An attitude of gratitude

Something that is creating a continuous flow of positive surprises for me in Chicago, is the way I am treated as a customer. After I initially thought I was just lucky in picking the right place or stumbling into the right person, I have come to realize how much of a cultural element the servicing of customers is in the US. If you have never set foot outside this country, you may not actually think it is all that great or even take it as a given. But after having lived most of my life in Germany, I can tell you that there is a huge divide.

Let me share the simple example of going to a grocery store. By the time you enter, you are given three options for collecting your items: a small basket to carry around in your hand, a medium-sized cart if you plan on only getting a few things or a big cart for once a week shopping. You are offered sanitization tissues to wipe off other peoples’ bacteria from the handle of the cart, which I have been ignoring so far, but might consider in the future.

When you begin to make your way through the aisles, big signs way above your head will tell you exactly what to find in that aisle, helping you decide whether it is worth passing through or not. Some stores even have directories attached to your cart, listing all product categories and where to get them in the store. Many products give you different varieties to choose from (more than I thought I would ever need), such as cottage cheese with small curds or large curds, feta cheese in small, medium or large crumbles and water bottles as a mini, medium, maximum or mega version.

Triangularly shaped plastic bags are available to prevent water from freshly picked flowers to drip down through your cart, or worse, on your feet. These bags are even shaped like a bouquet, so your flowers will slide right in. Some stores provide similarly shaped plastic bags for your wet umbrella, so carrying it around ends up being less of an annoyance to both yourself and the shop.

If you are unsure where to find a specific item in a store and you turn to someone from customer service, they would either walk with you all the way through the entire store to show you where to find it, or, ping a colleague at the other end of the store or even at a different level, who will then be waiting for you to help you locate what you need.

After having placed every item on the belt at check-out (yes, you would still do this yourself), the cashier would greet you friendly, check in on how your day has been, ask if you wanted any bags and in case you did want bags, clarify with you if those should be paper or plastic. You would also be asked, in case you decide for paper bags, if you wanted them single or double layered, the latter being a bit more stable and less likely to tear apart.

There would be someone to place all your items into the bags and then your bags back into your cart. If you bring your own bags, they would pack them for you as well. That is the part I love the most, remembering the rush I always felt in Germany, trying to quickly remove all the items from the moving belt and into my cart or bag, while at the same time fishing for my wallet, paying for my purchase and making room for the next person in line, who would already be pushing their cart into my heels, trying to get a head start.

In a US store, you can patiently wait until being prompted to pay and when you use your debit or credit card, even have the option of cash back (that is the same as withdrawing money from a bank account, so you will never have to search for an ATM again) – at any amount and in almost any store. You would eventually be wished a nice day ahead and off you go. This attitude of gratitude towards the customer makes shopping a very pleasant experience and is something which in Germany (again, cultural reasons prevail), would only be found in some of the smaller owner-run stores.

Throughout my first couple of weeks in the city, I have also been testing several gyms and workout places and discovered the way “first-timers” are being taken care of. Whenever I was signing up for something for the first time in Germany, I was treated like any other random person. If you are lucky and someone has a moment to spare (which rarely happens), you would perhaps be shown around and explained a few things, but do not expect too much, you might get disappointed.

More often than not you wind up figuring out things on your own, perhaps feeling a bit awkward or even stupid, because you do not even know where to get changed or where the bathrooms are located. Are we old enough to explore it ourselves? Certainly yes, but is it not much nicer if there is someone helping you along the way? I would think so.

Now over here, there is usually a link for first-timers already on the website, explaining exactly how the place operates, what to bring the first day (water yes or no, towel yes or no, grippy socks yes or no), how the work-out will feel and when you should plan to arrive for your first work-out. You are typically asked to show up 15min in advance, to allow for a proper tour. I have not been to a single place where there was not a nice person showing me around, explaining the little details, asking if I had any injuries to pay attention to, wishing me a nice work-out and checking in again afterwards on how I have been. It makes you feel just a tiny bit special.

When I remember requesting appointments at doctor’s offices in Germany, I would typically call numerous times until eventually someone would pick up the phone, slightly annoyed and leaving me with a feeling of majorly disturbing their daily operations. I have found that over here, quite a few places offer a scheduling of appointments directly via the website or let you pick your preferred date and time online, which is then followed by a friendly person calling you back to arrange the final appointment.    

When I went to get a new US mobile phone and sim card, someone from the store would actually take the time to sit down with me after I made my payment, offer to unwrap the package of my phone, plug in my sim card, have me set a PIN, install everything I needed to have installed, check if it works and join me in my pleasure of not having to do this on my own (there is nothing more irritating than setting up a new phone). By the time I left the store, I was ready to take my first call. This would never happen in Germany, where I would have been sent home with my package, in confidence that I will figure things out on my own.

When I bought my guitar, which I have already dedicated a whole blog post to, I mentioned to the guy servicing me how much my finger tips were hurting after having taken my first few lessons. The guy would immediately offer to replace the metal strings on my new guitar with a more mellow and certainly comfortable silk version of it, for free and without me even asking for it (not that I had known that this option existed). Could happen in Germany, but probably not without you being charged for it.

One of the first times I took the metro, I stood at the platform of the station as a train rolled in, which I was almost certain could not be the one I had to take. The train guard took notice of me for whatever reason (I may have looked confused), opened his little window, waved me closer, asked where I planned on going and reassured me that I am okay to jump on this train. Imagining the same situation in Germany, I may have ended up standing on the platform for hours wondering when my train would finally arrive. 

We have a door man in our building who is there to ensure all residents are feeling safe and who only lets registered visitors enter the place. Not only would the door man greet you very friendly every time you come and go, they would also get up from their chair, walk over and open the door to the elevator section for you whenever you appear only slightly unable to grab your key. I find this to be an extremely nice gesture, which I am thankful for every time I have my hands full with grocery bags (mostly double-layered paper versions).

I have countless other examples which all show that there seems to be a genuine interest in the satisfaction of a customer, however small or large the product or service might be that you are intending to pay for. I am still baffled every time there is a smile, a polite question or a friendly offering, where I would not have expected it. This by the way is one of the reasons why I have been to so many new places without hesitating even once. And it has always been a very positive experience.

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