Michael Eriksson
A Swede in Germany
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Various idiocies

The CD club that “looked out” for its customers

In my late teens I subscribed to a “CD of the month” club. One of their gimmicks was that for each five CD’s bought, the right to a 30 % rebate on a subsequent item was earned (with the decision when to exercise that rebate left to the user—ostensibly). The CD’s were priced into two categories at roughly 9 respectively 11 Euros. Naturally, I made sure to buy items at full price mostly from the cheaper category, and to exercise my rebates on more expensive items. However, the first time around, the club automatically used up my rebate on a 9 Euro CD. As I phoned in to complain—after all, this was not their decision to make, by their own T&C’s—the customer service tried to beat me off by explaining how using my rebates made it cheaper for me, and how I should be grateful that they were looking out for me. As I, in turn, explained that using the rebates on the wrong items cost me 60 cents, the woman I talked to appeared insulted—but eventually agreed to rectify the matter. Subsequent rebates were handled without flaw. From the circumstances, I strongly suspect that their order system was set up to automatically use up rebates on as cheap items as possible—unless the user had explicitly complained. Notably, 60 cents (minus sales tax, etc.) of theft per six CD’s could have a non-trivial effect on the profit margins of the club; however, few customers would consider the amount worth complaining about (including, likely, me in my post-allowance days).

(Note: I do not remember the actual numbers; however, the general principle is clear from the rough estimates used above.)

At a later stage, they made changes to another loyalty system: Customers were already divided into two categories based on their accumulated purchases, with (possibly) fifteen purchases making one a “power customer” with additional rebates. According to the montly magazine this would be somewhat revamped starting with the following issue, with new “improved” (but unspecified) rules for new power customers. Old power customers were given the choice whether they wanted the new or old rules to apply to them. Having gained some insight on how companies think, I ordered a few extra CD’s to make sure that I crossed the limit before the date when the new rules would come into effect. Lo and behold: I was still, against the formal phrasing of the rules, counted as a “new” power customer—and, yes, the “improved” rules turned out to be anything but. As I complained, I was given a story similar to the above—I should be happy that they were looking out for me: Seeing that I had the “bad luck” of passing the limit just a few weeks “too early”, they “saved” me from the unnecessary trouble of switching from old to new power user.

Needless to say, I did not remain a customer for much longer after that.

The Swedish Post in a hurry

Some time in 1997 the Swedish post office (“Posten”) decided to make great changes to the then system of stamps and postal fees. (I am, by now, uncertain about the details, but one of the changes was a massive fee increase. Cf. http://kjell.smult.com/portoguide.htme at 1997-03-01; which shows the fee for a standard letter going from SEK 3.85 to SEK 5.00, and corresponding increases for other letter types.)

There was a minor uproar in reaction to the announcement, including at least one lawsuit to clarify whether this change was at all legal. The response from Posten was a complete disregard of others legitimate interests, the legal system, and reason: They moved the announced changes to an earlier (!) date in order to pre-empt the courts. I am very vague on subsequent events, because this was the year I moved to Germany; however, I note from the cited link that the fees were not later lowered, which implies that the rouse either worked or that Posten eventually won their trial.

Language of government agencies

As we probably all know, government agencies have an abysmal record of customer unfriendliness and incompetence. One particular issue that often goes below the radar, however, is their use of language: Incorrect, insulting, patronizing, stylistically disastrous, ...

Consider the notification I sent to the German IRS (in compliance with German regulations) that I was starting a freelance business: The response started with “Ihr Finanzamt hat von der Aufnahme Ihrer unternehmerischen Tätigkeit Kenntnis erlangt.”—“Your IRS (office) has acquired knowledge of the commencement of your entrepreneurial activity.” (Beware that this is slightly worse in English than in German, due to problems of accurately translating idiomatic expressions.)

Let us look at this in more detail: TODO

OriginalEnglishDiscussionSuggestion
“Ihr Finanzamt”“Your IRS (office)”Use of “your” in situations like this (or, e.g., “John Smith, your partner for used cars.”) can be seen as too familiar or too presumptuous, and is definitely illogical, because there is no ownership involved and the associative form of e.g. “your brother” does not really apply. Further, “Finanzamt” has an unfortunate double meaning (possible caused by an organizational problem) of the IRS as a whole or a concept, and as the local IRS office. This is not an important issue, but should ideally be considered.“Your local ...” might work, but “The local ...” or even just “The IRS ...” would likely be better. If enough context is given “We ...” might be the best alternative.
“hat Kenntnis erlangt”“has acquired knowledge”No—you did not acquired knowledge; I told you. It is true that the formulation used could be construed as formally correct (depending on what degree of activity is required in “erlangen”—“to acquire/to gain”; however, it has connotations that are not wanted in a case like this. The implicit message is “From sources other than you, we have acquired knowledge.”, or even, depending on context, “Despite your neglecting to tell us...”. Generally, communications from e.g. the IRS tend to be filled with statements that are logically allowable, but simply would and could not be used by someone with even a basic understanding of language and communication.“has received your notification”
“von der Aufnahme Ihrer unternehmerischen Tätigkeit”“of the commencement of your entrepreneurial activity”Not quite as bad in German, but bad enough: Too stilted (even by my standards...) and with a very dubious use of a noun instead of a verb—another common problem in writings of civil servants.“that you have become self-employed”

This leaves us with a first suggestion of “The IRS has received your notification that you have become self-employed.”—better, but not good: The level of stiltedness is, IMO, not unreasonable for a formal letter; however, both manners and information are still lacking (and were not provided elsewhere in the letter). Starting from scratch, something along the lines of “Thank you for your message of [date]. We have made a preliminary registration of your self-employment, and [here I include a reformulation of the second sentence] ask you to fill out and submit the enclosed form before [other date]. We need this information in order to [whatever reason].”

Note that letters like these should be more or less standardized—written once by a communications expert (taking into account e.g. diplomacy and the high number of messages that, statistically, go to semi-illiterate people), and then modified to accomodate specifics (e.g. due dates). Additional text can added by the individual civil servant, should the need arise (e.g. to answer a specific question asked in the original notification). If an ad hoc message from a civil servant is sub-optimal, one might do well to think twice before throwing the first stone; however, messages like these must be standardized—if they are not, then an even worse problem is present.

(Yes, the rest of the letter was of a similar quality.)

Disclaimer: I may be off slightly in the exact English translations of specific German concepts; however, not so much that it will affect the principles of the discussion. In addition, there may be some language errors caused by my not being a native speaker (normally, this is obvious and understandable; but in this particular context...).

Package deliveries by the German Post

Typically, when a customer is not present to receive a package, a notification is left stating merely that a package can be collected at the local post office within a certain time frame. (The same applies m.m. for e.g. registered mail.) There is no mention of who sent the package, or any other relevant information, and the notification explicitly states that the post office will not answer any questions concerning the package by phone—doing so would violate the “Postgeheimnis” (“secrecy of post” or similar, a legal restriction of what the post office is allowed to do with the objects they transport on behalf of customers), by potentially allowing information concerning the sender to reach others than the recipient.

Now, if someone receives a notification, he has but two options: He can spend parts of his valuable time going by and queueing at the post office, or he can let the package be automatically returned after ten (?) days. I do not recall ever receiving an unexpected package, but there have been cases where I have been expecting several packages, and would have gladly gone for the more important alone, but waited until both were there if it was the other. A delivery of an already cancelled order would be another case of interest. Further, registered mail is seldom expected, and the sender can be vital for knowing whether the mail is urgent, can wait until a more convenient time, or can even be ignored altogether (although this would rarely be the case).

To a degree, the German post’s stance is understandable: There may well be cases (sex related, sensitive religious or political contacts, communications between someone married and an old sweet-heart) where the recipient has an understandable interest in secrecy. However, combined with the way the postal workers handle every other instance, it can only be considered hypocrisy: Packages are often given to neighbors or near-by stores, or put in the hall way. Letters that do not fit in the letter-box are routinely put on top of it. Etc. Certainly, unless delivery “to the hands of” is requested no postal worker would think twice of giving a package to a family member in the right appartment—yet, when I asked a postal worker about the lack of information on the notification, she claimed that even a notification put in the letter-box has to be free from information—because other family members could have access to it! (But giving them the actual package is in order... And: What about all normal letters routinely put into the letter-box?)

The reasons for this are not clear to me: It is for instance conceivable that the legislation is inconsistent or that the post office (or its employees) only follows it when it benefits them. Certainly, incompetence and misinformation about the exact rules among individual employees can contribute. However, whatever the reasons, this is entirely unacceptable.

The extreme degree of rule-bending than can occur is demonstrated by the fact that the postal workers often leave a notification without bothering to ring/knock at the door at all (a problem in particular for people on the higher floors of a building). Effectively, this breach of contract forces the customer to go out of his way to compensate for time that the post office saves for it self—never mind the fact that postal deliveries are done at times of day when most people are at work or school... A save of thirty seconds for the postal worker can be countered by as much as thirty minutes of times wasted for the recipient.

Related anecdotes:

  1. A package arrived for me when I was away over Christmas. The package was left with a neighbor who moved (!) before I was back. Not knowing this, I went by her old apartment a dozen times over a space of three weeks—to no result, obviously. I assumed that she had been on a prolonged vacation, but had reached the point where I was about demand in writing the immediate release of my package or else..., when her successor moved in and could provide me with both the package (left in the apartment) and an explanation.

  2. As the Packstationw system was introduced, I was originally interested: This would be a good way to gain flexibility at least as far as opening hours were concerned, when a package could not be delivered. The irony: My code numbers were sent by registered mail, requiring me to go by the post office one extra time, just to be able to use something that was supposed to save me trips to the post office... (I note that banks, in contrast, typically send PINs and similar in ordinary letters—despite these being much more important than a packstation code.)

  3. On one occasion I was awaiting a book delivery that never arrived. I wrote an email to inquire—the package was already sent, and should arrive presently. Days went by, and I re-inquired—the package was already delivered, and I had signed for it! A lengthy discussion ensued over this incorrect claim, including the book dealer’s sending me a scan of what was manifestly not my signature, nor could in anyway be construed to be my name. A few days later a note arrived from a near-by shop owner “You had a package delivered to us about a week ago. Please come to pick it up ASAP, or we have to return it.”. I went by after work the following day, but, alas, the package had been returned the same day. As the shop owner explained to me, the delivery service routinely left packages with her (despite her dislike, but for the sake of the recipients...)—and had repeatedly failed to actually notify the recipients of this irregularity!

    (This was admittedly a delivery company not, to my knowledge, affiliated with the German post; however, the same lack of respect for the customers rights shines through.)

  4. The last few packages I have received (from the German post) have all been delivered to a kiosk in my building. The notification has been affixed to the outside (!) of the door to my building, where any passer-by (including a child to young to know better) could have removed it. Worse: In the kiosk no kind of identification or signature has been required to get my package—the notification has been enough! In effect, anyone could have stolen not just the notification, but even the actual package...

Does anyone wonder why I seldom order anything for delivery nowadays?