Justin Zehmke: In Estonia, the customer is always a nuisance

Justin Zehmke takes a look at Estonian service culture and finds it lacks one key element – good service.

“Tere,” I greeted the woman behind the counter in my best “I only know one word” Estonian.

Her eyes flickered up at me momentarily but her expression did not change, nor did her body language. She might as well have been holding a placard bearing the words “leave me alone” instead of her mobile phone.

The problem was that I was there to buy a bed, and she worked at the furniture store, so leaving her alone was not one of my favoured courses of action. I’d been wandering around between the various beds and mattresses for about 15 minutes, hoping that one of the store employees would come to my aid. I’d forgotten where I was.

So, I approached the one glued to her seat behind the counter, the tinkling noises of Candy Crush being played poorly emanating from her lap letting me know what was occupying her attention.

She was at least 30 years old but bore the sullen demeanour of a 15-year-old on a family outing. I pointed over my shoulder, switching to English: “I would like to buy a bed please.”

This was met by the type of sigh that said I was being highly intrusive and it would have been better for both of us if I’d never been born. I’d heard this sigh before, in fact, I’ve been hearing it my entire life. It’s the sigh a parent gives when you bring home a poor report card or the sigh a child gives when a parent makes bad jokes in front of the kid’s friends.

Fifteen minutes later I had a piece of paper that I needed to take down to the cashier so that I could pay for the bed. All in all, the experience took about 40 minutes and made me feel like an intruder and time-waster.

I couldn’t help but contrast this with the equivalent experience in South Africa. A salesperson would most likely have intercepted me on my way to the bed section, asked what I was looking for and then tried to sell me a bed costing three times what I just told them I was willing to spend. He or she would eventually concede and sell me the one I wanted. We’d both be smiling and friendly throughout, even though we would be intensely aware that this was just for show. Still, I would get the desired result quickly.

From walking into the store to paying for my purchase would take no more than 10 mins.

Customer service and Estonia don’t belong in the same sentence

Customer service and Estonia are not two terms that belong in the same sentence. They definitely can’t be found at any shop, store or restaurant in this country (of course this is an exaggeration). But with an increased reliance on tourist income and a young population that is well travelled and globalised, I need to find out why this is the case. Why do waiters, shop assistants, clerks, receptionists and salespeople treat customers like a massive inconvenience, often actively hiding from them?

“Why do waiters, shop assistants, clerks, receptionists and salespeople treat customers like a massive inconvenience, often actively hiding from them?”

“Communism, my friend, pure and simple,” according to my friend Max. This is his stock answer to any question regarding the weirdness of Estonia.

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He posits that, during the Soviet occupation, only collaborators and those connected to the communist party ran shops, supermarkets and restaurants. This automatically bred antagonism between them and their customers. Add to that the fact that there often was no choice to be had – whether in price, variety of goods or service level – and you have a recipe for disaster. Customers without choice, served by people they saw as traitorous assholes who knew they had a captive market.

Once you throw in the general reticence of the Estonian national character, you have the perfect storm. In Estonia, the customer is not always king. In Estonia, the customer is always a nuisance. Of course, I know there are exceptions, so please don’t bombard me with examples. These simply prove the rule.

Estonians don’t get even the most basic of concepts of customer service

Estonians don’t get even the most basic of concepts of customer service. As an example, I regularly find myself in massive queues at supermarkets, where only two tills are staffed during the after-work rush. Other supermarket employees are scattered around the store, casually stocking shelves, mopping floors or just chatting amongst themselves. The Estonians simply abide these queues, slack-jawed and calm, like cattle waiting for the bolt outside a soundproof abattoir.

“Supermarket employees are scattered around the store, casually stocking shelves, mopping floors or just chatting amongst themselves.”

I stand there amusing myself by imagining a scattering of South African shoppers in these queues. It would take no more than two minutes before someone would loudly proclaim: “No man, where’s the manager.”

This would make others join in loudly:

“Yes, get him.”

“Why must we stand here like idiots, open more tills.”

“If you don’t sort this out I’m leaving right now.”

If ignored for long enough, outright mutiny would erupt in five minutes max, with people dumping their groceries everywhere and loudly stating that they’re never coming back to this place.

Why the cowed acceptance of poor service?

You may counter that there are self-help check-outs. And this is true, but when there’s a queue on these it’s even worse. I come close to losing my mind when some confused middle-aged person tries to scan the wrong side of their plastic bag for the tenth time if I’m in a hurry.

I expect this would be the case in many other countries too, so why not here? Why the cowed acceptance of poor service?

“We don’t know any better,” according to Piret, a colleague who has travelled extensively. “During communism, speaking up like that might have seen you banned from the shop, and then you’d be in trouble.”

I counter: “Under apartheid, if a black person complained at a white-owned shop (if they were even allowed inside the shop to begin with) they could get a beating, be thrown in jail indefinitely or worse. Oh, so much worse. Yet 24 years later black people will complain as loudly as anyone else at poor service. There must be more to it than conditioning and residual fear.”

“It might also be that we’re so used to poor service, we don’t expect anything else,” she concedes.

In fact, I’ve seen some interesting research that shows Estonians actively prefer this lack of service. Give them a shop with helpful attentive staff and quick queues and they’ll stay away in droves. They want to be left alone, however difficult that makes even basic things like paying your bill in a restaurant.

So, there’s an actual element of national pride in this poor service. I suspect Estonians feel that it sets them apart from the rest of Europe. It also gives them a reason to complain, which is somewhat of a national pastime. Like the non-existent summers that are gorgeously sunny in reality, the lack or service becomes self-perpetuating. “We’re Estonians and, in Estonia, the customer can f*** right off.”

“There’s an actual element of national pride in this poor service. It also gives Estonians a reason to complain, which is somewhat of a national pastime.”

There’s definitely a part of me that admires this. Pushy salespeople are absolutely horrible, I know, and the Estonian insistence on personal space and privacy even in public spaces is lovely. That said, it really shouldn’t take me an hour to buy a bed.

I’ll bear all of this in mind the next time I have to go find a waitress who’s hiding in the kitchen of a restaurant so that I can order a drink or basically beg a salesperson to take my money, but I draw the line at the supermarket queues. The next time I have to wait 20 minutes while Martin and Mia stand in the back of the shop flirting silently rather than manning a till, my inner South African is coming out and I’m letting them know exactly where to stick their groceries. Loudly.

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The opinions in this article are those of the author. Cover: A Soviet-era shopper in Tallinn.

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About the author: Justin Zehmke

Justin Zehmke works as a copywriter in the Estonian capital, Tallinn. He moved to Tallinn from Cape Town, South Africa, where he was the head of digital strategy at a marketing agency. Before this switch to marketing, he was a publisher, editor, journalist and executive producer working in digital, radio and television.

  • SiimK

    There are queues in the supermarkets because the shops can’t find enough people to work as cashiers. Do you think you are the first person to notice these queues, you genius? Workforce shortage is a well known problem here. It has nothing to do with customer service.

    • Alan Tallmeister

      No problem…….order on line and ask for drone delivery.

    • Tecnico de Farmácia

      And yet in Southern Europe, unemployment has reached monstruous proportions. Contrasts…

  • Rachel

    Actually, I’ve had a similar situation at a Euronic store. There were two sales clerks (one male and one female) behind the counter, with the look of “I wish I was somewhere else right now”.
    I didn’t want to bother them, but unfortunately the item I needed to buy was behind a sealed glass case. When I asked if either one of them could help me, they each looked at the other literally did the “no you go” back and forth, in Estonian – I understood a bit of Estonia, just not comfortable enough to speak it.

  • Vicky7777

    Absolutely so true! I was laughing while reading this. Funny thing is I was expecting service in St Petersburg, Russia to be even worse but it wasn’t! It was actually better than in Tallinn. That says a lot.

  • Alan Tallmeister

    I agree with Zehmke that residual Communism isn’t the only explanation for Estonia’s surly customer service reputation. I was born to post WW2 Estonian immigrant parents in Toronto (with an ethnic Estonian population exceeded numerically only by Tallinn) and grew up in a very middle class and resolutely anti-communist sort of milieu. I still recollect visits to a number of the Estonian stores that did a brisk business in their heydays in the 60s and 70s. Solemn customers lined up to wait their turn to request this or that item from an unsmiling clerk. Afterwards they’d recount to friends how they intrepidly braved the Saturday mobs at Poko’s or Rooneem’s to get their rye bread and sult and herring. Definitely more duty than fun.
    When I finally went to visit Estonia last fall with two daughters I was expecting a larger scale version of this mixed with some residual Soviet “Pole saada” sort of heel-dragging but at least in Old Tallinn and Tartu we were pleasantly surprised. We found the restaurants, stores and places of interest upbeat, cheerful and friendly even compared to Copenhagen and Helsinki…….and not nearly as pricey.
    After reading the article I was left wondering whether a clique of Estonians has taken over the Best Buy store at my local mall.

  • Livlander

    While half a century of communism is responsible for such behaviour, the more important questions is: Why is the author not capable of speaking Estonian on a basic shop talk level? If he is here for more than a year and is not capable of having a basic conversation in Estonian, then he really is a smug *ss and should go back to his beloved SA.

    • Tecnico de Farmácia

      You have a point. As an expat in Czech Republic, I have been here for less than a month and I am already working hard to learn the language. It is not easy, but eventually I will get there. At least the basic, so I can make everyday life activities devoid of awkwardness.

  • esef

    You’ve got it all wrong. Has very little to do with communism, but everything to do with culture. People do not want personal interaction, so asking your customer if you can help them will drive them out of the store. You can see elements of this behaviour in other Nordic countries as well. My wife had this experience while working in a shop in London some years ago. If she approached Danes they would be leaving the shop in about two minutes. Spoke Estonian to Estonian tourists? Turn on their heels and out the shop.

    Having said that customer service is also so poor because staff isn’t trained at all. It is just random people off the street, left to do what they think is right with no personal motivation for sellling. In bigger more competitive economies training is daily even in the most tedious of jobs. Stand here, greet customers like this, suggest this, earn a bonus if you can sell this as well, etc. Here the drinks arrive with or after the food cause noone gives a damn, or even knows about the extra euro to be made from a second round of drinks.

  • Luule

    Seems you confused Estonians with Russians.
    Stop buying in Maxima and you’ll get excellent service

  • Tecnico de Farmácia

    Very interesting article indeed. It is about Estonia, but might as well be about the Czech Republic. The country is beautiful, but customer service is just dreadful… Especially in Prague.

  • Peeter Tubli

    I think David Mitchell summed it up best: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=_LiDTKEF1ek