Saturday, October 18, 2008

Customer service

I wrote during my last visit to Belarus about how government employees are excruciatingly careful not to make any mistakes, and I want to comment today on another way I’ve seen that. When you buy an electrical product at GUM or TSUM, they test it before they sell it. This applies even to light bulbs. They have a multi-socket tester and they unpack each light bulb, test it, and re-package it before completing the sale. I even saw them rev up a food processor before sending it home with a customer.

In some respects, then, this is a land of customer service. I’m well aware of that every time I buy something, because you can actually count on any Belarusian to know how to make change.

Making change is a big and impressive deal to me because I am a bit overwhelmed by the currency. Since it’s all paper, there’s no dividing line between the small stuff and the big stuff as most countries have with coins and paper currency. Here’s a rundown on the denominations I typically find in my wallet and their approximate value in US dollars:

10 rubles: ½ cent
20 rubles: 1 cent
50 rubles: 2½ cents
100 rubles: 5 cents
1,000 rubles: 50 cents
5,000 rubles: $2.50
10,000 rubles: $5.00
20,000 rubles: $10.00 (This is the most common bill.)
50,000 rubles: $25.00 (Alla wants me to hide these.)
100,000 rubles: $50.00 (These can be hard to break.)

I found one ATM that gave me 200,000 ruble notes when I needed a lot of money to pay for the fence around Alla’s mom’s grave, but I haven’t seen such a big note since.

Compare this variety of notes to the ones, fives, tens and twenties I typically have in my wallet at home. Belarusians like to limit the amount of paper in any given transaction and the shopkeepers will generally try to solicit some combination of small notes from a buyer so he or she won’t have to give back a pile of small notes. All this is almost always done without the aid of a calculating cash register, quickly and accurately. I’d like to see pretty much any American clerk pull that off!

Speaking of customer service, I think I may get an inordinate number of breaks because of my lousy Russian. Last night I went to a fancy cafeteria-style restaurant across the street from the Philharmony (Symphony Hall.) I wanted potatoes with my dinner, and asked for quartered potatoes instead of French fries. I understand more Russian than I can speak, so I can tell you what happened. Apparently I wasn’t supposed to get that kind of potatoes with my main dish so the server asked his boss what he should do. He explained that I was a foreigner and that I only speak English. The boss said that he should give me the potatoes I wanted, and he told me it was his gift. Actually, the cashier ended up charging me something for them, but I enjoyed the goodwill.

Customer service in a table-waiter situation can be an entirely different matter, and I did have one woman decide to close her shop the moment I told her that I didn’t speak much Russian, but I really appreciate the general hospitality of Belarusian people.

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