Bulgaria, a beautiful country with a friendly and hospitable population, fits most expats' description of their ideal host nation. Most of us have been welcomed into our neighbours' homes to be fed on local produce and plied with lashings of rakiya. The lack of a common language is no barrier to these people's generosity. Yet as Bulgaria competes for a larger percentage of foreign tourism, you wonder how many visitors actually leave this pleasant land with warm memories of a kind, generous nation always happy to help. Like Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde, those same friendly neighbours turn into monsters when behind a shop counter or waiting tables. More than just an inconvenience, the abysmal state of Bulgarian customer service is crippling Bulgaria's attempts to increase tourist revenue.
Hit the road, Jack
The lack of personal service often begins with the flight to Bulgaria. Those who take advantage of Bulgaria Air's services may have encountered grim-faced cabin staff who strut up and down the aisles. They seem to be counting the seconds until they touch down and are freed from the forced smiles and canned pleasantries which they consider affected and unnecessary.
Think again. Skytrax, a website (www.airlinequality.com) featuring airline and airport reviews for and by consumers, rates Bulgaria Air as a two-star airline. One repeated complaint from passengers is the cabin crew's unprofessional attitude and the lack of communication between the airline and passengers. Stories abound about crews on long-haul flights who serve a single drink and meal, and then retire to business class - where they spend the rest of the flight consuming duty-free alcohol. Peter Sykes from Manchester comments, "It did not help that Bulgaria Air staff were less than honest in the information they gave out, indicative of a general contempt for passengers. This is an attitude that we hoped had disappeared with Communism. This airline has a long way to go before it can stand shoulder to shoulder with other companies." John Saville from London maintains, "Bulgaria Air expects its customers to put up routinely with things that most airlines would not consider doing." So rather than receiving a congenial welcome and efficient in-flight service, many visitors are treated with contempt or indifference.
An official Bulgarian welcome
While you're probably not naïve enough to expect a Hawaiian-style welcome with leis and hula dancers, you might still count on a smile at the very least. Your greeting comes from the often surly customs official who, rather than welcoming you to the country, eyes you suspiciously without a nod or smile.
Your first encounter with a real Bulgarian in a non-official capacity will more than likely be a taxi driver, who will use all his foreign language skills to lull you into a false sense of security - before he stings you for double the fare. Those who catch the tour coach from the airport to their accommodation will be spared this brush with local conmen. In that case, your first engagement with these kind and affable folk will be during check-in at your hotel. Some of the big international hotels persevere with staff training and insist that all guests are welcomed with the warmth and professionalism befitting the chain's reputation. Yet many establishments, particularly those in holiday resorts, treat guests with bureaucratic indifference. Complaints about facilities meet with derision and restaurant service is lacking in any social graces.
Is Communism - or the fledgling free market - to blame?
Customer service problems often result from a shortage of staff. Personnel in resorts receive no training and work from dawn to dusk for a pittance. They feel resentful at having to wait on holidaymakers who think nothing of blowing the equivalent of a Bulgarian's weekly wage on a meal out. The service industry is full of people forced to eke out a living in jobs well below their educational level. As in the days of Communism, such workers receive little respect or praise from their employers, which leads them to feel undervalued and ill-treated. In 2007, the State Agency for Tourism's report on the summer season listed poor customer service as the number one complaint among tourists. Desperate to attract more visitors, the agency compared prices in Bulgarian resorts to those in other countries, trying to convince tourists of the benefits of holidaying in Bulgaria. Of course, some discount tourists may be prepared to overlook bad service in favour of low costs, but prices in resorts such as Golden Sands are steadily rising.
A beer now costs around five leva and an average meal for four costs about 100 leva, on par with some prime European resorts. Bulgaria needs to attract a wealthier and more sophisticated type of holidaymaker to compete with such destinations. However, many countries are light years ahead in terms of satisfying their guests' every need, thus ensuring repeat customers regardless of cost.
Banking on service
Bulgarian-style customer "care" is not limited to resorts. For example, those brave enough to exchange money may be treated to another classic case of surly service. The lengthy and unnecessary queues to a single cash desk, sometimes operated by a sullen girl who looks like she has never smiled in her life, are off-putting, to say the least. The helpful, pleasant service encountered in most Western banks is transformed in Bulgaria into a frustrating, tedious experience.
Those tourists who turn to the police because they are looking for directions or have been robbed will be astounded at the obstructive attitude they often meet. Such unsympathetic bully boys do nothing to promote the welcoming image of the country.
Who cares about aftercare?
With the influx of Western stores, you might expect customer service to have improved - and it has, to a certain extent. Chain stores welcome their shoppers with a smile and do their best to provide accurate information and helpful attentive service. Unfortunately, this training can fall short in aftercare service, as you may discover if you attempt to make an exchange or return faulty goods. One woman who bought a handbag from the Spanish retailer Mango attempted to exchange it for the same style in a different colour before she had left the store with the purchase. The staff informed her that this was impossible - despite never having taken the bag out of the shop! Another holidaymaker attempted to return a souvenir purchased from a resort retailer, which had broken after two days due to poor workmanship. The response? "Hard luck."
Many visitors choose to take advantage of Bulgaria's lower prices by buying electrical goods. However, one holidaymaker discovered that the steam iron she bought from Technopolis leaked the moment she plugged it in. The staff had been so helpful in selling her the defective iron, but when she returned to the store to swap it for a better model, the sales assistant refused. Instead, he turned to his colleague with a sigh, saying, "It's always the English who complain and bring things back." The joys of Bulgarian retail do not stop here. There's nothing more welcoming than a security guard at a large outlet who inspects your bags and treats you like a potential shoplifter. Is this conducive to repeat visits and a favourable impression of the country?
The future of Bulgarian customer service
The sad fact is that Bulgaria has many good things to offer tourists and does have lots of caring, kind and hospitable people. Those who maintain their positive attitudes in a service role shine like beacons amongst their slapdash, uncaring counterparts. The lack of training, responsibility and sometimes conscience mean that holidaymakers are at times left with the bitter taste that they are just another tourist getting ripped off and treated with disdain. The legacy of the harsh days of Communism, when the state assigned jobs according to the state's need rather than personal choice, still lingers on in people's resentment at not being able to find work they enjoy.
Bulgaria needs to invest in its workforce so that they feel appreciated - and can in turn value those who are in reality paying their wages. Large enterprises, particularly those from abroad, need to spend more time training staff to understand and participate in the customer care phenomenon. Customer service must start the minute a consumer crosses the threshold and should not stop the moment they have made their purchase. If this country is to succeed in its quest to gobble up a greater slice of the tourist pie, it needs to get back to the basic idea, which got lost during the Communist era - "The customer is always right"!