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 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.
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