What in earth is wrong with European management?


I have just returned from a trip to the USA. Every time I visit I end up wondering why Europe cannot pull off what seems to have become standard business practice in the US – providing quick and efficient service that delights customers and improves productivity.

The contrast is obvious in what should be the most routine of transactions – renting a car. On arrival in the US, I walked up to the car rental counter, ticked a couple of boxes on an electronic screen, signed and went off to locate my car. Time from arriving at the counter to being in the car driving off was no more than ten minutes.

Such an experience is inconceivable in Europe. Everything is slow. The process seems bureaucratic. The staff often seem more interested in chatting to each other than in providing a service. The number of counters available is invariably too small for the number of customers waiting. In general, it takes at least half an hour and not infrequently closer to an hour finally to get into the car.

Neither did anyone in the US bother to check for small dents and scratches. They were taken for granted in a rental car. When I pointed them out, I was met with “don’t worry about any of that”. On return, they checked there were no major prangs and I was on my way within three minutes of depositing the car.

In Europe a few weeks ago, I was charged for a minor, barely visible scratch on one of the wheels that was probably there and unnoticed when we rented the car – no doubt part of what seems to have become a routine scam related to repair charges.

It it tempting to somehow find ways of blaming government regulation and bureaucracy for much of this (except the repair scam bit). Maybe regulation in Europe requires endless form filling and endless signatures that all prolong the process.

After all, there is nothing magical about a US car rental computer system that should not be available in Europe to smooth the process in exactly the same way.

Then I got another piece of information. A friend I met while in the USA had also rented a car from the same airport. But he had decided to use a European company, Sixt – which is German. It was the first time he had used them. It took him forty-five minutes to get into his car.

He asked them whether there was some specific problem on the day or whether this was normal. Perfectly normal he was assured. Of course he will never again rent a car from Sixt.

But the problem even persists the other way. Hire a car in Europe from a US company (Avis, Hertz, etc), and their processes here are also infuriatingly inefficient.

It’s maddening. Not to mention the additional fact that renting the same car in the USA is significantly cheaper than in Europe.

So what is it with Europe? Why are we so inefficient and bureaucratic? It is a legacy of the bureaucratic obsessions of the Napoleonic, Victorian or Fascist ages? Do we simply not have the motivation to provide good service? Does management not care? Is management simply incompetent?

There is endless talk about lagging productivity; talk about what government policy can do to improve the situation. Maybe none of this is a policy problem at all. We may just be overrun with badly managed companies with poorly motivated employees and corporate under-investment.

Again, it may be a typically European disease always to ask what government can do to help productivity improvements rather than management taking the time to look in the mirror and do a good job.

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Radix is the radical centre think tank. We welcome all contributions which promote system change, challenge established notions and re-imagine our societies. The views expressed here are those of the individual contributor and not necessarily shared by Radix.


  1. Stephen Gwynne says

    You are right. Western European capitalism and its precursor mercantilism was formed on the basis of providing aristocratic siblings jobs charging for signatures on ‘official’ documents and being told that all documents need to be verified so come back in a week.

    Yes this is cynicism but there is a lot of truth. For example, an Egyptian friend of mine recently gained entry into an Italian University to study a masters. In other to start the course, she needs an official solicitor’s signature on her original undergraduate qualifications (which she was able to do at her local British Council), then another ‘official’ signature to ‘legalise’ her officially signed documents from the Foreign Office and then another ‘official’ signature from the Italian Consulate to ‘verify’ the documents. Turn around time from Egypt, two months.

    Europe is bureaucracy gone mad because historically and presently, it is jobs for the boys and girls of the upper middle classes. So your answer in my opinion is that Europe is historically class ridden whereas America is not.

  2. mary dejevsky says

    maybe with hire cars. but contrast the efficiency of a paris sandwich bar or café with any in NYC or Washington DC. takes a million times longer in US and dozens more staff doing less in more time.

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