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Customer Service in Colombia – Does Not Exist!

Customer Service in Colombia – Does Not Exist!

Culture, Life Abroad

Prepare to get offended, robbed, cheated and disappointed. Because, despite the many benefits of living in this beautiful country – with people we generally like, they will try to engañar, or cheat us at almost every opportunity. If you are Colombian and reading this – stay with me. Don’t leave. Because there is a media naranja, or sunny side to this story as well.

Bogota Butt-Crack-2
Sad but true…reading the rest of this unfortunate account, is probably going to feel a lot like seeing this butt-crack at lunch time. Continue reading if you dare…

Customer Service In Colombia – Does Not Exist!

There is this very provincial feeling among the Colombian people to take what you are given, pay, shut up and mind your own business. Meaning that they don’t like to raise a stink. Some of this is founded in cartel tradition where if you insult the wrong person they might send an assassin, or sicario after you. Much of this comes from the Pablo Escobar era, which is still a very real thing in the minds of many.

Customer Service in Colombia
Look how cute this place is! Too bad their customer service sucks!

On the other hand, the business owners will take advantage of this to neglect customer service. Many will run roughshod over their customers as a result. This is a theory that I have developed from my 4 years of experience. I don’t have an expert witness or logical source to give you. Only my experience as a resident – and my experience doing business with Colombians. But, I will give examples.

Case Study #1: Lunch at Chantonner

Chantonner is a very charming New York style sandwich deli in el Centro, Bogota. My friend who has been a longtime customer, insisted that lunch there would be a wonderful Bogotano experience. She typically goes there with her best friend, orders a meat and cheese plate and then enjoys a leisurely lunch with much relaxation, laughter and the perfect wine accompaniment. Unfortunately, our leisurely lunch ended as a very tense and uncomfortable experience.

You can check them out: facebook.com/chantonnerdelicatessen/, or even visit them but be very clear, spell it out – get a whiteboard and some markers.

You give me the beer, and I give you the money! It’s that simple! Don’t fuck it up!

Initially when we came in, we had to go to the counter because even though it’s pretty small – they don’t offer table service. I told the boy behind the counter to give me a black beer. We go sit down – and the girl comes to bring our order. She brought two wine glasses. My friend said to her “No, not today, I am only going to have one glass of wine, which is what I ordered.” Then she turned to me and I asked her to “dame una cerveza negra.” It wasn’t rocket science. And, to be fair – many visitors often can sound confusing as they try out their limited Spanish. But, I have been ordering my own beer for 4 years so I’m pretty sure I was confident enough that I could say it properly.

She brought me a blonde beer…Oh hell.

To which we very politely explained that at no time did anyone order a blond beer. The boy behind the counter had drawn the wrong beer. I had originally ordered a black beer directly from him. Maybe she had shut off her active listening skills and took my order on autopilot in which case all she heard was “dame un cerveza.” I think it was a combination. Then she implied that we could order my black beer but we have to pay for the other one too. Apparently in Colombia, employees are forced to pay for their mistakes. Which is also unfortunate, and causes them to push that abuse over onto their customers.

What?! Did I just hear that correctly?! I need to pay for their mistake?

Adding Insult to Injury: My friend who has been bringing gringos to this place for 4 years was totally mortified. Even worse – she knows the owner and has been buying wine by the bottle there for 4 years along with food. With extreme reluctance and a big “show” by my friend, they finally relented to give us the black beer. But, it only got worse.

I was lucky enough to be facing the door. My friend kept getting madder and madder – as she was seeing the employees behind the counter shooting us dirty looks and talking among themselves while looking at us a bit too often.

Paying the Bill: When we went to pay – they lost half the money on the way to the cash register and tried to say we didn’t pay correctly. I was totally gobsmacked. Especially since I had watched myself hand her the receipt with 2 twenties. Turned out that the person who the waitress had handed the bills to – found them, and was actually honest about it. Thank GOD that someone hadn’t been fast enough to snatch it up!

DSC08868

The Final Word: Wrong orders and disappearing money is enough to get anyone upset. But the blatant refusal to accept responsibility for mistakes is a major buzzkill when dealing with Colombian businesses. In a country where you can get still get shot in many places for not paying vacunas, or bribes – maybe life is too serious to treat others with kindness.

Case Study #2: Lunch and a side of sexy phone calls by Le Pavilion?

I found a coupon for this ritzy restaurant over in the zona rosa of Pereira. It’s called Le Pavilion. It was buy two lunches and receive free sangria! Sounds like a deal to me – I’m on it!

So I go there with my mom for lunch. I must say, their food was WONDERFUL! We really enjoyed it. The atmosphere was nice, everything came out hot and well prepared. I felt bad for their piano (btw) – I don’t understand how someone can put a baby grand in a restaurant, and not tune it…and leave it there with broken keys. It’s like they were saying “this piano doesn’t deserve our respect, it just makes us look posh and sophisticated.” Call me crazy, but I am a piano player.

Customer Service
We would have been happy to pay the full amount – BEFORE leaving. That cream of onion soup was amazing!

When it was all said and done, I went to pay. The waiter says to me, “seria 19,000 pesos.” It will be 19,000 pesos – which sounds pretty reasonable for an Almuerzo ejecutivo for 2 people in this part of town! The great deal being that we got 2 sangrias for free.

At 8 pm that evening as I am getting my son ready for bed, we receive a phone call. “Excuse me, but you need to come back because you actually owe us another 19,000 pesos…”

WHOAH! Wait a minute! This isn’t rocket science: I eat your food. You tell me how much I owe. And I give you the money.

But to receive a phone call later saying “please come back and give us more money we didn’t charge you correctly,” is just crazy. Please note: that if I am not in the mood to walk for 45 minutes uphill, then I need to pay 5,000 pesos for the taxi each way. That doesn’t make sense either.

Again, this is an example where the restaurant refuses to take responsibility that their employee is incompetent – and instead accuses the customer. Because let me tell you – this isn’t about whether I can pay 19,000 pesos, I would have paid 19,000 each with no problem PRIOR TO LEAVING THE RESTAURANT.

Even worse: What if the waiter called me of his own initiative just to get money out of me? Some things I will never know.

Case Study #3: The Not-So-Tailored Clothing

This is another story about a total lack of interest in ensuring a quality experience.

Restaurants maybe be the most common culprits, but they aren’t the only ones. I decided to have some custom clothing made. And, generally speaking I have had a pretty good experience with Donottos in Pereira. But, I was a little disappointed too.

It costs the same to have clothing made (with better quality fabrics), as to buy them at the mall. Which is great!

Getting the clothing to fit you afterwards is a challenge. You must be very patient and persistent.

So, I have shorts and pants made. I go back in to try on the shorts – the pants were fine. The shorts were too tight around my leg. I know they took the measurements and I know they even loosened the tape a bit because I wanted to ensure I could sit down in them. But, I have this feeling that the person assembling the shorts looked at the measurement and didn’t believe them. They were way too tight. Let me explain why I feel this way…

Colombian pants are not made for women with muscular thighs and a waist. I work out rather hard on a consistent basis so I have this situation. Colombian women are naturally shorter and much more fine boned. Americans seem to be built like horses in comparison. I struggle to find pants/shorts I can squeeze my thunder thighs into.

Getting back to the shorts. I tried to have them altered, but they were still too tight. At the second fitting they seemed ok – but I also felt like the guy there wanted to rush me out of there so he could attend to the next client. So, without really evaluating it as much as I should have, I went ahead and took them thinking they would be ok. They weren’t. Even after adding a panel into the crotch they are STILL too tight when I sit down. I don’t feel like I can insist on the quality I need. Basically, the shorts were a waste of money because their customer service sucks.

And, this is supposed to be one of the best tailors in the city!

Again, I would still recommend custom clothing because the stuff that I have had come out well – was great! On the other hand, there is a deep seated mediocrity which makes me feel like they really don’t care about my satisfaction.

Just pay and go Gringa…dont ask questions…don’t put on a “show.”

Conclusion

Earlier I mentioned an exception. A media naranja. I believe that many women-owned businesses in Colombia tend to treat their customers better. This isn’t always the case as there are hardened old birds who can be as ruthless as their male counterparts. I have met those too. But, in general – I have had businesses (especially the smaller ones) who were run by a woman treat me much better. In every way. If I write for a woman-owned business I am pretty much 90% certain they are going to pay me as agreed. If I patronize a business owned by a woman, I am also more likely to receive better customer service.

Foreign owned small businesses and those by Colombians who have lived abroad – will typically have GREAT customer service for visitors. The average Colombian owned businesses will leave you feeling cheated and lied to. Customer service, in most cases, is as dead as future business opportunities in Colombia. That is to say that I do not believe it is worthwhile to open a business in Colombia under the latest tax code revisions, as a foreign resident. But that is a future story we are still developing.

 

About the author

English Teacher, Freelancer, Chocolate Entrepreneur and Traveler!!

30 Comments

  1. Penty
    May 29, 2017 at 9:11 am
    Reply

    Finally someone speaking the truth about Colombia who is not eternally wearing rose colored glasses. We need more of this.

    • openmindedtraveler
      May 29, 2017 at 11:11 am

      Funny you mention the rose-colored glasses. When I expressed my hesitation about the topic to a friend, she said pretty much the same thing to me.

    • Björn
      June 7, 2017 at 10:35 am

      I’m with you. Before I came here, I read all of these glowing reports. After being in Colombia for three months, and knowing what to look for online now, I’m finding more people telling the truth. It’s a shame, because this can be such an awesome place, but I think foreigners need to be more honest.

  2. rsnmccoll
    May 29, 2017 at 10:19 am
    Reply

    True story: a friend of mine was eating at a very fancy place in Bogotá’s Zona G. She found hair in her soup about halfway through, it was clearly not hers as she is blonde and this was thick black. She complained to the waiter. He smirked and said: “But you’ve almost finished it all.” The soup remained on the check at the end of the meal.

    • openmindedtraveler
      May 29, 2017 at 11:09 am

      Yes, that attitude exactly is what inspired this entire story. No doubt, there are plenty of people here who give good customer service, but the bad experiences tend to be terrible, embarrassing and even demeaning in some circumstances.

  3. Elizabeth Boise
    May 29, 2017 at 10:45 am
    Reply

    Hate the customer service in Colombia? For the love of God, stay home. I’m embarrassed to read this from a fellow English speaking tourist.
    And what could one possibly know of the “spirit of kokopelli?” It’s a petroglyph last pecked into the red rocks of the American southwest many centuries ago. Nobody alive truly knows what those mean, except that the actual Kokopelli glyphs are often seen with a massive penis.

    • openmindedtraveler
      May 29, 2017 at 11:07 am

      Ok, your opinion. But don’t judge my entire blog off of only one story either.

    • Bev Caddigan
      May 29, 2017 at 11:15 am

      Erin is NOT a tourist, she lives here, as so I. She is HOME, for your information. So am I. I was at Chantonner, and she has understated what happened.

  4. fervha@hotmail.com
    May 29, 2017 at 11:43 am
    Reply

    Open Minded Traveler you are not!
    As a Colombian that lived abroad most of my life I too find it frustrating that Colombians just “take it and shut up”. When I say this I’m referring to putting up with absolutely stupid laws that foment corruption, the bureaucracy, and government services that run over the citizens rights knowing that we have little to no recourse. In the private sector customer service may be imperfect, as it is in most countries, but certainly not non-existent.
    Your title implies an absolute “does not exist”, which is so far from the truth is not even funny….open minded? Please! This is no more than a rant. You can get all kinds of experiences traveling in Colombia, and you will find some of the warmest most accommodating people, eager to host and take care of a foreigner. Pianos out of tune and all, oh my!!
    One more thing, you may want to learn how to ask for better customer service without being combative. You may help a business, learn something and likely make friends. Colombians don’t like to feel bullied by a foreigner.
    PS: you are using the “media naranja” idiom completely wrong btw.

    • openmindedtraveler
      May 29, 2017 at 11:45 am

      Interesting. Thank you for weighing in on the debate.

  5. Bev Caddigan
    May 29, 2017 at 12:28 pm
    Reply

    Wow, bitter, a little? As a Colombian, you are responsible for your government. You elect them and then fail to hold them accountable. I was there and Erin was not combative. Neither of us were until it was clear that was the only way to resolve the issue. We were the ones BULLIED – they were trying to bully her into paying for something she did not order. Would you do that? Pay for something you did not order? I think Erin is trying to help by pointing it out. And why on earth should anyone have to “ask” for customer service? It should be freely offered. After all, a business has no business without its customers. I can speak to the first scenario because I was there. You were not.

  6. André
    May 29, 2017 at 12:57 pm
    Reply

    I have lived in Colombia for the better part of the past 20 years and I am totally in love with the country and its people. Actually I make a living from tourism and marketing Colombian culture, handcrafts, coffee and fruit etc in Europe. My aim is that the world one day discovers the marvellous place Colombia is.

    However, I agree 100% with this post. Customer service in Colombia is virtually non-existent. I could go on for hours with stories a lot worse than these. Capitalism and competition is actually not working in Colombia, and I assume it must have to do with centuries of exclusion and inequality. But I really don’t understand it.

  7. Ricky Rutledge (@kiwiprofesor)
    May 29, 2017 at 1:46 pm
    Reply

    From my experience, what you’re saying is true, but If want TRULY appalling service, welcome to the coast! Then you’ll be grateful for the service you get in Cachacolandia.

    • openmindedtraveler
      May 29, 2017 at 1:56 pm

      I appreciate your comment. I am not trying to be hyper-critical, nor offend any business. I only wish to speak what so many are feeling. Today, the rose-tinted glasses are off.

    • Joe
      May 30, 2017 at 7:47 am

      I lived in the barrio San Diego of the Old City of Cartagena for just under 4 years. Admittedly, customer service is not up to Japanese standards. However, it is not that bad. It’s getting better.

      My wife and I would regularly travel to Bogota and we never experienced anything quite like what the blogger encountered.

  8. Michael
    May 29, 2017 at 1:49 pm
    Reply

    A huge sigh of relief reading this. I have tried to bite my tongue since having moved here 2 years agoo (and making visits the prior 7 years), but some days the lack of basic caring for a customer reaching blatant, insultinğ proportions. I could literally continue adding to this article for a few days. Your experiences mentioned were dead on. My worst recent example was a waitress who actually messed up every aspect of ouf order for 30 mins running…the highlight was having to ask for or correct my coffee FIVE TIMES!! Mind you, I do not drink fancy Starbucks “creations”. I like my coffee old school 1940’s – black with no sugar. How someone could screw that up 5 times during 1 breakfast sitting is either unbelievably lacking in her professional duties or daft to the point of possibly being retarded. Sorry. I see no othr way to be more honest about it. One of the ‘engañe’ moments was a photo studio where I had visied months either and debated upon ordering extra copies. I had decided no, but stopping in for an unrelated reason recently, the lady claimed I ordred them and never paid, demanding the lost money. Hoever after much patient back and forth, when I requsted to speak her boss that was upstairs, she changed her steadfast opinion to the account to “never mind” type of reply. Again, from riding city busses that drive like safaris on fire, to tailors that used the used the wrong colored thread because they were too cheap to go buy the proper color – I could go on for day. I’m sitting in a restaurant right now waiting for the last 15 mins for someone to acknowledge my presence and take my order.

    • openmindedtraveler
      May 29, 2017 at 1:57 pm

      This is for you. You’re welcome. I wrote this from a very positive place of love – tough love that is. And, I truly hope that this becomes an opportunity for Colombian businesses to learn how to connect with customers and achieve new heights of success. Because they will be making people happier. #SupportLocal

  9. jorn ludvigsen
    May 29, 2017 at 2:56 pm
    Reply

    I am not even gringo. run my business here and have some issues relating to the short term greed and stupidity of vendors and service providers. Will think little about this and send Erin a private message she can choose to post or not 🙂

  10. Sunny
    May 29, 2017 at 10:34 pm
    Reply

    Erin! Apologies darling but I would agree with the comment above, “Open minded traveler….I guess not”
    Been traveling since I was 17 and after having visited 75 countries and having spent almost 14 months living in Colombia, I feel that the above article is stretching it too far just for an article.

    Am not saying that you have to only paint a rosy picture of Colombia or for that matter of any other country that you visit or travel to or even live in but one has to take into accounts too many factors.

    I always hadn’t had the best customer service experience in United States, infact in some of the restaurants because of my colour, i felt as if I was being treated differently to put it politely but then we all know United states has a very ugly racist underbelly, same in Australia or even back home in Blighty for that matter.

    As for customer services in Colombia, I have two very good incidents that I can quote her, my first week in Colombia, went to a very fancy restaurant in Zona G, the place was packed, we had no prior reservations, somehow they managed to give us a table and we chose a couple of exotic things from the menu, unfortunately they had to come back and tell us that they were out of some ingredients or rather had run out of them. The restaurant owner, a charming older lady came up to us, apologised and the dessert was on the house! Cannot not say that this was bad customer service, can we?

    On an another occasion, I ventured for grocery shopping on my own whilst still very new in Colombia with hardly any Spanish speaking skills but because of my moreno complexion and 6 feet height, everyone in Colombia assumes me to be a Costeno, unfortunately the lady overcharged me and I could later see how, the lady before me bought her groceries on credit and the place was packed, the lady at the cash counter wrote this ladies credit in her accounts book but had punched in the groceries through the till and forgot to cancel it and I was charged for her shopping too. It wasn’t a lot, I guess around 12,000 pesos, I went home and later realised this and told my beautiful Colombian fiancee (now my wife) about it, she went to the place with me, explained the whole situation and lo and behold! I was given my 12,000 pesos back. No fuss, no arguments, and did I mention that I had to wait for my fiancee to return home which was like almost 6 hours later! Not bad eh?

    Please, I am not saying that all my experiences in Colombia have been rosy but having traveled 75 countries, I find Colombians to be one of the most friendliest people in the world, a lot better than any European and western nationality. Now as for the shortcomings, yes there are many but there are reasons, one ofcourse can be the civil war which lasted for almost 6 decades and thank heavens it has come to an end now. Also if you have been traveling to Asia or Africa or South America you will notice that most businesses are run by individuals unlike the western economies where most of the stores are run by big corporations, there are hardly any independent pubs and stores left on UK high streets! Multi national corporations have huge budgets and profits and they can afford to provide that extra bit of customer service though their policies are debatable too.

    I hope that I don’t offend anyone but sometimes we (citizens of western economies) walk around with a complex which reeks of superiority and “white privilege”, please don’t take this as a telling off! I would rather that everyone reads unbiased history of this world and then travel with an open mind and travel as much as you can and next time you go shopping for groceries or bread in one of those amazing bakeries in Colombia, don’t forget to ask for Niapa (I hope I have spelt it right) and you will get a bit extra for free.

    Happy traveling and enjoy this world, Un abrazo grande 😀

    • openmindedtraveler
      May 30, 2017 at 6:11 am

      Ok…you are welcome to your opinion, until you insert “color.” But, alas we live in a world where it’s ok for a “moreno” to be racist and use “color” in their vocabulary, yet if someone with ahem “white” skin says something critical it is blamed on “white privilege.” Thank you for that. And that really long story. But, no matter what I accept you whether you identify your skin color to me or not because I am a bit color blind. And, I wish you happy travels.

  11. Rebecca
    May 29, 2017 at 10:55 pm
    Reply

    I have to agree, customer service is weird. It took me three tries to get the bartender to bring me a lime to put in my Corona, watching him text at the bar instead of serving me.

    They are sweet and don’t mean any harm, but just not wired for customer service in the same way. Also of note is that tipping is not built into the culture, so they don’t feel like they are working for tips. Twice, I’ve tried to tip at an establishment, and have had an employee chase me out, saying I forgot my change. I’d rather have my Corona brought to me with a lime in it without having to ask and then leave a tip at the end.

    Oh yeah, and good luck going into a store to browse the items in peace. The sales attendants will not leave you alone! I think that’s because they think you’re going to pocket something though.

    Thanks for being honest in this post.

    xo an expat and traveler

    • openmindedtraveler
      May 30, 2017 at 6:16 am

      I know right?! I love Corona with lime and salt! How could they not be on top of that?

  12. Chuck Youngerman
    May 30, 2017 at 6:54 am
    Reply

    agree that customer service is not as good as the US , but it is about on par with other Latin America countries, I have had both good and bad over the years – but I would just ask the writer before she throws too many stones – have you ever shopped at a Walmart in the US? Bad customer service can be found just about everywhere.

    • openmindedtraveler
      May 30, 2017 at 10:20 am

      You know – Wal-Mart “greeters” were a revolutionary concept when they first started out. But, like many big corporations, they have lost sight of their clients. Even small businesses from time-to-time will experience that. And, to be fair – I think all the mentioned businesses here have a lot of potential regardless of anything I say, if they are able to consider new ideas.

  13. Nick Broad
    May 30, 2017 at 8:46 am
    Reply

    Exaggeration to the point of clickbait. Most of the examples above are either mistakes that were rectified, or bad quality in a product (which is not the same as bad customer service. Unfortunate that you would be promoting this idea, in a country that sees “customer service” correctly as “the assistance and advice provided by a company to those people who buy or use its products or services,” and not as “the customer is always right.”

    • openmindedtraveler
      May 30, 2017 at 10:18 am

      Ok, well – I respect your right to believe that. We can agree to disagree on it.

  14. Ric Dragon
    May 30, 2017 at 10:09 am
    Reply

    Your post has hit a lot of buttons for people, both good and bad. Many take it as a ham-handed gringo indictment of Colombia. Others are like, yeah! As someone who has been in the marketing business, often working in the realm of organization development and customer service, I agree with the overall sentiment. And like others, I´ve also encountered some wonderful people and service, too, even from drivers of taxis! In restaurants, there´s good and bad -and possibly it has a relation to the way people are compensated (tips are not a big part of a server´s revenue). The bad is a certain inattentiveness. The good is, you´re usually left unmolested to sit in a restaurant or cafe as long as you want.

    The cool part is that as Colombian businesses strive to be more competitive, there is a big opportunity to use customer service as a differentiator.

    • openmindedtraveler
      May 30, 2017 at 10:15 am

      Great insight! I think you raise some excellent discussion points!

  15. Sabine
    June 8, 2017 at 2:26 pm
    Reply

    I also live in Colombia and don’t have this experience at all… We go to a restaurant really often and never ever I had such a good experience as here in Bogotá. Not only the food is delicious, also the service is excellent. At least if I compare this with The Netherlands where I come from, Colombian service is so good! In The Netherlands there is such a bad service, Colombia really is a relieve. Off course this is not for 100% of the restaurants, as never ever something is for 100% of the cases, and I in some restaurants the service is better or worse, but in general I love it. Maybe you had some bad luck over there. By the way, not bringing the plates at the same time and they way they put the cubiertos on the table can definitely be improved! Hope you can still enjoy the restaurants here 🙂

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