many retail outlets had long lines of patient but frustrated customers. Standing in line was a process that took place according to a certain set of rules and traditions that remain embedded in Russia today. Sales weren’t defined by service levels. Instead, it often was a matter of crowd control. It is little wonder that in Soviet times, polite treatment of customers was often missing.

Babushka and Buzgalter

I remember first coming to Russia in 1980. At the time, I had access to chits that were sold to foreigners, allowing me to go to a special store set aside for foreigners. That’s where I did most of my shopping. My boss at the time was convinced that he and I should buy food in normal Soviet stores. He sent me out one cold day to buy cheese and a head of cabbage after I’d been in Russia for about a week. I found myself in an overheated store with a sizeable babushka (grandmother) behind me, pressing her buzgalter (brassiere) against my back, pushing me up against the babushka in front of me. It was cold outside and we were dressed for winter. I broke out in a sweat. When my turn in line finally came, I asked for a half kilo of cheese. At that time, cheese was sold using a ration card, somethingI knew nothing about. Disbelief rippled through the line. I could not have come up with anything to say, even if my Russian had been good enough to express myself. I stood there and played dumb until I was sold a massive piece of cheese that cost about a ruble, avoiding an international incident. After that, I asked for a head of cabbage without specifying which one I wanted. After a long discussion about cabbage, I was allowed to buy one. After that, I mostly stuck with hard currency stores. Clearly, I didn’t have the right stuff for Soviet retail.

Over time, I realized that service providers in Soviet Russia earned very little money. On the other hand, they had valuable goods. All it took to liberate the goods and services from the providers was a carton of cigarettes (which functioned almost like currency at the time) a bottle of cognac, perfume with a friendly approach thrown in for good measure. Things changed like magic. This was known as ‘expressing gratitude’. In the early 80’s, the maître d’ at my favorite restaurant would initially not recognize my existence. He transformed into the finest provider of customer service known to man when I finally understood how things worked. This happened over and over. Once I was willing to establish a few essential friendships, I was treated as well or better than I would be in any country in the world. Clearly the Soviets, as Russians were called then, were fully capable of providing customer service like there is no tomorrow. There simply needed to be something in it for them.

These traditions take time to die out. In Russia, many of them haven’t. Today, many retailers and service providers see no need to smile and greet customers. Instead, the discussion is straight to the point or there isn’t one at all. There is no engrained tradition of giving customers a big smile and saying something cheerful. Instead, transactions are often cut and dry, take the order, make change and move on.

If you think about it, Russian service providers have a point. Why should a store clerk have to paste on a smile every time someone comes into a store to buy a loaf of bread?

Don’t Mess With Me

There are ways to break the ice. Let’s take the example of making change. Most retailers in Russia insist on customers providing exact change. Most store clerks defend the change in their cash registers as though their lives depend on it. I usually carry a large quantity of coins around with me. Whenever I’m asked for exact change, I show off my horde of coins. Often, I’m asked to cash in the coins for larger bills. I always refuse saying, in Russia the customer has the cash register, not the retailer. In exchange for being barked at when I buy my groceries, I hold back my change. It’s my way of letting the store clerks know that they can’t mess with me.

Sometimes, though, things go too far. When indifference leads to time or money being wasted, it’s time to complain. This is also part of the Russian landscape where raising hell is allowed. This can be satisfying, even if it is often an exercise in futility. Recently my printer went on the fritz. I called a repair shop who said they would fix it. The shop was in the middle of nowhere but at last I found it. It turned out the shop could not repair the kind of printer I have, after saying the phone that they could. I gave that printer repairman a long lecture and opened up with both barrels blasting. It felt great. The repairman could not have cared less.

On The Other Hand…

While customer service has room for improvement in Russia, things have vastly improved since Soviet times. Russians are perfectly capable of providing the highest levels of service to customers. All it takes is two things. Firstly, the management of service businesses have to recognize the need for improved service. Secondly, staff need to be trained and held to high standards. Simple as that. It’s working. Go into any Starbucks in Moscow and you’ll be treated in exactly the same way as you would be in Seattle. I use Tinkoff bank for my personal debit cards. This bank has no bank outlets. Instead, everything is done on line and by phone. My account was opened in my apartment by a friendly bank employee who brought the paperwork and debit cards. He could not have done a better job. Aeroflot, in days behind us, was very difficult to work with. These days, Aeroflot’s service levels are impeccable.

The kinds of smiles and high levels of friendliness found in the US is not as widespread in Russia. Without debating which approach is better, I find the Russia approach to be less artificial. However, once I’m in the US, I don’t mind being treated in the American way. The advantages of friendly service are recognized by Russian businesses and even government offices as well. Lately I had to visit my local tax office. In days gone by I’d need to defend my place in line. These days, I’m given a print out with a number on it. No need to watch the others standing on line like a hawk. I was also given loads of information about how to pay my taxes in a very friendly way. A mixed blessing but say what you want, progress is progress.

Russians have an innate ability to create a high level of loyalty with their business partners. This is a more sophisticated level of customer service. Perhaps it has its antecedents in the Soviet era as well, brought about by necessity, the true mother of invention (not repetition). Once my maître d’ at my favorite restaurant had accepted a carton of cigarettes from me, we needed to trust one another. He didn’t need anyone knowing about his source of Camel Straights. I needed him to arrange a table laden with caviar and bliny with champagne for a table of four. I needed him; the restaurant he managed was the best one in town. We’d be very warm with one another to cement this friendship of ours, involving hugs, handshakes and warm words. I came to like the guy. This approach to building a relationship of trust continues today, even when the market is no longer undersupplied and special ‘gratitude’ doesn’t need to be expressed.

It should be said that not all trends in Russia are connected to the Soviet era. Increasingly, Russian businesses understand the importance of customer service. Folks visiting Russia will feel this, even if customer service here isn’t perfect.


Daniel Brooks

17 May 2018