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.
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.
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!
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.
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.”
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.