While there are many, many things I love about living in Vienna, Austrian customer service, or the distinct lack thereof, is not one of them.
No, there is no point beating around the bush when it comes to asking the question “Is Austrian customer service good or bad?”, as just about everyone who has visited Austria, and in particular Vienna, has had a terrible experience with at least one (usually more) people tasked with customer service.
It is a shame, as the service someone experiences can give visitors a “definitely want to revisit that amazing country” feeling, or a “being locked in a Turkish prison for a week might be preferable” attitude.
In other words, poor customer service does nothing to persuade people to return to Austria, and everything to encourage them to stay away.
I find consistently poor customer service especially surprising in a city like Vienna, a popular tourist destination and one that, according to City of Vienna official statistics, in a normal year (2019) has close to 15 million overnight stays by international travelers.
Visitors who spend an enormous amount of money in the city, and in particular in the venues/shops/restaurants/tourist attractions where they are routinely ignored, grumbled at, snapped at, and, in some extreme cases, shouted at as they try to spend their cash.
So what are some of the types of customer service you may experience when you are in Austria, and why is Austrian customer service so bad?
Experiences with customer service in Austria
My worst experience with customer service in Austria was with an Austrian taxi driver outside Vienna’s Westbahnhof railway station when I arrived on an airport bus after a grueling plane ride from Thailand.
Lugging two heavy suitcases, a stuffed carry-on bag and a box of belongings as I was moving to Vienna permanently, I politely asked a taxi driver parked outside the station if he could take me to a hotel across the street and down three blocks as it was impossible for me to carry all those things myself.
I offered him 20 euros for what would be less than a 3-minute drive for him.
After grumbling, waving his arms and then shouting, he refused.
As he was the only taxi driver standing there and with no other in sight, I politely asked him why. He shouted again, and told me “Geh weg” (“Go away”).
At that point, after 20 exhausting hours traveling, a run-in with an equally rude money exchange clerk at Vienna airport, and an unhelpful airport bus driver, I told him to go fuck himself.
Apparently, that is the secret for dealing with someone in Austrian customer service (no, I don’t recommend it!), as he immediately laughed, got out of the taxi, threw my stuff in the trunk, gently pushed me into the back seat and drove off mumbling “fuck yourself” to himself as he mimicked me and laughed.
No, my first experience with Austrian customer service wasn’t stellar.
A similar experience occurred to two friends who visited me from Thailand (minus the foul language) when they (a British man and his Thai wife) arrived at Vienna train station and tried to purchase train tickets for a trip to Salzburg.
A simple request for help turned into a rude reply, a polite response from my friends, and an even ruder reply back.
At that point, and it being his first time in Austria, my friend called me for help and asked “Are Austrians always this unpleasant?”
My elderly parents also received similar treatment when, arriving at Vienna International Airport after a flight from London, my 81-year-old father realized he didn’t have a euro coin for the luggage cart.
So he did what he would do in any other country in the world, headed to a customer service desk to ask if they had change for five euros, only to be met with the same rude response millions of people who visit Austria must experience — a snapped “Nein” (“No”) followed by the person turning her back on him.
Approaching a second person was met with the same result.
That was why, as the arrival gates opened and I saw my 81-year-old father pulling two suitases behind him while carrying two heavy carry-on bags over his shoulders (my mother has medical issues so cannot carry anything over a kilo), I presumed he had been met with Austria’s famous “customer service”.
And also why my “Welcome to Vienna” was met with “If I had known Austrians were this rude and unhelpful, we would have stayed in London”.
(My parents ultimately had a lovely visit to Vienna, met some incredibly nice Austrians, and are still raving about their Vienna visit three years later (see photo below) — it is just a pity it started out so poorly).
If you think this type of annoying, rude and decidely unhelpful “customer service” only occurs at airports, train stations and in taxis in Austria, however, think again.
During my years in Vienna, I have been snapped at while eating lunch with friends in cafes, pubs and bars, ignored in shops, yelled at by bus drivers and generally been treated as if the person I am speaking to has zero interest in my custom.
Before you think it only happens to non-Austrians too, think again, as Austrian friends have also complained about the customer service in Vienna.
One friend in particular, who was 8-months-pregnant and on her way to meet me at the time, got into a shouting match with an Austrian tram driver as he yelled at her for something she had supposedly done/not done.
It is also not just the generally poor customer service you experience consistently in Austria that is annoying, it is also the gloomy and decidedly unwelcome atmosphere I feel in many shops, supermarkets, bars and restaurants I frequent.
An atmosphere that makes me feel as though the last thing anyone working there wants to do is serve me/help me/take my money.
Compare that to any of the four other countries I have lived in — the U.S., Thailand, Malaysia, the United Kingdom — or the more than 45 other countries I have visited for weeks/months at a time (and in particular Spain/Thailand, where people are incredibly friendly everywhere), and it is no wonder I sometimes find interacting with people in customer service in Austria a chore.
Or why, whenever I comment to a particularly friendly waiter/shop assistant/supermarket checkout person “It is nice how friendly Austrians are” (I may not exactly be telling the truth, but I believe encouraging friendly behavior is better than complaining about bad behaviour), the person I compliment will almost always say “I’m not Austrian, I’m German”.
Why is Austrian customer service so bad?
I honestly have no idea.
I do know it is somewhat of a “source of pride” to the Viennese that they are known as a “grumpy people”, and that rude service particularly in bars and cafes in Vienna seems to be somewhat of a “tourist attraction”.
That being said, most tourists may think it is funny to experience a rude waiter in Vienna for the first time.
By the sixth time, it becomes annoying.
How to get better customer service in Austria?
Overall, I think Austrians are incredibly nice people and, in almost seven years of living in Vienna, I have had far more superb experiences with Austrians than not.
They are also usually helpful, friendly and will go that extra mile for you — once you have known them for a while.
In a casual meeting, however, or at the beginnings of a friendship, most Austrians are not the open, friendly, helpful and kind people they become once you get to know them.
Whether they are shy, feel uncomfortable, are not good at small talk, the weather in Austria is ‘grey’ much of the time etc., of course, I have no way of knowing.
That means, when it comes to customer service in Austria, which usually consists of a few seconds or a few minutes’ interaction at most, it can be difficult to affect the situation so that you experience a good one.
How I have dealt with it, with pretty good results, is with the same attitude I handle every situation just about everywhere else.
I am happy, smiling, friendly and outgoing. To everyone. Every day. From the supermarket checkout guy to the post office clerk to the taxi driver to the woman who checks annual passes at the Kunsthistorisches Museum.
Because of this most Austrians, I presume, either think I am a lunatic… or selling something.
But what I have experienced in return in almost every instance is, if you are the first one to be friendly and smiling, and continue to be friendly and smiling, even if they may not initially behave the same way back, most Austrians will quickly become as polite and friendly to you.
Do I have to do that in any other country I visit?
No, as the person in customer service is usually like that too. But, as I behave that way normally anyway, it isn’t a chore for me.
Should you have to do that when you are the customer and they are the person supposedly in “customer service”?
But, if you do behave that way in Austria, I can almost guarantee you will have an experience that will be far more pleasant than the alternative.
Yes, customer service in Austria can be pretty bad, but if you are the one that puts in the extra effort first, it doesn’t always have to be.
Additional reading: Internations’ annual Expat Insider survey consistently places Austria as “one of the unfriendliest destinations worldwide” — and, for what a lovely country is and how incredibly nice most Austrians are when you get to know them, it is a bloody shame
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