Wal-Mart and the Friendliness Academy

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…

4 thoughts on “Wal-Mart and the Friendliness Academy

  1. Fantastic!!! This academy of friendliness is awesome. It’s real. I thought it might be a really good fake. But german ICH-AG (one-person-company-backed-by-federal-money) is heading for the biggest invention since the weapons-of-mass-destruction-story some couple of months ago on another continent. This is the future of europe: Tiny little chicks are counselling the european marketeers. …Pardon?…Queen Anne is dead. We had had that for a long time…Thats why the european shops look like the way they do: Pink, Mint, Yellow…

    Unfortunately, german salespeople don’t get tip, they don’t bother beeing friendly or selling something…AND: Germany has this neurosis in profiling as an important person by looking very uncurious. Get a manager’s look by beeing uninterested…Hmm. That may rub off on other areas of german life


  2. friendliness and germany are strange bedfellows..as a foreigner in germany i’ve had contrasting experiences..i still prefer shopping in the neighbourhood mini-mal just because they have friendly salespeople..a little bit of bonhomie never killed anyone!..hope the friendliness academy does’nt spew out germans with a plastic smile and a drone to match..


  3. What I have noticed talking to some germans is that the people that works with services not always like the “Der Kunde ist der König” way of working.

    And some of them suffer with that when they move on to places like…Brazil.., which implemented this amerincan idea of being friendly to de costumers and “customizing” a lot your products, sometimes beyond the acceptable, in my opinion. The marketing of the companies make some clients believe so strongly that they are the King/Queen, that they start losing the confidence and the respect for the service you are delivering.

    The germans that learned how to deal and survive in jungle of “Dienstleitung” from a big city like São Paulo have gotten quite well-off and definitely do not want to go back to the bureaucratic Germany, where the best that some of them would achieve is to become another ‘Herr Meier und seine ICH-AG’, as happend with some of my german colleagues that definitely didn´t fit to “Der Kunde ist König” philosophy.

    Back to Wal-Mart, they are doing ok in Brazil, specially because some people love huge-hiper-supermakets and really think that everything there is much cheaper than in a small grocery. But Wal-Mart is quite far from being a hit over here, because the aisles are arranged in such a confuse and twisted way that many people complain that they cant´find easily what they want there. I think you just can´t go straight to the point and purchase what you need when you get into a Wal-Mart store.


  4. I (an American) was traveling around Germany with some german friends, and they were constantly amazed that I always got better service at restaurants than they did alone. It comes down to this: I tip! People in the european restaurant industry hear an american accent and they know a good tip is coming. If this is crass commerical culture, so be it, but there is no denying that it works. I feel my tip was worth it, and its enough to buy a smile. Does the fact that its “fake” make it less worthwile? I wouldn’t be paying for it if it wasn’t. Only if the smile i get is sarcastic do I not tip.


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