Wal-Mart came to Germany in 2001 and found out something a little odd. Germans, apparently, didn’t necessarily want salespeople to be friendly:
The marriage of American hominess and German frostiness has been rocky so far for Wal-Mart…. With its first two custom-built "hypermarkets," or superstores, open in time for holiday shopping, Wal-Mart is under pressure to make its huge investment pay off in Europe’s largest economy. Much of its challenge lies in coaxing attitudinal changes in the country where the customer traditionally comes last.
Customer comes last?! Wait a minute, says a Karl W. Schmidt, former head of the German-American chamber of commerce:
This is "totally incorrect," says Schmidt.
"The customer over there is still the person who pays the bill." But, because German consumers educate themselves about a product before they buy," he said. "The need for interaction between customer and salesperson is minimal."
Can Germans become friendlier? Can and should, says Tanja Baum of the Academy of Friendliness in Cologne. She describes the problem thus:
"We have a society problem, not a service problem," she said.
Germans sometimes hesitate to be too friendly because that could be perceived as hypocrisy or currying favor, friendliness coach Baum said. "That’s why they look down on American `synthetic friendliness.’ They accuse the United States of doing everything for a purpose — `They want to sell me something, that’s why they are so friendly,’ " Baum said.
Baum attributes the trouble to the social revolution of the late 1960s, when politeness was deemed "a bourgeois relic." This is the root, she said, of cashiers who scowl at customers who approach near closing, or clerks who ignore shoppers when they approach, even turning on their heels if they persist.
"We also have the customers from hell, so this is a vicious circle," Baum said. "Grumpiness breeds grumpiness. And we are teaching employees to try to break the circle. Someone has to make the first step."
Who’s right here? Everybody’s a little right. [pretty weak — ed.] I’ve gotten very helpful and competent advice from salespeople who weren’t particularly friendly. But it would’ve been nicer if they were friendly. I will go out of my way to buy in stores where people are really friendly to me, and I tell them that, which always shocks them.
Usually, no one is friendlier than the foreigners. Take Maria from Croatia, who runs the corner shop. She is always ready with a cheerful laugh and bubbly smile. We have litte conversations in broken German. She says "The people in this country are so lonely! They all come to shop and stay here for long time, even in cold, because I am only person who is talking to them! Is very sad!"
Maria’s son, by contrast, has shown his ability to integrate into German society by conducting all store translations unsmilingly, through monosyllabic grunts. Sounds like a case for the Academy…