I recently returned from a summer holiday spent in beautiful central Italy. I visited the small village of Roccamorice where my father’s parents were born and had most of their children. I trekked to the student-filled city of Perugia where my father attended university in his youth. And I visited the bustling city of Rome where tourists abound and historic gems hide around every corner.
In between enjoying the amazing, mountainous scenery and gorging myself on mouth-watering thin crust pizzas and local pastas, I was struck by the subtle yet powerful differences in the ways small businesses are run there versus in Canada. And while Italian small business practices aren’t always what I would consider practical or economical, they seem to make a lot of sense for both the owners and their local clientele.
Common sense in customer service
I began noticing some pleasant differences in customer service the very first day. When you sit down at a restaurant in Canada and order just a beer, that’s all you get. A beer. But from my experience, this isn’t the case in Italy. My first Peroni came with a side of fresh crusty bread, olive oil and ripe cut tomatoes. And the second came with thin slices of prosciutto and a small mushroom tart. I didn’t order these snacks, but they came just the same.
The logic is that if you’re drinking, you should also be eating. So at a minimal cost to the restaurant, the customer is pleased, more beverages are ordered, and people don’t become light-headed quite so easily. A win-win for all.
Pride in your work
Another thing about restaurants in Italy is that tipping isn’t expected, which doesn’t at all seem to lower the quality of the table service. In fact, servers in Italy seem to take their jobs a lot more seriously than many I’ve dined with in Canada. After one meal in particular where a small mistake was made by the server, having little to no effect on my dining experience, he apologized profusely and seemed pretty upset about his error. And by chance when I ran into him the next day at a different restaurant, he paid my tab without my knowledge and apologized once again.
I appreciate people who take pride in their work and who understand that their reputation is everything. And when you have staff that understand and embody this for your business, your customers quickly take notice.
A happy worker is a good worker
Retail shops in Italy often close for a few hours in the middle of the afternoon. At first I found this to be extremely inconvenient. I thought about the missed sales opportunities and the lack of interest in the schedules of potential customers. And perhaps these observations are true in some ways. But there’s also something to be said for taking care of the needs of your employees to ensure they are always at the top of their game.
I’ve worked retail in Canada, rushing through 15 minute breaks, giving up eating for others task that needed to be accomplished and becoming exhausted from standing on my feet for too many hours in a row. You can’t give your best service when you’re hungry, tired and at the end of your rope. And the seemingly sporadic hours of Italian shops were only inconvenient in terms of my Western standards. If you live with that system it quickly becomes the norm, and reasonable breaks and drawn-out afternoon meals for everyone doesn’t seem like such a bad thing. It’s also worth noting that you rarely ever see an Italian looking stressed out, rushed or over-worked.
You could say that a downside to some of the small businesses I visited in Italy is that the old adage, ‘the customer is always right,’ doesn’t really seem to apply. Shop owners and employees seem to act in accordance with what’s best for them rather than for you, which can result in long wait times and less than stellar attention to your needs as a customer. Overall this is probably the most striking difference I noticed between small businesses in Italy and those in Canada. Italians seem to be a lot more uncompromising, which is both a negative and a positive.
In a negative sense, they don’t seem to be as willing to change their products or their processes to please you. They take their time, they take their breaks and they are unapologetically proud of what they have to offer. And if you don’t like it? They probably aren’t that concerned. At the same time they are unwilling to put forth anything but the best products and the best service when it really counts. And above all, they seem to have an uncompromising dedication to themselves, which is apparent in their polished appearances, their steadfast confidence and their ever-famous appreciation for life.
So a slower-paced working environment and a keen focus on humanity rather than the bottom dollar seems to work for small businesses in Italy. But would it benefit small businesses in other regions of the world as well? I’d love to hear your thoughts.