Russian Language Blog

From Exasperating to Unobtrusive – Customer Service Words Posted by on Dec 9, 2011 in language, Russian for beginners

Hello! Boy, am I happy to be back! I apologize for such a long absence from the blog. In case you have been wondering, I am not trekking across Siberia nor is my time taken up by re-reading “War and Peace” for the umpteenth time. I have been stranded без ноутбука (without a laptop) or rather without a working one for a whole week.

And so for the last six days or so I’ve been busy watching lots of телек (informal: TV), going to bed early, and obsessing over уровень обслуживания клиентов (customer service level) at the company whose laptop I bought some time ago.

Have you ever wondered how to talk about such an experience – обслуживание клиентов (customer service) and поддержка клиентов (customer support) – in Russian?

Let’s say, you need to make a phone call to one of these services to resolve an issue. First, you must позвонить по бесплатному номеру (call a toll-free number) only to be put through to автоответчик (answering machine). It admits that ваш звонок очень важен для нас! (your call is very important to us) gives you choices that use up all the кнопки телефона (phone buttons), from единичка (one) to девятка (nine), including решётка (pound key) and звёздочка (star key).

Whatever choice you make, you have to spend endless time в ожидании (on hold) since все операторы заняты (all representatives are busy) due to большое число звонков (large volume of calls).

So by the time you get to a real person, especially if this is a pressing matter, you are готовы взорваться (ready to explode), you are доводён до белого каления (exasperated) and require significant усилие воли (effort) to вежливо разговаривать (speak politely). What can you say, it’s simply a нервотрёпка (a trying experience).

There are some notable exceptions to this torturous process, including an online retailer who will have a support person call you within seconds of your online запрос (request).

To give credit when credit is due, I have never encountered a genuine хамство (offensive  behavior) from any of the customer service reps. Considering the number of сердитые (angry), грубые (rude), раздражённые (irritated), огорчённые (upset), возмущённые (outraged) and otherwise эмоциональные (emotional) people they have to deal with daily, this is quite a достижение (achievement).

The most you get is безразличие (indifference), равнодушие (half-heartedness) and невнимательность (inattention). Still, it is a lot to take, especially if the issue you are trying to resolve is неотложное (urgent) and важное (important).

Back in the Soviet and early post-Soviet days the level of customer service (or any service) in Russia was frequently described as ненавязчивый сервис. The adjective ненавязчивый can mean a few things, depending on the noun it’s paired with. For example, ненавязчивая реклама means “soft sell”; ненавязчивая музыка is “light music”; ненавязчивая элегантность is “quiet elegance”. So far so good, right? But ненавязчивый сервис is nothing to be proud of. In fact, it means “support that’s not there”. It’s unobtrusive (another meaning of ненавязчивый) to the point of nonexistence.

This is probably marginally better from a so-terrible-it’s-comical смех сквозь слёзы (laughter through tears) service experience. For example, when a waitress at an otherwise excellent Russian restaurant on Brighton Beach tells you (me): Перестаньте меню читать. Вы же не читать пришли, а есть. Вот закажите, а потом уже читайте. (Stop reading the menu. You came here not to read, but to eat. Order first then keep reading.)

Getting back to the exasperating experience, hopefully your проблема (problem) is resolved, you get возврат денег (refund) back to your кредитная карточка (credit card) or your банковская карточка (debit card). Or you might be asked to вернуть неисправный товар (return the malfunctioning item) back to продавец (a seller). Or you might get nothing of the kind. No matter the outcome, you will be left with a polite всего доброго! (have a nice day!).

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  1. Des:

    Welcome back. Please keep the blogs coming. They are very useful and much appreciated.

  2. Olga:

    С вовращением:).
    Каждый раз получаю огромное удовольствие от твоих заметок.Большое спасибо!Не пропадай!

  3. Minority:

    Welcome back!

    Customer support may be bad here in Russia, but I can say I’ve never met rude waitress here. May be I saw some tired and apathetic of them, but not rude.)

    Btw, as I know, most people in the call-centers are blind, so I guess they deserve some respect about managing with their desease too. 🙂

  4. Richard:

    Welcome back, Yelena! Я рад, что ваш ноутбук работает!

    When I saw “customer service” and “call centre” I thought that this might be your post on swearing! 😉

  5. Delia:

    Another great post! thank you! speaking of ненавязчивый советский сервиз, my best маникюр, педикюр, массаж, парикмахеры (hairdresser) и портные (tailors, dress makers) были в Советском Союзе. Я это понимаю только сейчас having lived in several countries 🙂 Что имеем, не храним. (точнее, не понимаем или не ценим) Потерявши, плачем.

  6. Minority:

    Delia, “сервИз” is a set of plates/cups/forks and some other tableware. When you’re talking about “услуга” [service] it’s a “сЕрвис”.

  7. Delia:

    Pardon my typo. Of course I meant СЕРВИС.

  8. Delia:

    Pardon my typo. Of course I meant СЕРВИС. It shows that I use the word СЕРВИЗ more often than СЕРВИС 🙂
    Thank you!

  9. Minority:

    Delia, that’s OK. I hope somebody will find these two words interesting.)

  10. Rob McGee:

    including решётка (pound key)

    Two vocabulary words for the price of one: решётка not only means the symbol #, but the more basic meaning is “grille-work, grating, lattice”. So, the steel bars of a prison can be described with решётка, and сидеть за решёткой means “to be in jail” — but you can also use the word for decorative wooden framework (“lattice”) in your garden.

  11. Minority:

    Rob, I can add one more use for “решетка”: “кристаллическая решетка” [crystal lattice]

  12. Delia:

    Решетка Александровского Сада which is a gate and a fence /ворота и забор is considered one of the masterpieces/шедевр of Russian and world architecture and art.

  13. David Roberts:

    Fascinating! Why do you (Americans) call # the pound key? We call it the hash key., but I think решётка is better than either.

    Minority, are you into chemistry, writing about кристаллическая решетка? How would we translate “lattice energy” – I think we need a “possessive adjective” rather than a genitive – решетная энергия? I think решетка must be related to the verb решать/решить (to decide) – решетка being able to “decide” what is too big to pass and what can get through.

  14. Minority:

    David, nope, I’m not into chemistry. I’m into programming and game design. But I still remember something from chemistry classes from school.

    My vocabulary tells me that “lattice energy” is “энергия кристаллической решетки”.

    And “решетка” is made from “решето”[sieve], not “решать”. =)

  15. David Roberts:

    Меньшинство (таким образом вас зовут ваши русские друзья?) – не думаете что есть связь между словами “решето” и “решать/решить”? По моему то, что решето делает – решать если каждая частица вещества велика или невелика.

  16. Minority:

    David, my russian friends do not call me “Меньшинство”, at least it’s a word of neuter gender. And “Minority” sounds like a word of feminine gender to Russian ear.

    Решето прореживает [thins out]. To me “решать, велика крупа или нет” is too complicated and odd logic to explain what do решето does. And etymological vocabulary says that “решать” originally meant “отпускать грехи” [to give someone absolution/indulgence].