Friday, July 13, 2012

And now for something different.

I'm going on vacation (motorcycle trip up to Nordkapp) and suddenly realized that my European medical insurance card - proof of insurance that gets me free healthcare anywhere in the EU and EEC - expired two years ago. Previously it was sort of irrelevant, because I had good travel insurance, but on this trip there's very little to insure - ferry tickets are cheap, and hotel bookings are usually free.

So I go on the Estonian state services portal, X-road, and order a new card. But it's going to take some time to get here, and I leave within a few days. I go to the health insurance authority's website and find that I can get a replacement certificate immediately at any of their regional offices, it's only valid for 3 months, but does the same things as the card, and it's also free. Excellent.

So I go to the Tartu office, and have a really weird interaction with the lady at the service desk. An older woman, she speaks to me in a really stern and loud voice. That leaves an unfriendly impression. But once I quickly explain to her what I need, and that I've taken all the other necessary steps (ordered the new card online, etc.), she quickly and efficiently prints out the certificate and explains to me all the relevant stuff - such as that it's in Estonian, but that's fine, because every country in the EEC prints them in their own language based on a common template, so a hospital will know which row contains which bit of info. A perfectly efficient and successful interaction that took me about three minutes from walking into the building, including finding the service desk itself. The only weird thing was the lady's tone.

Now, this is the point where a Mingus or a Vello Vikerkaar or a Justin Petrone might launch into a philosophical treatise on the Estonian psyche and the nature of customer service in this country. Mostly I've dismissed such wonderings - foreigner friends have told me about weird interactions they have had at places where I had no problem at all, so I generally think it's down to Estonians not being able to quickly parse the English of a visitor, or their non-Russian-accented Estonian: the clerk expects the foreigner to have, by default, a non-trivial problem, and experiences a brain freeze. But what was the weirdness in my interaction all about? The lady's tone didn't change all throughout the conversation, even though she understood what I needed before I even finished explaining, and in every other way her attitude was very efficient and helpful.

I thought about it for a while, and then it hit me. This is the administrative office of the health insurance agency. It exists for people who can't get their issue resolved online, for whatever reason. I was the outlier, the person who needed a piece of paper to be used abroad, a piece of legacy, backup technology for those venturing outside the cool, efficient environment of E-stonia. But who makes up the majority of the service desk's clientele? The elderly and the confused, people who can't figure out the Internet, or people who are just bored and come there with pointless queries to get some human interaction. The clerks at the healthcare authority have naturally trained themselves to speak slowly, loudly and succinctly, to convey information to people who are probably hard of hearing. And even when it's not necessary, they can't actually stop. And it wouldn't make sense for them to change their mental patterns just for a few minutes, for a rare type of customer.

It still feels weird, though.

1 comment:

Spawnie said...

Similar experience, from a foreigner's point of view.
But your explanation is completely valid, and now I finally understand it's not about being rude, but rather adapting to the regular customer's particularities.


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