Customer Service in Istanbul

I wonder where these qualities are in the ‘customer service’ I have witnessed, experienced and heard about in Istanbul’s restaurants and shops and markets

“You are ridiculous.”

This came from a young cashier at a small discount market chain in Istanbul after I told her that she was ridiculous for having me stand in front of her for a couple of minutes waiting for her to serve me. I simply wanted to buy a small bottle of kefir. I’m 5'6'’ so there was no reason for the girl who was standing right at the register to not see me. I put the bottle of kefir on the conveyor belt while she was directly before me looking around and writing something and doing something with the cash register. No greeting. No ‘Welcome” (something that Turkish shop assistants always say to customers entering a shop). I couldn’t believe how unaware she was or I couldn’t believe that she didn’t know to ring me up before she was doing what she was doing. That girl didn’t know much about customer service.

I felt that since I was the customer and she was working at the shop, she was the one who was obligated to notice me and say hello to me. I didn’t feel that I had to say something to get her attention when she was right in front of my face because I felt that she should have had the sense to know to give me her service. It was pure common sense.

It wasn’t until a middle-aged lady appeared and put her two items on the conveyor belt when the girl got the conveyor belt moving and started checking me out. She rang up my kefir and she grabbed tub of butter that the lady behind me put on the belt and was going to ring it up when I said, a bit irritatingly, “I’m only getting the kefir. I don’t know how ridiculous you could not to notice.”

“You are ridiculous,” she said.

“I’m ridiculous? You were ignoring me. You didn’t notice me. You work here and you’re supposed to serve customers and you didn’t serve me until that lady (I pointed at the lady behind me) came along and you think I’m ridiculous? You need to pay attention to customers.”

She muttered that she didn’t understand the problem.

I told the lady behind me, “I was standing right here and this girl was doing I don’t know what when she should have stopped what she was doing to serve me. It’s stupid of her not to notice that I was only buying one item. That annoys me.”

The lady said that she and the girl were sorry about my being annoyed.

I didn’t feel that the girl was sorry at all particularly when she didn’t apologize. I couldn’t help but feel that the quality of customer service and behavior were generally poor in Istanbul.

I was at my workplace canteen having my usual cup of tea one day. I currently go there every day to have two cups of tea (with a spoonful of my own organic honey that I always carry around with me these days). Next to my tea is a cup of water (I always like to have water with my tea in order to stay hydrated). I also always have my bag and umbrella on the chair next to me. I wasn’t done with my tea nor my water when I needed to use the restroom for a few minutes. I left my belongings on the chair and the water and tea on the table and when I returned, the water and tea were gone. I suppose it wasn’t a big deal but at the time it felt like something big. At the time, I could only think about how foolish the staff was for having taken away my water and tea when my stuff was still there and not having waited until I was there to ask me if they could take my cups away. Really, I thought that it was common sense to wait until the patron was at the table to ask the patron if they were done with their beverages before taking them away and that was what got me upset at the staff. I went to the counter immediately and asked where my tea and water were and why were they removed from the table because my stuff was still there, I went there every day (and all of the staff know me as they automatically give me my tea without asking) and how could no one notice that I was going to come back since my belongings were still at the table? And I was only gone for about less than five minutes, how could my drinks be gone so fast?

I had no apology as the staff couldn’t understand my logic just as the girl at the shop where I bought kefir at didn’t understand my logic.

Moving away from customer service, I would like to mention a time when I was at my usual cafeteria-style restaurant for lunch one day when I was almost at the cash register with my tray (all of us customers were in a line, moving our trays along as every customer paid the cashier). There was a customer in front of me paying for his meal and I needed some cutlery so I stopped moving my tray (I only have two hands) and took a knife, fork and spoon and it was at that moment when I took my cutlery when the man behind me pushed my tray with his tray down to the register when my hands were holding my cutlery. I got angry right away and demanded to know why he did that and that it was really rude for him to have done that. I was standing in front of the cutlery and taking some for a second and why didn’t he wait for second for me to put my cutlery down on my tray so I could move my own tray myself? He was puzzled and said it was normal and he didn’t understand how it was wrong and I said it was really, really wrong and that I certainly wouldn’t push another person’s tray with my tray down to the cash register as the person has to use their hands to get a dessert or drink or cutlery or their choice. Where was the respect? I yelled at that imbecile to get my point across and the staff intervened and calmed me down as best they could. I was so furious that I shook violently. I was more upset because it was incomprehensible how dumb everyone was.

Going back to customer service, I was at a bar once near Taksim (Taksim is considered the ‘city center’ but this depends on who you speak to in Istanbul; some people have even told me that there was more than one city center but I can safely say that Taksim is what most people may agree as downtown) with two individuals and one of them ordered a meal. Thirty minutes went by when the waiter came back and said that the meal one of my companions ordered wasn’t available. We asked why it took so long for him to check and say that especially when the bar was small and didn’t have many customers. He simply said he was busy upstairs and if my companion would like something else. There was no apology. He made his excuse so nonchalantly that I felt that he thought that it was normal to behave that way. The bar was mediocre and a bit dreary for my taste. It immediately received a grade of ‘F’ on my book.

I was with a big group of friends who decided to go to a fine restaurant in an area called Fatih and, unfortunately, the only most memorable thing about that meal was the poor customer service. Two people ordered the same dish and it wasn’t until forty-five minutes later when the waiter returned to our table to say that the dish wasn’t available. Other people at our table had already finished their meals and some people were still eating because everyone was hungry. The two people who waited and waited were livid but since we were all already settled at that restaurant, all of us decided to just stay put and the two individuals ordered something else and all of us had to wait about thirty minutes for their second orders to arrive. Throughout the meal, though, there were missing cutlery that the other people at our table had to ask for, or a misunderstanding about a sauce. On numerous occasions, I’ve gone to eat at different places in Istanbul to find out that it was quite common for waiters not to tell me and my companions beforehand on what wasn’t available and I didn’t understand why it wasn’t a usual thing as it wasted time when waiters didn’t inform us before we placed our orders. How we were supposed to know what the restaurant had or didn’t have? The menus almost always didn’t clearly mark which items were available or not. In fact, at times, (I’ve gone out to eat at a wide variety of places in different municipalities and I’m strictly assessing based on my own personal experiences), the waiters didn’t know what the restaurant had or didn’t have at any given time and often had to ask the chefs. If I managed a restaurant, I would personally let my wait staff know ahead of time what dishes were or weren’t available in order to save customers’ time and to save any embarrassment on their part.

There were times, too, when a dish wasn’t any good and the staff refused to bring out a new dish claiming that the dish was good and that we were wrong. I remember a time when a friend of mine at the time had a fight with the staff when her pide (I can say it closely resembles a sort of Turkish version of pizza) didn’t look like the way it did in the menu. There was no egg on her pide when the menu, in fact, showed that her particular pide on an egg on it. We had a Turkish-speaking friend with us who also argued with the staff. The staff claimed that the egg was mixed in with the dough which made no sense to us. The picture in the menu clearly showed egg yolk on the pide but my friend’s pide didn’t show any sign of it. It was so obvious. I couldn’t understand why the staff heatedly retaliated against us when they were wrong. They refused to make another pide. Our Turkish-speaking demanded that the pide be free and they got very angry. The argument was so heated that one male customer stepped in (Turkish) and told the staff off for being rude and that he agreed with my friends that they were wrong and how dared they be so impolite and they could have at least apologized. The result was that my friend ended up paying for her pide which she said she didn’t like at all and wasn’t satisfied and all of us chose not to ever return to that pide place again.

There were many times when the same thing happened; when a friend of mine ordered something and the waiter would bring us something completely different. At a restaurant near where one of my friends lived (and one that we went to a lot because the food was good but the service…), I was at the restaurant with two older friends and we wanted a particular dessert that we saw on the first floor ( we were upstairs on the terrace). With broken Turkish, my friends described what dessert they wanted downstairs and the waiter nodded his head as if he understood. I don’t know why he made it seem like he understood when he didn’t because several minutes later, he and two other waiters came back to our table with a large cake that was nothing like my friends described at all. The cake wasn’t green with pistachios on it and it wasn’t a slice — it was a whole cake. My friends shook their heads and one of them said, ‘No, no, no,” and she indicated to them that she was going to take them downstairs to show them which slice of cake she was talking about. The slice of cake was delicious and big enough for the three of us but even when the food was delectable (we went to that place many, many times and the scenario was about the same every time or something else that illustrated needless (and oftentimes, funny) misunderstandings between us and the staff), my friends and I chose to go to that particular place less and less and then not at all.

There was another time when my friend stepped into a popular cafe chain in Istanbul and ordered a breakfast sandwich. She told me that she pointed at a picture of the sandwich that she wanted. It was obvious that it had cheese in it. She pointed at the picture and requested it and she said the waiter nodded his head and left only to return with a cheese-less sandwich with bread that resembled nothing like it did in the picture and without tomatoes nor cucumbers. She was flabbergasted and angrily showed him the picture of the sandwich in the menu and he was flustered, she said, and brought the manager to explain to her that the sandwich was exactly like the one in the menu and she got upset and couldn’t believe the sheer stupidity. Sounding a lot like the incidents I experienced, she told me that she suspected that restaurant and market employees probably took her for a fool because she rationally pointed out that there was something wrong with an order or service, the people she confronted told her she was wrong, or that they were sincerely a bunch of brainless people.

Not all dining experiences in Istanbul are that pitiful but so many stand out in my memory and I can’t fathom how it could be that poor customer service was prevalent not just in one area of the city but in many parts.

Not only in Istanbul but in most places, as well, there is no high regard for customer service. There was a period when I taught English in T’bilisi, Georgia and I had a good friend who recounted a situation when he and his friends went to a Chinese restaurant in the city center (but no one was Chinese; everyone was Georgian) and one dish, the kung pao chicken dish, that tasted strange and they asked if they could possibly exchange it for a new dish. The staff told them that it wasn’t possible and that they just had to basically suck it up and eat it. My friend said that he and his friends were adamant and stated that they were paying customers and that they had the right to good customer service and since they were paying customers, they were paying for a service as well as a meal and if the staff didn’t do what they requested then they would be sure to spread bad word about their restaurant. The staff complied and spoke back, “If you were Georgian, we wouldn’t do what you’ve just asked.” The new kung pao chicken dish was an improvement, my friend said. He also mentioned that it appeared that many countries, specifically developing countries didn’t stress the importance of customer service or perceived it differently which he couldn’t comprehend because he felt that customer service was about the customer. He used to tell me that he had a lot of piss poor customer service experiences in Georgia and wondered if it were a cultural thing for some people to not regard customers so highly.

I personally think a lot of people don’t separate their job from being human. I mean, a lot of the individuals I have observed working in the customer service industry are so quick to be defensive in what they do, defensive of the fact that they aren’t going to be stepped on instead of considering how they can possibly improve their service. There is always a reason for why a customer isn’t happy.

In just about all of my experiences regarding this area abroad, there hasn’t been much empathy for the customer nor, most of all, much willingness to see the reasons behind why customers aren’t pleased with a service sometimes. Yes, customers are extremely picky at times and difficult and may nag a lot but I still feel that many customer service industries need to work on creating top-notch quality service, which includes building rapport and communication with their customers. At least, I feel that in order to present great customer service, people in this industry need to be interested in their customers. What often angers me about the service in Istanbul is that I know that when I enter a shop and I’m not greeted, it’s because I don’t appear to the shop assistant that I will buy something. To communicate with a customer making it clear that money is the priority is wrong. To communicate with a customer making it clear that the shop assistant hopes to satisfy a customer’s curiosity about a product is right. It shouldn’t be obvious that hoping to get a sale is the shop assistant’s main intent for talking to a customer (but I’m just speaking about an impossible idea and scenario, right?).

Treating customers well will bring in profit. Any good done comes back in the form of profit. I think this is an already well-known fact but I haven’t seen this much in Istanbul or heard of this much from stories I get about other world cities. Generally and fairly speaking, everyone needs to consider how to serve better. Customers are the number one priority, not restocking a shelf or fiddling with a cash register or stapling papers together. When a customer is near you, be aware of them. It’s simple. It’s common sense. It’s moral.

Author of ‘A Girl All Alone Somewhere in the World’, ‘Confessions and Thoughts of a Girl in Turkey’, ‘From Just a Girl Grown Up in America’. (