Customer Service in Ukraine

Spring has fully arrived. Instead of cold rain and snow, there has been sun for several days now, and also a dusty wind which causes you to squint and breathe through your nose.

A diaspora friend from my childhood recently stayed with me for a few days. He’s lived in Kyiv for six years. It was nice empathizing with a fellow American. Aside from history, politics and economics, the topic which dominated yesterday’s dinner conversation was customer service in Ukraine. It sucks.

I’ve been ignored in mostly empty restaurants for a good 5-10 minutes before being handed a menu. Waitresses are rude. They don’t look at you when they pass.

You can get service, of course, but you need to act tough and rude. You need to TELL the staff what to do — give me a menu, come here, take my order, bring the drinks right way, bring all the dishes out at the same time (or else you might get them as they are prepared, sometimes with a 20 minute gap between your meal and your friend’s). You can get all the service you want, but you need to bring the authority. You can’t relax and expect to be taken care of. I prefer to relax.

Sometimes I bring the authority. Sometimes I get up and leave. I also have a growing shit-list of restaurants I no longer patronize, including MVF (a cute name which shares the Ukrainian acronym for International Monetary Fund, but substitutes the word “Varenyky” — dumplings — for “monetary”) where, despite being the only patron in the restaurant, the three girls ignored me for twenty minutes after handing me the menu. In their defense, it sounded like their conversation was *extremely* interesting. That was the first time I left a restaurant.

I now understand my mistake. You can’t show any fear. You must be like an animal trainer. For example, when you walk into a restaurant, there will likely be a three or four young staff members chatting amongst themselves. Their conversation will stop and they will look up at you without smiling. Several things may go through your head at this point: Am I interrupting? Is the restaurant open? Do I seat myself? Is this the hostess who sill seat me?

This is a very common moment in Ukraine, and I’ve discovered the most important thing is to show no fear. If you hesitate, meekly inquire about their status, beg permission to sit, feel embarrassed by your broken Ukrainian, they will smell your fear and consider you powerless and unimportant. On other hand, if you walk in like you own the place and tell them what to do — take me to a free table, give me a menu — they will often spring to life and serve you as if their well being depends upon it.

It is sad and pathetic, but unfortunately that’s the way things are for the moment.

I tend to cut my fellow Ukrainians a lot of slack. Outside the black market, capitalism has only existed here for two decades. The free market can solve the customer service problem, though it will take much longer in a market as mutilated as the Ukrainian one, where success is determined more by political and criminal connections than by one’s ability to serve customers.

The most notable exception to the characteristically poor customer service is McDonalds, where the cheerful call of “vilna kasa” (free register) from smiling employees are as uplifting to me as the springtime flowering of Crocuses.

A couple weeks ago, I was so excited by the good customer service at a restaurant called “Pol’iana” (Prairie) in Kyiv’s largest shopping mall, Dream Town, that I left a 50 hryvnia tip on a 60 hryvnia meal.

Another exception was the restaurant at which my diaspora friend and I had our conversation. A wonderful L’viv restaurant called “Miaso i pyvo” (Meat and beer). They knew to hand us English menus even though I gave the polite, attentive hostess my best “dobri vecher” (good evening) upon entering.

The duck tasted wonderful, but next time I’ll try one of their many steaks.

EDIT: I recently spoke about this with a Ukrainian girl who once lived in the U.S. for a year and half. She’d worked in the U.S. as a waitress, but said doing so here would be degrading, because customers are more rude here. She says the culture of service is much less developed.

EDIT 2: Tip — the smoking sections are always the cool place to sit.