The fine art of customer service has not been lost


Two weeks ago, I came from Moscow to America for the first time to write a few articles about small business in the United States for Trud, the Soviet Union's labor union newspaper. I can't compare American and new Soviet private business because they are very different things. But I will try to analyze the two systems of service.

First of all, I visited Harborplace and Lexington Market in Baltimore. They looked very nice on the inside and the outside. There was an abundance of consumer goods. I think many Soviet people have never seen such quantity of wares. And they could get a sheer heart attack from one look at all these goods, especially now.

In Moscow these days, people must spend much time in long lines to buy simple food-stuff. The situation is very serious. Regions supplying milk to the capital have declared a "milk blockade" and have reduced sales to Moscow. For that reason, more than a million children who live in the capital will have only powdered milk this winter.

Today, new private businesses are beginning in the Soviet Union. But it's a pity that the main task for Soviet businessmen is to get much money without caring about consumers. If a businessman invests one ruble in the business, he wants to make a profit of about 10 rubles or he won't make the investment. Almost all businessmen want to become millionaires without any effort. And only a little part of Soviet private business tries to work hard and honestly.

About half of all Soviet entrepreneurs don't believe in tomorrow. The economic situation is becoming worse. The prices rise, and who knows what will happen? If tomorrow something goes wrong, they will go underground to wait out these hard times. For that reason they want money now. Who cares about some consumer?

In the United States, I've seen quite another method of work. Here everything is directed toward the consumer. If a consumer feels OK, the businessman will get a reliable profit. They are links in one chain.

Before my trip to Baltimore, I had a long conversation with my colleague, Igor Mikhailov, an international correspondent at Trud. He had been to the United States several times, most recently in October. He told me, "When you will go to America, you will see not the best times for this country. The American economy is approaching a crisis now. You can feel it. The famous American service has declined. And that's the reason for the economic situation."

Remembering his words, I looked for the signs of decline, but I couldn't find them. I saw how people here work hard and I saw the results of their work. I liked it. Now I can understand why people from Eastern Europe desire to live in America. They never have seen such consumer goods and such service. I believe that in the next five years, America could see a big stream of Eastern European immigrants.

I've met here some recent immigrants, like Irina Barshay, who came from the Ukraine about 10 years ago. She owns her own little restaurant, called Unlimited Range. She told me, "I've got everything here in America. And I got one main idea. Work is life. In about 10 years, I haven't had any vacations. But I created my own restaurant and I'm happy for it." Although she owns her restaurant, she also cooks and washes the plates. She isn't afraid of any job.

In other private restaurants, I was shocked by the hospitality of their owners. Nobody tried to deceive me, despite the fact I'm a foreigner and don't know all the rules. Unfortunately, I forgot a long time ago what is real service in restaurants. One year ago, for example, I was in a restaurant in the Russia Hotel in Moscow. There I saw a waiter who served a table of Japanese tourists. When they were given the bill, the Japanese hadn't enough rubles with them. They asked the waiter to allow them to go back to their room and get the rubles. But the waiter forbade them to go out and asked them to pay in dollars or yen. Although that was illegal, the tourists hadn't any other way out. They couldn't speak Russian and only a little English. So they paid in dollars and two boxes of Marlboros.

In the restaurants at which I've eaten here, I got only waiters' smiles and very fast service. Despite Igor's words, I was struck by the quality of service. The owners of many Soviet cooperative cafes and restaurants look on the clients like enemies. The prices there are high. The owners try to make a customer give out all the cash from his pockets. It doesn't matter that the customer pays high prices and doesn't get a very good meal. It doesn't matter if the customer doesn't return. Let it be. The main goal is money today.

While Soviet businessmen like to get money, they don't like to invest money. For example, only 10 or 15 percent of the cooperative restaurants try to advertise. For what? Today they have clients.

For Americans, every day it's a struggle for clients. At the Mary Mervis Delicatessen in Lexington Market, owner Jim Hardesty offered me a slice of meat to taste for free in order to promote his products.

Jim works in the family business like a simple seller without weekends off. He gets only two weeks' vacation a year. But he is not going to take days off because he wants to work and his company is successful. I think many Soviet businessmen wouldn't share such a point of view. They want to get money more easily.

I think the secret of American success is that businessmen here believe work is money and money is work. And Soviet businessmen must take this idea.

America is a great country which has established business customs. The German Chancellor Otto von Bismarck once said that only foolish men learn from their own experiences. For Soviet businessmen it will be best to learn from American experiences. And then we will have beautiful service, too.

Alexei Vinogradsky is a Moscow-based correspondent for Trud, the Soviet Union's labor union newspaper. He visited Baltimore this month on his first trip to the West.

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