Why is Chilean Customer Service so Bad?

Over the past two weeks, I’ve eaten at three restaurants in Santiago that had incredible customer service. I was so surprised by good service that I had to compliment the waiter at each restaurant and got to talking with each one. What did they have in common?

One was Uruguayan, one was Peruvian and the other was Venezuelan. The Uruguayan waiter told me that he makes about 80% more than his Chilean coworkers because he’s nice to people and tries to go the extra mile. The Peruvian waitress was so nice, warm and got everything right and said that she counldnt undestand why service was so much worse in Chile than in her home country. The Venezuelan waiter was incredibly attentive and got everything right. His Chilean partner gave zero fucks, forgot parts of the order, disappeared for long periods of time and added two extra items to the bill.

Chilean customer service is the worst I’ve experienced in all my travels. I’ve been all over South America, North America, Europe and parts of Africa and the Middle East and Chile

is clearly the worst. I haven’t been to Asia yet, but even if it’s bad, which I don’t think it is, Chile would be near the bottom of the barrel.

Customer service is bad in restaurants, retail stores, banks, service businesses, government offices and when you call the help lines. Imagine the experience calling Time Warner or Comcast and multiply it over all industries in Chile.

At restaurants, about 30% of the time the bill is wrong. I always order a glass of tap water and it only comes about 40% of the time, even after I ask for it multiple times. The waiters can’t be bothered to bring me something that they won’t get a tip on. Have a question about the menu? The norm is grunts and no real advice. I probably get a hair in my food at once every two weeks and the normal reaction is barely an apology. Many times you’ll see waiters hanging around talking and not bothering to help clients when diners clearly want something. I’d say I get actually good service at a Chilean restaurant about 20% of the time, bad service at least 50% of the time.

Retail is worse. Employees generally act like you’re bothering them if you want to buy something. And if you want to ask a question? Your answer will generally be short and in a tone of “why are you bothering me?” I’ve walked into stores with the intention of buying something, but nobody was willing to help me so I just walked out.

Try calling a customer service help line. These are generally bad in most countries, but Chile takes the cake. Last week I called my bank with a question. The representative asked for my details to look for my account and I asked my question. As soon as she realized it would be a hard question where she would have to work, she started to say “hello? are you there? i cant hear you! hello! hello!” until she hung up. I was in my office where I have perfect reception. She just didn’t want to work.

Most customer service reps will say whatever they can to get you off the line as quickly as possible, regardless of what they are saying has any basis in the truth. My rule of thumb is to call until I multiple people have told me the same answer.

It’s frustrating coming from the US where good customer service is table stakes for a successful business. You might say it’s the difference between a first and third world country or that it’s a Latin American problem, but that’s not right either. Argentina, Uruguay and Peru have incredible customer service. People are nice, generally knowledgable and even if they can’t help you, are happy to be trying. Brazil, Boliva and Colombia have some problems, but workers are generally happy and try their best. They’re willing to bend the rules to help you out, whereas Chile has a rules are rules mindset.

So why is customer service so bad in Chile? And can anyone do anything to make it better? I believe Chile has a perfect storm of problems that create a cesspool of terrible customer service.

First, the incentives aren’t aligned and the people who have the power to align the incentives have no incentive to align them.

Chilean employers generally rule through fear, not through positive incentives. Employers might just fire a bunch of random employees just to keep the remaining employees on their toes. And in most jobs, it’s neraly impossible to move up or get a significant raise. You might work your entire life making minimum wage, with little or no room for advancement. Real training in nonexistant and managment treats most employees are replacable inputs.

At restaurants, you pay a 10% fixed tip no matter the quality of the service. If service is really bad, you can try to give less, but if you’re paying with credit card, you need to tell the waiter to his face that you don’t want to tip him, which leads to confrontations, so most people just tip anyway. Studies have shown that countries that have the best service either have a completely variable tip, like the US or no tip what so ever. In countries like the US, waiters are motivated to work hard to make big tips. In countries that don’t have tipping, waiters are treated more like professionals and doing a good job is just expected.

Most people blame the workers, and to some degree it’s their fault. But the majority of the blame goes to the misaligned incentives. They are poorly paid, don’t have pay incentives to do a better job, generally poor working conditions and have to operate in a workplace ruled through fear. The best employee isnt going to earn much more, if any, than the worst one. And when you see the impunity that the elites have, you’re not going to be motivated to give them good service if they walk into your establishment. If you think you’re getting screwed, and you probably are, why bother?

Government Bureaucracy

Government bureaucracy is bad pretty much anywhere in the world, but I’ve seen things in Chile that would make waiting in line at the DMV look like a piece of cake. I was at the International Police getting a certificate I need for my visa. The worker got a Whatsapp that he needed to answer and spent the next five (5!!) minutes planning his weekend while I was standing there and a huge line of people were waiting. Once he finally decided to process my paperwork, he’d spelled my name wrong and we had to start from scratch. See the photo below and the comment thread from Facebook.

pdi chile


At the Chilean IRS (SII), the bureaucrats enjoy messing with the gringo. I needed to show SII that I had purchased products that I would sell before they would give me receipts. The bureaucrat told me that my purchase orders would not be approved. I asked what more I needed to do and he said I needed more purchase orders. I asked how many more and for how much money, as I would easily go and get it. But he couldn’t even give me an order of magnitude. He just didn’t want to work. It’s so frustrating!

After five years, there’s not much you can do but laugh. And give extra big tips and extra compliments and gratitude when you get really good service. It’s the first thing I notice when I travel to the US or Argentina.

Image credit: Anat Nath Sharma


  • yup. as customer service goes, we chileans are at the low end. I dont know where you’ve gone, but getting hair in my food almost never happens. I’d say, years since the last time. As for the public services, there is something wierd happening in chile. Public workers have benefits of goverment officials and of private companies. They get paid even if they dont work, and if you want to fire them you have to send them to sumarios and fail 3 times (someone correct me if this is the wrong number). By the time the first sumario has ended, the worker has changed area so you cant sumariar them. As for the rest, so much truth. Sadly.

  • Totally true. I’ve been living in Santiago 7 months from now, and I am going crazy almost everyday. Now I am trying to get used somehow. Especially because I am coming from a region where service is on very high level (especially hospitality) – Balkan region (South-East Europe). If you have not been to Serbia, or some other Balkan country, you should go, to see what is real service. Cheers !

    • I’ll have to add that area to my travel list. Thanks for mentioning the service level. When you travel or step out of your home, one would like half way decent service to make the excursion worthwhile. Otherwise, you could just stay home and not have the headache of a poor service experience.

  • Come to Los Angeles California, and you will experience some awful customer service as well. Mostly immigrants with little or no education, and not just in restaurants, but just about everywhere. I feel like I’m the invisible man in many occasions and employees ignore me blatantly. Many years ago this was non existent, but now it’s the norm. Every day I come across people working on markets, coffee shops, fast food restaurants, etc. with bad attitudes.

    • Interesting, that’s not been my experience at all in LA the times I’ve been there. I was there 2 months ago and didn’t have any bad experiences at all.

    • I think customer service levels vary in different parts of the US (with the NW being the best), but overall service in the US is better than anywhere I’ve visited throughout the world. Ever eat at a restaurant in Turkey or Spain? You can wait a very long time before being served, and your server might not come back to your table for 30 minutes or ever…. hahaha.

  • Thank you for this insightful article about the service level in Chile. It blows my mind actually but you made a great assessment about the cause. I’d love to visit Chile and I know I definitely will but now I know before I go that I need to “chill” when I get there. 🙂

  • To reinforce this theory that Chile service is horrible, I just rented a car from Europcar and it has been a nightmare. They just don’t care. And they authorized two charges on my credit card and it has been impossible to get them to remove the second charge. And when I got upset about it, this guy Arndt sent me a criticizing letter saying the following: “One thing more if you shout again through the telephone you may be surprised for not to get any HELP. May be in your country but not here!! Good buy!”….. First of all, I wasn’t shouting and second of all, I have never in my life received a customer service letter like that. Do companies normally do this in Chile? I guess in Chile, THE CUSTOMER IS ALWAYS WRONG! 😉

  • I spent two weeks around Chile and this has to be the most lasting impression I was left with, the poor customer service. Restaurants are the worst in that everything takes forever; 1-1/2 hours for a meal, 40 minute wait for a take away sandwich, 15 minutes for a coffee, etc. In order to spend less time in restaurants and more time seeing the country I ended up just skipping a meal.

  • Thanks for writing such a dead on article of Latin American culture. The service is bad from the Caribbean, central and definitely South American. Everyday is a quest of where I can go to be the least annoyed or outright pissed of at this. I think it’s partially cultural as well. As soon as they find out we’re American or from a western culture like. We’re viewed as the rich foreigner from the big powerful country with all the opportunities. Something they will never have. The funny thing is it doesn’t get better with time it just gets worse here. I’m currently in Colombia and
    Pretty much can’t wait to leave. I’m gonna head back to Asia where your treated with respect.

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