This summer my wife and I had occasion to spend a week in Istanbul, Turkey. The city is clean, bustling, and thriving. Construction cranes can be seen on the horizon in every direction. And, of all of the places we have traveled to in the last forty years we can’t remember a more pleasant experience. Every sector of the service economy with which we came in contact – taxi drivers, hotel workers, shop owners, restaurant workers, and others – was represented by individuals who behaved with alacrity, politeness and grace. Everyone who served us seemed all too willing to help and went beyond the call of duty to do so. The staff at the Ritz Carlton Hotel, a property perched perfectly overlooking the Bosporus, delivered excellent service almost to a fault: at times service bordered on being unctuous. No image can better capture this overzealousness than the sight of a beauty salon customer with three barbers hovering over him at the same time: one cutting his hair, the second trimming his beard, and the third brushing his mustache! But in a world experiencing a service meltdown that is a preferred alternative. The only blemish on this otherwise pristine service experience was dished out by Passport Control Officers at the airport who clearly were lazy, indifferent, and at times hostile.
Turkey applied to become a member of the European Union in 1987 and since that time the nation has had a difficult time convincing the Union that its values of democracy, human rights, and freedom of speech are commensurate with its European counterparts. Examples abound. According to the Press Freedom Index which issued its report this year, Turkey occupies 154th place on the list of countries ranked by journalistic freedom. Speaking against Islam, in this the most secular of the Muslim nations, can get you in hot water as the world renowned pianist Fasil Say found out. Mr. Say, who has performed in the United States, was jailed and then given a suspended sentence for his remarks which presumably offended Islam. Nobel Laureate in Literature Orhan Pamuk, who now teaches at Columbia University was tried and found guilty for making statements against the nation and its role in the Armenian Genocide of 1915. Others, have been shot dead for the same offense. In June, students showing their opposition to an urban development plan at Taksim Square provoked the government’s heavy hand in evicting the protesters. To this day, Taksim Square is guarded by strapping, young military men armed with automatic rifles. The Greeks, who founded this golden city more than two thousand years ago, scarcely amount to more than fifteen hundred souls in a metropolis of nearly twenty million – so corrosive do they find the environment to their way of life.
Against this backdrop and history it is a paradox – if not a wonder – that some of the best customer service one can find is found in this troubled nation. If the only price of admission to the European Union were superior customer service Turkey would be a shoe-in.
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