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Unhappy customers

(Oops, I forgot to post this message so it’s a few weeks old, but better than nothing! Off on homeleave adventures now)

Today marked a low point in terms of customer interaction. A lady came to the embassy demanding I help her get access to her Wells Fargo bank account. I started explaining it’s not what an embassy does but soon realized she wasn’t listening. After she insulted my colleague and hurled multiple profanities at me I gave her an ultimatum: start behaving or get escorted out. Then I fixed her issue as best as I could and moved on with my day.

This type of customer behavior is not typical at our embassy in Berlin. Most of my customers—U.S. citizen or otherwise—are friendly and reasonably patient. They often find it exciting speak to an American and thank me profusely, especially if I give their child an American flag sticker (which I buy myself on Amazon). A customer even sang happy birthday to me once! Seriously, my work is enjoyable that way.

But there are certain things that set people off—sometimes understandably so. For example, when a middle aged man renewing a passport lectured me on how confusing our website is. He wasn’t wrong. I get frustrated with our website myself all the time. And he doesn’t know we tinker with our website, automatic replies, email reminders and instructions every day to make life easier for everyone, so I take no offense.

Less understandable was the behavior of a lady I called in Texas one day, to talk about her mother passing away (which she already knew about) and what to do with her belongings. I was taken aback by how distrustful and aggressive she was. She refused to answer questions or cooperate in any way, making it as difficult as possible for us to do our job—issuing a correct death certificate. But she wasn’t shy about asking us for help when she ran into translation issues with the German authorities a few days later!

We also deal with destitute Americans who want our help but don’t like what we have to offer. I get a great deal of satisfaction from helping people who were robbed or are just totally confused and need help to fly home, but they can be difficult customers. They call us at all hours of the day—typically Friday afternoons or weekends—demanding food en shelter, sometimes hanging up angrily, making us wonder for days if they’re ok until they inevitably show up at the embassy asking for whatever help we can provide.

I try to be gentle with customers but for consular officers it’s fairly routine to ask personal questions, like: how did you meet your spouse? How did you conceive this child while your partner lived in another country? Explain to me in detail how and why you were arrested ten years ago. Why don’t you pay child support? I think most of the time customers realize we only ask it in order to help them, to protect America, and because we have to follow rules and procedures. But sometimes they get real cranky.

All in all my one year in American Citizen Services in Berlin was a great one, with little drama beyond what’s expected, like people losing their passports or forgetting to renew them until the day before they travel. I’ll miss it! The team of locally hired employees was amazing and taught me a lot. Now it’s time to test the waters in Mumbai, where I start mid-August!


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