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TODAY

Thursday, May 23

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When people here ask me what I miss most about America, I usually give an innocuous, inoffensive response: "Well, I wouldn't mind a good shower" is a favourite.

While true on one level — I do long for water pressure — it's not what I miss most.

What I really miss is decent customer service.

The trouble is, how do you explain a concept so apparently foreign — so apparently American — as getting a coached, appropriately upbeat response when you have a simple problem or need? I've pretty much decided it's not possible. It seems akin to trying to explain colour to someone who's only ever seen in black & white: the frame of reference just isn't there.

In the process of getting settled into a new home, one is particularly reliant on these anonymous voices on the telephone line, which may be why I've felt so adrift. We'll not dwell on what kept me from having internet access at home for three weeks after moving in, but try to imagine being made to wait that long if you were to leave Chicago for, say, New York. Can you? It's the reverse problem of the people here: you might conceive of a world in black & white, but until actually foist into it, it's only a reality imaginable because of "Twilight Zone" re-runs.

On the internet installation, allow me to say this much: first, it was the phone company; then, the broadband provider; finally, the delivery company. That part took the cake, I think, because a connection to the outside world seemed so close to my grasp. And, yet, having missed the original drop-off, there was the 20-minute entanglement with a voice-activated response system that kept assuring me it could help, even though it couldn't recognise my postal code one of the five times I repeated it. Although it gave me some kind of confirmation number and an assurance I could pick up my parcel at the post office the following day, that was a lie — insofar as it's possible for a machine to lie.

I got no sympathy from the robot's masters, though. A day later, when I rang up to enquire why they'd gone to my house again, the representative nearly lost her patience with my insistence that I'd only been following the prompts. "I promise, even if you've never heard of the post office in Hoxton, I only chose it cos your system suggested it." I felt like a technophile Oliver Twist: "Please, ma'am, I want some web."

Now, don't get me wrong, not every place of business is so inattentive to its clients' needs. Why, just last weekend the place I meant to get my hair cut rang up a few hours before my appointment to inform me that the boiler wasn't working: "Would I like to keep the appointment and get a discount or reschedule?" How's that for trying?

~*~

I found a sympathetic ear over the weekend in the form of a Canadian ex-pat, who confirmed this as the North American's burden. After having been in Britain a year and a half, he said he now gushes with appreciation if someone gives him the time of day. I may yet get to that point, especially if I have an experience similar to one a friend related to me: a girl she knows was discussing something with a shop attendant until such time as she wasn't — the woman simply turned around and walked away as if the conversation had reached a resolution.

Sure, there may be some passive-agressive treatment of foreigners behind these experiences, and perhaps our acculturated level of expectations leads to easy exasperation. But it may take a while before it seems OK when the person scanning my groceries acts as if I'm not there and carries on a conversation with a colleague assisting another customer across the way, instead. And let's not even start on waitstaff...

The moral of the story: the next time you're fed up with a customer service rep, think of how much you're taking for granted. Think of the colour you've not been without. Try to imagine life in black & white. Remember when they say this call may be recorded and monitored for quality assurance purposes, they actually mean it.

And, when you don't get your way, give 'em hell until you do. At least that tactic works somewhere.

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About the Author(s)

Matthew Peck recently relocated to London from Chicago. In this occasional column, he describes his experiences adjusting to life not just in another city, but another country.

Three Questions For will return next week.

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