Think your front line doesn't affect your bottom line? Nations should take a closer look at what happens at their borders - this is the first major touchpoint with a "national brand". And the impression left is not always good. Here are three stories.
Sheremetyevo International Airport, Moscow
Last week, I was in Moscow. It took three uniformed folks to let me out of the country. Curiously, the passport (and photo) that got me a visa and into the country, suddenly became suspicious when the time came to leave.
The young woman officiating spent several minutes staring at me and my passport. She then pushed a button (a signal that things were clearly amiss). Her colleague came over. They both stared at me. They stared at my passport. They stared at me some more. I removed my glasses (on request). I tried to resemble my photo (on my own initiative). I showed them other photo IDs (on request). I gave them my entire wallet (on my own initiative) The photo IDs included an 30-year-old Danish work permit, which they finally accepted as proof of my identity (sigh, if only the rest of the world thought I looked 30 years younger). Only when a third border officer came over and told the two younger officials that this was absurd, was I finally allowed to pass. (Although I don't speak Russian, when someone says someone else is full of shit, I recognize the international signs)
The whole seance took over 10 minutes - which is really long when only one passport lane is open and the people waiting behind you are starting to wonder what crime you have committed.
That is the Russian Federation. Western Europeans aren't surprised by this kind of nonsense as it fits the otherwise outdated stereotype. But let me share two more stories with you. And mind you, I am simply too old to take much crap from anybody unless they actually point a gun at me (and even then, I'm pretty cool, for example when poked with the business end of a Kalishnikov in East Berlin - but that's another story. Buy me a beer sometime...
Miami International Airport (aka "Wilcox Field")
Let's move on to the United States. I gathered my entire extended family and brought them to Miami last February to celebrate my Mom's 90th birthday. After we had cleared passport control, I was walking several meters in front of the rest of the family as we approached baggage claim. As anyone who has entered the United States knows, you have to show the stamped customs form to a bored official sitting on a chair before you can leave the first immigration area. Here's the conversation that followed:
U.S. customs official: Hold on there, buddy.
Me: Sure. What's the problem?
U.S. Customs official: This paper says you're travelling with a bunch of people. Where are they?
Me: They're right there (pointing)
U.S. Customs official: (angry) They need to be with you at all times.
Me: (cautiously). Er...they are. They're right there (my wife and son-in-law were now standing next to me. The others were only steps away). We have children with us. They walk slowly.
U.S. Customs official: That's not my problem. Don't move.
Me: I'm not going anywhere. Relax. They're right there.
U.S. Customs official: Don't you give me that backtalk! You stand over there! Right now! And shut your goddamn face.
Me: (no words. I stand in my appointed corner. The family regroups)
U.S. Customs official: You people come to our country and think you can tell us what to do. Well, believe me, sonny, this isn't the way we do things over here. I'll tell you when you can go.
Me: (I wait for over a minute, receive more verbal lashings, and then flash my U.S. passport): "Sonny" yourself. I assure you, I am NOT "you people". You screwed with the wrong American Citizen and you can't scare me. And if this is the way you greet visitors to our country, the Customs and Immigration Service had better find your replacement FAST. Now you let us pass - and I want your name and badge number NOW.
(I filed an official complaint against Officer Delgado. I was told action was taken. On behalf of the United States of America, I apologize to all visitors who also met this idiot.)
Kastrup Airport, Copenhagen
Fast forward to last Wednesday in Copenhagen Airport on my way to the United Kingdom.
The Danish official takes my passport, casually flips to the very last page, and plants a stamp. I roll my eyes. He reacts:
Danish policeman (in English): So what's your problem?
Me (in Danish): You just cost me two trips to my embassy - which is about 4 hours of my time!
Danish policeman: Huh?
Me (in Danish): You just stamped the very last page in my passport. Now I have to go to my embassy and have extra pages glued in if I want to travel to most countries in Asia. For instance, the Russian Federation requires two consecutive blank pages if I want a visa. You just screwed up my passport.
Danish policeman (in Danish): You should have told me before.
Me: It's not my job to teach you your job. Passport control officers around the world know how to stamp a passport. There are even instructions printed in the EU passport.
Danish policeman: This is an American passport. The stamp is just a fucking souvenir for you people (verbatim translation: "en skide souvenir for jer amerikaner").
Me: This isn't a souvenir shop. You are authorizing travel documents.
Danish policeman: Move on. People are waiting...sir. (and under his breath, "Røvhul")
Dear Danish Passport Control Policeman. I have your number - number 9. You haven't heard the end of this.
Pay heed: idiots in positions of authority can create an incredible amount of bad will. All businesses and institutions should keep this in mind when planning customer-service initiatives. Your front line relates directly to your bottom line!
Typical pages from my passport as normally stamped by officials, following the best practice of filling up the passport from the front.
Very last page of my passport, incorrectly stamped by bored official who couldn't give a damn about his job.
Three service experiences from a recent trip to Miami, FL.
At Whole Foods in Pinecrest
Me: “Hi. I’m looking for vermouth.”
Whole Foods: “That’s like beer, right?”
Me: “It’s like a strong wine.”
Whole Foods: “This is the wine department.”
Me: “Yes. I know. Where do you have stuff like port?”
Whole Foods: “Which port? Is this something you got on a cruise ship?”
At Macy’s in Dadeland
Me: “Hi. I’m looking for black, canvas tennis shoes.”
Macy’s: “Canvas? Is that a kind of leather?”
Me: “No. It’s heavy cloth. Like what they make sails out of.”
Macy’s: “Like nylon? We have Docksides. But they’re not made of nylon.”
At Staples office supplies
Me: “Hi. I need an At-A-Glance calendar refill.”
Staples: “What year?”
Me (biting tongue): “2010″
Staples: “But that’s next year.”
Me: “Er…yes…I need a refill for my current calendar.”
Staples: “We don’t carry that brand.”
Me: “You have an At-A-Glance display over there, but there’s nothing in it.”
Staples: “That’s a mistake.”
Me: “That you have the display or that it’s not filled?”
Staples: “Yes. Sorry we can’t help you.”
And we web designers wonder why folks can’t fill out online forms…geez.
Voting in Florida is always a challenge - just ask anybody who fought with the butterfly ballot in Palm Beach County back in 2000. This year, Miami-Dade County, my county of residence, forgot to send me an absentee ballot, even though I had sent in the paperwork back in September.
Today, getting nervous as election day approached, I spent 25 minutes on hold before an actual human confirmed my worst fear, "We have no record of your request." Luckily, today was the last day to register for an absentee ballot, so I jumped through the hoops again.
And this time it got through. Here's the mail receipt I just received:
E-mail received on Wednesday, October 29, 2008
Anyone else notice something odd about this message? Ah, Florida. How can we trust our officials to count our votes correctly when they cannot even figure out days of the week?