CUSTOMER SERVICE IN LATIN AMERICA: Not Always “A Sus Ordenes”
Just recently, I was traveling in South America…well, Uruguay to be precise. This wasn’t my first time either…it was my third. It was the first time for my partner, and our first REAL vacation out of Mexico (trips home to visit family in Canada do not count). For him, it was a real eye opener, as his career doesn’t require him to travel around a lot, so all his understanding on “Latin American Culture” is based on what he has experienced thru living in Merida, Yucatan.
Upon arriving in Montevideo, we took time to explore shops, talk to locals and take in the sights. As some of you may know, Uruguay is famous for its Meat and Wines, and to properly enjoy them, you have to go to a local’s house or one of the famous Parillada’s in town. Both of us were (as I have been on both previous trips) totally amazed at the level of care and attentiveness the service crews took at each restaurant we went to. They listened, understood, repeated orders to confirm, and brought you what you asked for without any mistakes. Just to be clear here, we ate at only 1 touristy place, and these experiences were shared through several restaurants of varying levels of quality. La Passiva and Don Pepperone (compared to Viejo Molina or VIPs or Chili’s) considered in Uruguay as the lower end spots, up to an upscale traditional Parillada in Punta Carretas Neighborhood (compared to being in Alta Brisa Neighborhood), all delivered the same level of care, not just to us, but to all their clients.
My partner, while I was conducting a business meeting, had a chance to explore the city on his own to get a personal perspective on things. When we met back up, he was impressed at how he was treated in the stores. Everyone knew their job, and their duties, and if they didn’t, there was a pause – then a “…please permit me a minute as I will bring my boss who can better assist you…” or “…I’m not sure about that, but let me try to help.” These phrases, which we haven’t heard in a long time, were ringing bells in our ears…CUSTOMER SERVICE! GREAT CUSTOMER SERVICE!! There was never a “oh no, sorry, I don’t know” as the employee runs away giggling nervously; or the employee that was too busy texting on their mobile device to realize that clients were waiting.
Both of us thought this must be a fluke. How can such a small country, so far away from EVERYTHING, have such a well-trained workforce? The answer is exactly that…they are WELL TRAINED and EDUCATED workforce.
I decided when I came back to Merida, Yucatan, to explore this topic a bit further.
Two days after returning to home, I had a business meeting at McCarthy’s Pub in Merida. It was not a busy night, even though Mexico vs Korea was airing on the TV. The bartender seemed to have a lot of time on his hands, as he was focused on some texting or chat he was involved with on his phone. After calling for him to take our food order twice, I pulled out my iPhone and decided to start recording. My guest called for him a third time, to which he finally came over, and after taking the order verbally, returned back to his mobile device right away without even putting the order through. Obviously, his conversation on the device was more important than his boss making money and having happy clients. Maybe he doesn’t like his job and needs to find new employment…?
Isolated incident? Not so fast…
The other day I was fortunate to come across the latest posting from William Lawson (aka The Casual Restaurant Critic) who visited a local stomping ground, El Tovar, with his “Mini Critic” who was visiting in town. Suffice to say his review and pictures of the food was great…BUT…his thoughts about the service were nothing even close to it. I think he put it best this way…
“…the food is great, the room is not unattractive and the service is absolutely awful to the point of making one wonder what the owners are thinking in keeping these useless carriers of trays around. Is it that hard to find and train people? Come on. You already have the food, the presentation and the flavors are fantastic. Take a moment to get some real servers!”
I’m sure if I put out an open call to the community, there would be many more stories to tell.
Now, I can already hear the sabers rattling in the distance from those of you who are rushing to defend your favorite servers in Merida, and accuse me of being biased and not being fair. I ask you to consider this report, a study performed by 2b Marketing regarding Customer Service in the Tourism Industry in the city of Merida. The findings of the study were not surprising at all, considering some of the items mentioned in this article. Most companies had no standardization of customer service; very few were certified by agencies or groups that measure levels of customer satisfaction; Yucatan’s customer satisfaction rates are BELOW the world average of 87% . Foreign tourists rated Yucatan at 80.5% satisfaction and National/Mexican tourists graded Yucatan at 83.1%.
Having traveled to Belize, Nicaragua, and Panama it never occurred to me once to think about the service wherever I was, as it always proceeded as you would expect – efficient for the location. Whether it was a hotel, clothing store, convenience store, or restaurant, the people there knew what they were supposed to do. They were trained, they were informed, and they did their jobs well.
Sure, some of you may be saying that they are probably paid better. Yes, that may be the case for some, but the same mentality that exists around the workplace here, “If I don’t want to do it, I’ll just quit” exists everywhere, even in Leon, Nicaragua. Being the university town that it is, and having the great minds and thinkers around, one would expect the most educated work forces exists here.
While traveling there, I met a business owner named Jack, who ran a canteen/restobar. We chatted about business, and he told me a story about an employee that was having issues coming into work on time. Jack told the employee that they were paid good money to be on time. The employee quit on the spot, as the money didn’t matter as much as free time did. Several weeks later the former employee came back asking for a job (as all their money was gone). As Jack explained, this is not a common occurrence, as most people are happy to have a job; it gives them a sense of pride that they are providing for their families, and their future. Workers in the service industry see this clearly, as they understand: If the service is bad = business is bad = employees will lose their jobs = I will have no money for free time.
So, where does that leave us in Yucatan? Optimistically – with lots of room to improve the service industry. This is not a condemnation, but a call to action to do something about it. Sure, people will say that service here is fine, as it is and has always been this way, and nothing needs to be changed, or even the classic saying – “If you don’t like it, then go somewhere else.”
To you say this – once you have basically told everyone to leave, if they don’t like the way things are done here, who will you have left to patronize your businesses?
by Erich Briehl
Erich Briehl is a veteran videojournalist/photojournalist who’s work has taken him to Asia and throughout the Americas. With his beginnings back in 1997, Erich has strived to maintain ethical and professional journalistic standards, while delivering the truth in all stories he presents.