Customer Service Lessons from Abroad

Throughout Italy, where I have been traveling with my family for the last 10 days, I’ve lost track of the number of “lost opportunities” for commerce that I’ve encountered. Not only are there few attempts at upselling, sometimes what we would consider basics of customer service are barely met. Whether this is a sign of a mature society who knows what they want, or just ingrained habits, I’m not sure. And I don’t mean to convey that one method or country is “better” than the other, I’m merely sharing observations.

For example, I booked a facial treatment at a fancy five-star hotel spa in a tony part of Rome bordering the Borghese gardens. This 20,000-square-foot facility opened in 2010, and the marketing materials tout the three-level facility with sauna, steam, ice fountain, fitness area, and swimming pool with a ceiling decorated by Swarovski crystals, none of which was mentioned or shown to me when I checked in. My facial was lovely, 90 minutes with a technician named Elisabetta who spoke a little bit of English, but offered no commentary before, during, or after my service.  ven with a language barrier and the fact that it was not likely that I would become a regular customer, providing a list of products that was used on me could have been a nudge to purchase something. In fact, you might think that written collateral, instructions, or offers to return would be even more important in a multi-lingual environment, yet none were in evidence. When I checked out at the front desk, even the concierges with excellent English made no attempt to ensure they’d ever see me again.

Italian merchants, like those in many European and Asian countries, often focus on very specific items. We visited a store that sold only shirts, one that sold only bathing suits, and another that was smaller than the average treatment room, selling only gloves in different colors. We had dinner at a famous old Florentine restaurant that does not serve coffee or dessert; just a limited menu for dinner, and then please get up and make way for the next customers. I thought these were great examples of having a very focused business plan; no opportunity for upselling but fewer costs and an emphasis on volume. After all, this model got Massage Envy started, with excellent results. I suppose if you are this specialized your conversion rate of prospects to customers is likely high.

As for lost opportunities, except in major tourist areas or city-centers, Italian stores still close in the afternoon, from about 1 to 4 p.m., as do those in many European countries. And if you are outside of a major tourist area on a Sunday, good luck buying absolutely anything; save restaurants, every commercial establishment is closed for the entire day. However, my favorite example of lost opportunity had to be the small delicatessen-type shop we stopped in for a cold drink and snack one afternoon in a busy tourist district in Florence. The store had about 10 tables, a cooler of drinks, and a typical American-style deli counter with various meats and cheeses. On top of the counter was a sign, proudly proclaiming in two languages, “We do not sell sandwiches!” The sign made me laugh, recognizing that numerous hungry tourists probably stop by, seeing all of the deli meats and cold drinks, and assume it would not be too much trouble to get some bread wrapped around these ingredients to make a lunch.  But rather than give in to daily repeated requests for Panini, they elected to direct their clientele to stop asking! 

I think the moral of the story is to do your best to straddle both worlds; giving your business the best opportunities while serving the needs and wants of your clientele. You never want to stray too far afield from your basic value proposition, but if clients keep asking for sandwiches and you’ve got the ingredients, perhaps weighing the difficulties against the business opportunity, rather than “just say no.”