Last weekend I had two conversations — one with a Lithuanian and one with a Latvian — in which I was asked the same question: “What are the differences between life in America and in Lithuania (and Europe)?”
It’s a common question, but I actually had to stop and think before I could answer. I realized that I’ve traveled and lived in Lithuania enough over the last three years that I now rarely think comparatively. When I am here, I live in “Lithuanian mode.” But when forced to answer, I would say that the biggest difference between the United States and Lithuania is the attitude towards customer service. It’s easy to attribute that to the post-Soviet effect, but other Americans have told me that customer service is not a high priority in Europe in general.
I wouldn’t say that customer service is always worse in Lithuania. In fact, sometimes “poor” customer service is a good thing. After all, do I really need four people to say hello to me every time I walk into a store? And yes, sometimes it’s a hassle to try to get the server’s attention when I need something in a restaurant. But, unlike in American restaurants, one can actually take time over a meal and sit and talk with one’s companions without feeling like the server is constantly hovering over the table and hoping you’ll leave so they can get their tip and bring in the next set of customers.
This doesn’t mean that I don’t get highly annoyed with a lack of customer service at times. Case in point, last week I went to an electronics store in Kaunas to buy an outlet strip. Now this is a large store in a mall that, in general, seems to be well-staffed. I picked up my item and went to the cash registers at the front of the store. There were no cashiers at the cash registers and none in sight close by so I walked over to the “customer service” desk. The woman was helping someone else and I lined up behind him. She saw that I was holding an item and told me to go to the cash register. I pointed out that there were no cashiers and she told me to wait. I did…so did the two other people who lined up behind me. When no cashier arrived, I walked over to a young man stocking the shelves and asked if he could find a cashier. He told me “no, you’ll have to wait.” So I went back to the cash register and waited a bit longer. At this point, I saw a second woman arrive at the “customer service” desk and start typing on a computer, despite the fact that actual customers were clearly waiting to be served. I went to the customer service desk and said quite forcefully “I want to pay now and there are no cashiers.” Fortunately the second woman said she would help me, because I was prepared to go into “obnoxious American” mode and make a bit of a scene. I found the whole scenario unbelievable. What kind of retail outlet that makes its profit off of sales to customers doesn’t find it important to provide cashiers for customers?
I’m actually amazed at how often I find a lack of cashiers. I was recently in a drugstore that had three young women stocking shelves and only one cashier, despite the fact that there were ten people in line. When I asked if it was possible to add a second cashier, I was told that I should wait in line. I just don’t understand why it’s so difficult to help me pay them money. So that’s my rant on customer service in Lithuania and the one thing that I do compare about life here and in the U.S.