Having a business — despite the effort, paperwork and bureaucracy — can certainly pay off. A small entrepreneur may dream about earning so much success that the local business goes global and becomes a landmark around the world.
However, do schools in Costa Rica teach future business owners that what pays them is their clients’ preference? And if they do not go to school for business, do owners forget they have been keeping every business they have visited open by being a client there and that the success of their business depends on their customers’ satisfaction?
Although it should be almost instinctive to think of customer service as the most inherent component to any business, Costa Rica has a long way to go, not only in providing clear and timely customer service policies, but also in educating its citizens to demand the satisfaction their money is paying for.
Latin American countries are not famous for providing customer satisfaction, and that varies from culture to culture (including exceptions), but they have always been a few steps behind developed nations. However, culturally, why do most Hispanic nations share the notion that when one has a business, suddenly one gets to run the show, and the peskier one gets the more business-like one appears? Well, some possible answers come to mind.
First of all, coming from a Catholic-colonized background, these cultures have been educated to obey anyone who seems powerful. Business owners are looked at as authority figures, as more important people than the average person. Owners and managers are treated with the same admiration and respect as priests, nuns, pastors, ministers, deputies, presidents. Therefore, when Latin American consumers face unfair, insulting treatment by any business in town, their instinctive response has been to quietly take it gracefully (as social subordinates), and never complain.
Secondly, many Hispanics, especially Ticos, are afraid of drawing attention to themselves. They tend to be shy, passive and nervously friendly people. Standing up for oneself is culturally frowned upon in Costa Rica; people who stand their ground are usually labeled as negative, confrontational, dramatic and even spiteful.
Besides avoiding scenes, Ticos are masters of hypocrisy. They can fool anyone with their nice tone and smiles. They would rather act behind the scenes than gathering the courage to be upfront about issues with people.
Therefore, Costa Rica has become a paradise for sneaky, abusive and fraudulent businesses that are still going strong, to the point that almost no establishment is safe from complaints.
The saying, “the customer is always right” seems to be the one motto missing in the training programs for customer service positions at any workplace.
Another theory might be that Ticos employed for assisting clients simply got the first job available, even if they were not qualified for it. One would think that any sensible business owner or manager would find out enough information about a prospective employee before trusting them with such a crucial position for their business, but just like so many other aspects of Costa Rican culture that seem to run backwards, owners do not care or value customer service providers in their establishments. It is actually one of the worst paid positions in any company, which would explain the last possible theory: customer service providers are so unhappy about their working conditions that they get theirs by taking it out on the customers, hopefully contributing to ruin sales.
Costa Rica seems to be waking up from its passivity. Once Costa Rica started getting acquainted with customer satisfaction policies — assuming it happened gradually due to the booming growth of U.S. companies in the country — the Ley de Promoción de la Competencia y Defensa Efectiva del Consumidor – N° 7472 (competition promotion and effective consumer protection act) was created Dec. 20, 1994. However, extensive informative campaigns concerning its regulations and services have never been implemented, and it still keeps many consumers in the dark about what to do if they become victims of unscrupulous service providers.
For that reason, a small group of conscientious journalists, among them Hazel Feigenblatt, Armando Mayorga, have decided to create their own blogs online devoted to posting customer complaints about treatment in banks, restaurants, appliance stores, cable companies, governmental companies, transportation, scams, among others. Ms. Feigenblatt even has a page for English-speaking customers. Interestingly, most consumers rant about their experiences in detail in the blog site, but admit not expressing their dissatisfaction or demanding better treatment to service providers while it was happening. Despite that, Ticos’ perception of clients as subordinates is definitely changing, and they are learning that customers are actually the ones who run the show.
Although there are extensive reports about most establishment categories, anomalies experienced at banks and restaurants top the list. The following are some of the most outrageous situations people pay to suffer daily in Costa Rica, according to the complaints registered by the consumer protetion Web sites:
Unnecessary long waits. Customers have reported waiting up to four hours for a simple transaction in public banks, mainly due to having less than half of their staff working. Long lines are also true for some private banks.
Administrative mistakes never or reluctantly resolved. Some managers or supervisors often excuse clerk’s mistakes like depositing wrong amounts, giving back wrong receipts, applying unjustified withdrawals, giving or offering deceiving information to get clients to sign contracts or pay unnecessary, non-refundable fees, among others. Besides standing by clerks’ incompetence, they even dare to blame clients for not paying attention at the situation. Others opt for playing the fake customer-service card by apologizing, making countless promises and then cowardly avoiding follow-up calls and ignoring e-mails.
Ridiculous commissions and interest rates. While some public and private banks are famous for charging commissions as high as $7 for print-up statements, others randomly raise the credit interest rates up to 30%.
Discrepancies with infamous Law # 8204. Following governmental efforts against international and local fraud/laundering, banks recently launched publicity campaigns for updating personal information in bank account records, and have been punishing customers who fail to comply by closing their accounts.
However, the most serious aspect of this law is that it does not mention or describe the rights or duties of people who do not work and still have bank accounts (students, wealthy people, housewives, etc.).
The law grants banks the liberty to decide what to do with the accounts of unemployed customers, and not surprisingly, those people are being told by banks that they cannot fill out the form required by the Superintendencia General de Entidades Financieras (SUGEF) to update their data, and will have their accounts closed as a result.
Banks are only servicing customers who can abide by the new law. What upsets several customers is that the law is being imposed on every account holder, not only on suspicious ones. Besides being a waste of time, paperwork, and bank resources, they feel that banks are treating all clients as criminals until proven otherwise, instead of striving to select and apply the law only on suspicious ones and keeping the rest happy.
No security guards past office hours. Complaints about how easy banks make it on criminals that commit paseos millonarios (mugging people and taking them to different ATM vestibules to empty their bank accounts) on their customers by not having one security guard at their offices after hours. Many people have fallen prey of this type of crime, and several have even been killed. Banks eventually opted for closing automatic teller service at 10 p.m., but that has only made criminals operate earlier (a woman was attacked and robbed at 7 p.m.)
Bugs and hair in food. As insane as it may sound, cockroaches have been found cooked and fresh several times inside served food at renowned restaurants. Flies were also found in cheese and chili containers, and a long hair was found inside a pizza. It needs to be said: do any of the bug-infested restaurants know how crucial fumigating food-service establishments is for their prosperity? There are plenty of exterminating companies that use eco-friendly substances safe for kitchens. They do not even need the staff to evacuate. Therefore, no excuse is viable for not fumigating a restaurant.
Questionable promotions and fraud/stealing. Misleading information about promotions as well as low quality in promotion dishes are common complaints, and credit card fraud and plain stealing from clients’ purses by staff members have been reported at some restaurants.
Bad food. Old, sour coffee and slightly decomposed lasagnas were reported at one prominent outlet.
Long waits. Long lines are common complaints about fast food restaurants, as well as regular restaurants, even when food has been sent back.
Rudeness, homophobia. Whether it has been rude treatment, bad food, long waits or bugs in food, one aspect most restaurants share is their lack of apologetic effort. Apparently, some waiters and delivery people are trained to put on an uncomfortable facial expression, walk away silently or respond rudely when atrocities are pointed out to them. A pizza chain’s staff recently was reported as mocking, ignoring and insulting gay customers for which they subsequently apologized. The company promised to include human relations in the staff training.
Specifics of the various accounts and the names of the outlets are listed on the Web sites. However, A.M. Costa Rica cannot substantiate individual complaints.
Customers do have legal options when experiencing abuse from businesses. After the 1994 consumer protection act was created, the Ministry of Commerce added the Comision Nacional del Consumidor (a national consumer commission) to its jurisdiction, in charge of receiving, processing and penalizing consumer complaints. According to the agency’s Web site, reporting steps go as follows:
1- An unhappy customer can contact the agency toll free at 800-266-7866, at email@example.com, and at fax number 2284-8821 for specific instructions and information about the complaint.
2- According to the recommendations received during step 1, the consumer may be asked to visit the agency office (Avenida 3, between calles 30 and 32) with a detailed written complaint, along with the following documents: receipt / car-repair slip / contract / warranty, full name of the reporting person or company as well as a physical address where to notify them, and any other relevant document.
The Web site states that resolutions may take from 30 days up to two months, depending on the type of complaint. However, consumers have also been complaining about the lack of efficiency of this institution, from never answering the toll free line to never resolving cases. The staff seems to only follow up on high-profile complaints. Despite the latter, the commission has processed a considerable amount of complaints and penalized several companies since its foundation, slowly changing the customer service landscape in Costa Rica.
Other entities where consumers can report abuse are Defensoria de los Habitantes and Autoridad Reguladora de Servicios Publicos. The Poder Judicial is in charge of serious cases that include suing for damages, and consumers must have acquired legal representation prior to visiting their offices.
Since all institutions listed above conduct all procedures in Spanish, translators will be required for expats who are not bilingual.
An effective initiative to make businesses strive for excellence is to have them compete for a spot on an A-List of the best rated businesses Denver Channel 7 maintains such a list on its Web site for its community and rates viewer experiences in different city establishments weekly or monthly. Surely, that will keep service providers on their toes, and customers healthy and happy calling the shots.