Friday, October 3

A Day in the Life of Italy-Customer Service Edition

March may come in like a Lion…but in Italy, it’s September that comes in like a jackal tearing its innocent victim apart, piece by piece, making sure to rip the flesh right off the bone.  And that’s not because you just returned from a fab four-week holiday in one or another gorgeous hilltown or seaside resort and feasted on figs & prosciutto until you could no longer breathe. No. 
It’s due to the rude awakening, after a lazy summer of virtually no traffic, little pollution, few beggars (if you avoid the tourist traps) and general sun-kissed bliss peppered by near-nightly fireworks displays, just celebrating summertime.  Suddenly, as you're standing there at the foot of what seemingly appeared to be a kind and gentle castle keep, you are met with the onslaught of hot oil poured out from every opening until you’re buried in burning tar.  The cars nearly running you down before double-parking you in, the trash strewn around your every pathway, the spit blobs and dog doo lining your once-pristine sidewalks.
For me, despite rejoicing each morning in the company of my amiable tribe of nearly everyone I meet at the dog park, exchanging pleasantries and wide smiles with the local retailers & restaurateurs and even my neighbours - heck - even the crusty ol’ nuns and lunatics planted on park benches always look up to crack a smile of hello (well, okay, both the nuns and the insane will only do it sometimes).  But this September was different.  I had the misfortune of having everything in my orbit simply break. All at once.  Perhaps it was the earth’s magnetic shift, or those gorgeous Super Moons, who can tell.  All I know is…I was suddenly that prey that nearly everyone I came into contact with wanted a piece of.
We don't really need who-knows-what
Grande Thing, or who-knows-which Great Men.
What we need is just more honest people.
It started with my washing machine leaking water all over the bathroom floor.  In a wild case of Cognitive Dissonance, I went online to the nearest repairman in my neighborhood.  Called & booked. He came the same day.  Efficient.  Friendly.  Taking one look at my old machine (and I mean, one look - he opened up the cover, nothing more), he said it couldn't be fixed.  Seeing I paid for the visit, I asked him about my dishwasher.  It just doesn't clean dishes. He got on the floor, opened the machine and said, "It'll work like a charm now - I pushed a special button down there."  To amuse myself, I asked him to show it to me...Assessing clearly I am from the 'weaker sex', not braun, but brain power, he said, with a straight face, "Oh no, there are far too many electrical wires there - I can't possibly allow it."  Charging me 80 euro for his trouble. 
So, my dishes were still dirty and my washing machine was still unusable. Until I recounted the event to my lovely tire guy, who sent over his elder brother, who got the whole thing working again, after spending over an hour in blood, sweat and tears...for all of 15 euro.
Seeing that the website of Repairman no. 1 screams, "Repairs guaranteed or your money back!" I thought I'd humour myself to see what, if anything, would happen if I called them on it.  Naturally, they lied. The man at the other end said he never heard of the repairman (whose name was on my invoice), that I could have called any one of millions of 800 numbers, and so on...My call to the repairman himself was met with, "I'll call you back" or, "I'll drop by in 15 minutes to discuss this." Yeah, right.  Before adding, "I've got a nice bridge to sell you." 
On the upside, I had enjoyed washing my clothes at the relatively rare laundromats, meeting the locals, bantering with the Bangladeshi, having a coffee with someone across the way. It was like being back at University again, without cramming for exams.
Next up (or down, rather) was my car battery. I end up replacing about a battery per year, at cost (since no one will uphold the mandatory 2 yr warranty).  That is, except for the time the amazing people at Bosch (Germany) intervened and got their fab Roman distributor to open his doors on a Sunday morning and install a proper battery that lasted 5 whole years.  After that, I (stupidly) trusted the repairmen at Honda-Papalia, whose father & son team got the banter down to such an art form, I swear they perform in updates of Stanley & Ollie in Trastevere after closing. So, before installing my third battery in 3 years, I asked for the Bosch battery - admonishing them not to install the one for compact cars.  It simply doesn't do the trick.  Naturally, that's what they installed.
Sig Papalia the Elder telling me (and I am not making this up), "They don't sell any other kind" followed by, "This one is just as good" and so on.  After going online to check what battery I truly needed, and after repeated calls to my Bosch Guardian Angel, Junior refused to make the change.  His excuse? "I don't care what they say in Germany and the USA - we're in Italy."  [Clearly, code for "Suck it Up."]   Calls to the Bosch people in Milan, proved...fruitless. With the guy up there saying he didn't even know about my Angel guy working the Rome market, and he'd been in the business for 30 years -- For good measure, when I asked him to please tell the Honda repair guys what battery would be ideal for my car, he fed me the first full sentence that Italians utter at about 10 months of age, and on a weekly basis for the rest of their long lives: I can't be held responsible.  When you get that line, you know the Case is Closed. So I hung up and went back to my excellent Bosch Officine repairman (near Eataly). And I am now the proud owner of a terrific battery that makes my car run well, and an extra battery perched neatly on the floor of my car.  Total charges: about 144 euro (for a 66 euro battery) plus the 107 euro on my new battery.
[On a positive note, my tire guy Giorgio, who brings me my free papers each morning, fixed my flat tire in no time at all].
Falling for it again - and again
- and again.
Then, there was my cool Samsonite suitcase rip, the mark of a marvelous month 'on-the-road'.  And with it, of course, brings back images of Gorillas back in baggage claim [although admittedly, in Italy, the Gorilla is lurking inside your bag and comes in the shape of terrific taralli from Puglia, luscious green olive oil, and a bottle of 'quattro gocce' aceto balsamico].  Three year Global Guarantee.  And that's why I love Samsonite.  Until...Italy, that is. In Italian, "warranty" is synonomous with "fat chance".  Straight to the Samsonite store, I was told (after producing the receipt - the warranty in multi-languages - and the bag) that, "That's what you say...we don't have to do anything" followed by "It can't be repaired..." and another dozen barbs dusted off for the occasion.  Usually, I would take my bag to London and call it a day. But this time, I put into practice, my First Rule of Life in Italy: Never take 'No' for an answer.  Begging, pleading, cajoling...The guy took the bag.
But then, something strange happened.  He called me the very next day to tell me it was ready.  In fact, it was too good to be true.  Using it one week later, it ripped straight down the side of the original tear, but a whole lot worse. 
So, I contacted Samsonite directly, to try to preempt further discourse.  True to form, the website email Contact Sheet didn't work (no one's ever tested it).  But a tweet did, and I got a phone call from a wonderful customer service person within minutes.  
Duly impressed. Until she started in on the "We don't know what kind of warranty that is...Where did you purchase the bag?...Why don't you send me a photo and we'll see what can be done."  Very kindly, I informed her that the only words I should be hearing right about now were, "Fine. Three Year Global Warranty. If we cannot repair it we will get you a replacement."  She was nice enough to see things my way, adding that she would "try" to contact another store that "Just might repair the bag for me."  As if they were doing me a favour. 
Years ago, the Wall Street Journal wrote a piece on how smart, seemingly efficient, sensational U.S. multinationals, when they go abroad, sometimes lose the plot. To this day I cannot think of why that is (and nor could they, come to think of it).
As for my home phone, Wind/Infostrada now offers Time Travel: Having been returned to the days of climbing up a telephone pole in front of the Shady Rest in order to place a call to whomsoever I am lucky enough to speak with on the party line.  In order to work the landline, I must:  first send a Tweet to Wind/Infostrada, whose Customer Service folks are very efficient [but you know to do this only after spending the better part of 2 hours trying to find a contact or customer assistance form on their website].  Then wait about 72 hours for a return call, to tell someone to check the line. Then, before I get to the bottom of Dante's Inferno, I can make & receive calls.  Until the line goes dead a few hours later.  I keep asking them, if they think that this is truly a decent service in 2014...but that falls on deaf ears, only because the line has gone mute.  At least about once a month, when the moon is full and in non-Leap Years, I can call out.  
The view inside Rome's
Officine iPhone
(zona Marconi)
But I usually just thank God for cellphones.  That is, until my iPhone dropped.  And here, is the bright light in the firmament.  I went online (again) and found some cool guys over at Officine iPhone (via Marconi) who will repair your phone.  And as advertised, "In 15 minutes. No appointments" And, with a smile.  And, they do a brisk business. The cherry on the torta?  They even take people in the order they came into the store, and not by gender [Any woman in Italy who has ever walked into a telephone or electronics shop will know what I mean -- you can set yourself on fire, but if a man walks in 20 mins later they will rush to give him the blanket]...
I think I'm in love. Compared to the 230 euro that Apple wanted to replace the phone, these magicians said they'd return it as good as new, for less than half the price.  Since, in the meantime, I had purchased a new screen thru Amazon, I even got it for less.  Of course, cash only [My second rule for Life in Italy: Bring loads of cash - and even more change.]
I skipped out of the place, elated, and headed to my super parking spot, right out in front (although I had to fight for it...a driver lunging into the spot while I, with blinkers flashing, pulled up to park inside it--eventually she thought better of it and finally left, but not before a few choice gestures and 'the chin').  Suddenly, I was stopped cold in my tracks.  In the 15 minutes it took to get my iPhone repaired, a Vespa had parked me in on one side, and a delivery truck double-parked me in on the other.  How do you fend off the jackals, I wonder? 
My car in Red

*live links throughout the post

In my book, I dedicate an entire chapter to Customer Service:  The Customer is Never Right.