28 September 2010

"Customer Service" in Armenia

Ordinarily, the people of Armenia are warm, generous, and so thoughtful that they will go out of their way to help strangers, especially foreigners. We've experienced this legendary Armenian hospitality firsthand on many occasions.

For example, shortly following our arrival in summer 2008, we were exploring the city on our own and needed help finding a particular intersection. We asked a street vendor for assistance, but rather than simply point us in the right direction, he left his cart unattended and walked with us for a block and a half to make sure we found our way.

Two winters ago, we were supposed to visit the home of a student's family for a holiday luncheon. By mistake, we went to the wrong house first. The family there didn't speak English, but they welcomed us in, cheerfully helped us out of our coats, even brought Nathan a toy Santa. At first we thought these were other guests of the family we intended to visit, but when we realized our error, we hurriedly put our coats back on, bashfully gave back the present, and said an apologetic goodbye.

However, in many other instances, these qualities of genuine kindness and helpfulness completely vanish -- not that we've experienced deliberately rude or cruel treatment from Armenians, mind you -- but it's as though the problem-solving or creative thinking portion of the brain shuts down entirely. While the following situations were a tad frustrating for us, we end up laughing about them whenever they come up becuase they always make us go "Whaaaa...?!?!"

Jarred and I were recently enjoying an evening at our favorite jazz club, Malkhas. We had finished dinner and were allowing the dessert menu to tempt us. A small selection of milk shakes -- vanilla, banana, and a few other flavors -- caught Jarred's eye, but for some reason, there was no chocolate shake listed, and that was what he really wanted. He called the server to our table to ask whether he could order a chocolate shake, but the server replied that it was not available. Pointing out the chocolate ice cream listed in another section of the menu, Jarred asked him, "You have chocolate ice cream, yes?" The server said yes. "Well, can't you make a milk shake using chocolate ice cream instead of vanilla?" The server replied in the negative. Confused, but noting another menu item that was described as having a chocolate sauce topping, Jarred pressed on, "Well, do you have chocolate syrup? You could make a vanilla milk shake and mix in some chocolate syrup." But the server insisted that this was "impossible."

You may think this is ridiculous and that surely, the man was playing some kind of game. But Jarred never got his milk shake that night. Here's another, very similar story, just to prove it wasn't one guy messing with us.

One of the best places for young families to relax in the city, day or night, is Santa Fe City Cafe, a large outdoor restaurant and bar with a beautiful playground, live musical acts, a colorfully-lit fountain as its centerpiece, and (believe it or not) clean public restrooms! During the hot summer days, it's great to let the kids loose on the playground while the adults sit back and sip iced coffee, tea, or fresh fruit juices. On just such a day, Nathan was climbing the jungle gym, and Jarred was perusing the menu for something to quench his thirst. He read aloud from the menu, "Fresh juices: apple juice, banana juice, strawberry-banana juice...hm, I wonder if they can make me an apple-banana juice." He called our server and asked if he could order an apple-banana juice. The server said no, as it was not an item on the menu. Jarred tried to persuade the server that if apple juice and banana juice were available separately, and that it was possible, according to the menu, to order banana-strawberry juice, surely the bartender wouldn't mind this small special request. The server actually went to the bartender to discuss it with him; when he returned, his answer was the same. Incredulous, Jarred said, "Fine. In that case, I would like to order one fresh apple juice, one fresh banana juice, and an extra glass." The waiter returned with his order in a few minutes, and Jarred mixed his own drink.

Our Armenian friend and coworker Maria says that perhaps Jarred simply has very selective tastes and those restaurants do not, as a rule, accommodate special requests. I suppose that would be the only logical explanation!

Below are a few more humorous examples of Armenian "customer disservice."

While shopping for Nathan's school supplies, I asked the store clerk if there were any Lightning McQueen backpacks. She showed me a big, red one that was on display. It was rather large for Nathan, so I asked if there were any others -- preferably smaller ones. She indicated that the only smaller backpacks available featured non-Cars characters, so I was willing to settle for the red one. A few minutes after paying and leaving the shop, I had to return to ask a question. There at the counter, the same clerk was unwrapping a brand new Lightning McQueen backback -- a blue one -- to replace the red one I had taken from the display. While it didn't appear to be any smaller than the one I had just purchased, it would have been nice to know I had my choice of colors!

An inconvenience we face on a regular basis is taxi drivers not having change -- or at least acting like they don't. Considering that the average ride across town costs 700-800 dram, you're pretty much S.O.L. if you try to pay with anything larger than a 1000-dram note, but for some drivers, even this is too much. Because a couple hundred dram works out to be less than one US dollar, it's not usually worth the hassle to argue with the driver, but sometimes, out of principle (and when we're not in a hurry), we a use passive, nonthreatening technique to make sure we receive what is rightfully ours: we refuse to get out of the car. We just sit there, leaning back comfortably, and make it clear that we're not leaving until he provides us with correct change. Most of the time, once the driver gets the message, he will suddenly "remember" that he has some more coins in the glove compartment or elsewhere, and we'll be merrily on our way. But if he honestly doesn't have the money, this technique sufficiently motivates him to get out of the car and make change at the nearest shop or drink stand. I imagine this could be an especially important tip for travelers or foreigners, since taxi drivers often try to take advantage of people who don't speak one of the local languages.

When shopping, especially at clothing stores, you (by which I mean Westerners) may be surprised to find that one of the lovely young female shop attendants seems to be stalking you and monitoring your every move. Particularly disturbing is the fact that she is staring at you with a very serious countenance. Don't be alarmed; this is typical behavior. This girl is performing two duties at once: keeping an eye on you to make sure you don't try to steal anything and making herself available should you have any questions or wish to try something on. Apparently, her third job responsibility is sending mixed messages about how the store feels about their customers.


Nerses said...

I went to yerevan this summer and yeah while the people are incredibly hospitable to a huge magnitude, customer service absolutely sucks for many companies that i've been with, whilst others are good, and some companies ive had good/bad experiences with that had more to do with the actual employee than the company's customer service as a whole. For example, my cousin went to Nice in France for 2 weeks and she took her phone roaming using Orange. Orange mistaked her location for Japan and as a result, we had to fill her account up more than $200 so she can communicate in the airport for maybe 10minutes total. Well after rigorously trying to get our rightful money back (this took many visits to the store when it should have only taken one), we finally got the money back. but it wasn't actual money..they just filled her account back up...with more than $200. a complete waste of money. She makes about $100 a month in that country and that was a huge slap in the face to her.

your husband is really picky by the way. lol.

Jarred, Angela, and Nathan said...

Wow, that sucks about Orange. I'll be sure to warn people about that. We use Viva Cell.

Hey, is it really picky to want a chocolate milk shake?? =)

Nerses said...

lol in the airport they were giving out free vivacell alo cards with 400amd preloaded and I was somehow signed up to random premium services that drained out the money in a day and a half. I went to Vivacell that day and they didn't care about keeping me as a customer. I went to Orange where I was able to talk to the US for 20 dram per minute...absolutely amazing deal.

i was also amazed at how literally there is not one person who doesn't own a cell phone in armenia pretty much.. especially the younger kids..because in america not even everyone has a cell phone in regards to children

Anonymous said...

Man, I couldn't stand those stalking sales ladies.

Jasmine said...

very fun reading.
and ridiculous waiters work there too)

are you sure there exists fresh banana juice? cuz for what I know we once bought packed "banana" juice (but it also had melon juice and apple juice in it)
and I can't think how it is possible to squeeze liquid out of bananas.

Jarred, Angela, and Nathan said...


Thanks for reading! When I was in college in the States, I worked part-time for 3 years at a health food store, and we had a small cafe serving fresh juices & smoothies in the back of the store. We never made fresh banana juice (not juicy enough for a juicer, as you mentioned), so this whole thing was really weird for me, too. My guess is that they mix some apple or other kind of juice with the banana in a blender to make it liquidy enough...but yeah, obviously that wouldn't be pure banana juice. Anyway, that was what was on the menu!!

By the way, do you live in Armenia?

Jasmine said...

Oh no, I don't, but we sometimes go there for vacation or on some kind of business. I live in Russia currently.

If your husband is picky, then what would you say about me? I refused to order anything from the menu if there were mistakes in it and I urged my companions to leave the cafe. lol

once we even found a LONGILOND. you'll easily guess what it was)