Friday, August 1, 2014

Experiencing Poor Customer Service in Spanish-Speaking Countries

My cab driver in Comalapa, El Salvador treated me royally; after all, I paid him enough for a three-hour tour of the area before catching my next flight to Perú.

One morning, near a busy intersection in Higuerote, Venezuela, I decided to buy an empananda snack from  a street vendor. The empanada was so delicious I could literally scream. However, there was one disturbing problem. The vendor did not bother to acknowledge me as a customer, nor did she give me the professional courtesy of a “thank-you.” For her, I was just another routine piece of work and no longer visible once the business transaction was completed. 

This is not the first negative customer service experience I’ve had during my travels into Latin America. I’ve experienced it in Colombia, Ecuador, Panamá, and Perú. 

Upon walking away from this woman’s empanada stand, I immediately imagined myself in her place; producing and selling such a superior product and how much more money I could make accompanying that superior product with top-notch courtesy, a smile, and genuine appreciation for customers’ patronage. Who in their right mind would not be appreciative of someone putting money in their pockets?

I found customer service to be decent in certain parts of Quito, Ecuador

Here in the US, most businesses will try to give the best customer service to keep their businesses growing. We even have savvy business owners will monitor their YELP ratings to make sure they are customer satisfactory, and try to learn and grow from whatever negative reviews they receive. On one occasion, I've been offered a $300 refund from a business I was dissatisfied with if I removed the negative review. Another offered me a free meal in her restaurant.

Unfortunately, many Latin American businesses are not motivated to provide better customer service to beat their competition. The mentality is if they lose one customer, another will come along; no sweat! Maybe in more upscale areas or in tourist areas where you are more likely to be charged gringo taxes (higher prices than what ordinary citizens would pay), things might be different. 

This type of customer service drives many foreigners who stay in Latin America for any length of time nuts. As one Canadian expat puts it, “it bothers me a lot when I’m paying for a service and someone rolls his or her eyes at me, or just refuses to help…it’s pretty aggravating.” Another expat in Panamá states that he has always found customer service to be a serious issue, but notices that it seems to be about the area you’re in. If you go to a popular restaurant near a lower income area, the service just seems worse. Then, you go to the same restaurant in an upscale mall, and it’s a totally different experience.

Timothy, a friend who bought a home in northern Peru with his Afro-Peruvian wife says he often pays store clerks a little extra so he'll be remembered the next time and get treated with more warmth and respect. My only question is why must you have to pay extra to get treated with the warmth and respect that you already deserve for patronizing that establishment? 

Posing with owner of Mamainé Restaurant in Guayabo, Perú
who provides exemplary customer service for Peruvian soul food.

A businessman who taught customer service techniques in Central America was told by many of his students that the reason they didn’t provide great service is that tips are always low. Employers do not make the employees feel like they have a vested interest in the company. They get paid a very low salary. Many work more than 5 days a week, and they go home just to do it all over again. You’ll rarely see sales initiatives in places or rewards for employees. 

We visitors and expats have the opportunity to completely change things, he insists. As customers, we can help by smiling, being friendly to the person serving our food, leaving good tips, and making sure we’ve actually tell the server that we appreciate their great attitude and a job well done. Doing that, we might be able to change the poor customer service mentality.  

If I were to own a business, I would not only provide a great service, I would teach my employees how to do the same. I would make them feel a part of a growing team that cares, and above all, pay decent wages. They will in turn feel motivated to go the extra mile, provide the best customer service, which inadvertently attracts more customers, and naturally, bring in more money.

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