Selling Is Tough If You Hate To Smile...

When Kmart bought the staid, state-owned Maj department store in Prague in 1992, some employees found the notion of service with a smile so repellent that they quit. "They felt they had to be too nice to customers," said Imrich Gombar, director of human resources for Kmart's 13 stores in the Czech Republic and Slovakia.

Czechs are notorious for what some call moodiness and others call cynicism. "It's almost a national feature," says Jaroslava Stastna, a sociologist at Central European University in Prague. This deep-rooted detachment leaps from the pages of Jaroslav Hasek's Czech classic, The Good Soldier Svejk. The main character's indifference typifies the little man's defense against the absurdity of officialdom--a disengagement that served the Czechs well under the Red dictatorship, Stasna notes.

But what worked against the communists has done little to foster initiative or improve customer service in the free market. "Job security still comes first," says Pavel Krycha, manager of Eastman Kodak Co.'s office-imaging subsidiary in the Czech Republic. "`You have to be nice to your boss and only then think of the customer.' People haven't realized the people provide us with revenues, not our bosses." During a recent hiring round, Kodak put this hypothetical question to applicants: "Your boss calls you into his office just as you receive a telephone call from an important customer about a problem. What do you do?" All except one woman said they would ask the customer to call back and hasten to their boss's office. She got the job.

In fact, the Czech language has no equivalent for "customer service." Under the communists, shop clerks ruled like petty tyrants, abandoning customers in mid-sentence. Little has changed.

Many foreign companies underestimated the length of the cultural transition to a free market. "It's not something you change with just a course or two," says Hens van Wingerden, personnel manager for Tabak AS/Philip Morris Cos.. "It's a process that could take an entire generation." Meanwhile, companies such as Philip Morris and Kodak are using in-house training and outside consultants to teach employees motivation, negotiation, and communication skills. Companies without their own smile programs are turning to Western universities and self-helpers like Dale Carnegie.

Whether Carnegie's techniques will win friends and influence people in the Czech workplace remains to be seen. With unemployment only 3.5%--and less than 1% in Prague--few feel anxious about losing their jobs. Still, a dozen corporations and more than 100 individuals have signed up for Carnegie's $1,000 course--seven months' salary for the average worker. Emerging from his first session, Martin Bernosek appeared overwhelmed by the testimonials, smiles, and applause that lent a talk-show quality to the class. "I think they're going to have to modify their program here," he says. "This won't work with Czechs. We don't smile at people on the streets."

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