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Thursday, January 17, 2013

A customer service challenge for expats in Panama

It's no surprise and no late breaking news that Panama suffers from a lack of good customer service. Some of this blog post may sound familiar if you've read any of my replies to reader comments regarding customer service here in the pages of my blog. Also, you'll notice some very random photos in this post, just to break up the monotony of all the black and white text. Can't think of any good customer service related photos. So here's the first. The Panama Canal taken from the Amador Causeway last week.

Anyone who has spent any time in Panama has definitely stood in line at one of the department stores, such as La Onda, Stevens, or El Costo, in a line that has no less than fifteen people, and watched the one cashier do her job while behind her a swat team of employees mills about in the background. You should count yourself lucky if any of the employees even say "hello" or "I'll be right with you."

The point of this post isn't to inform you about the poor customer service, but instead to highlight good customer service. I was a trainer at one of the large call centers here. It was my job to train people on every aspect of their job, from sales to using the computer system to customer service. I went nuts whenever it came to the customer service portion of training. I just get passionate about it. I wanted to really dig into the class and help them understand the importance of customer service and how it can affect them as employees. Most of my negative experiences here have come from dining out. So our conversation turned to the restaurant industry and the poor customer service provided by waiters and waitresses.

Where the ocean turns into a river

The argument came up that Panamanian workers do not provide good customer service because in general, Panamanians are not good tippers. So they feel that they will bust their butts and won't get paid in return. I argued that I could understand how that was the case at some point in time, but now, that's a lousy excuse, because it's not only Panamanians dining out anymore. Now you've got Americans, Canadians, and foreigners from everywhere else on the globe.

I used the example that I was at a popular bar & grill one night with a group of no less than 10 guys watching one of the big UFC fights on TV. We just wanted beer and chicken wings while we watched the battles. It was a Saturday night, but in between paydays (everything in Panama revolves around the paycheck on the 15th or 30th of the month) so the place was seriously empty. I think there may have been three tables with customers. We finally flagged down the waiter and ordered. He brought over two buckets of beer (enough for us all to have one beer). We never saw him again. Not once. Not until I found him hanging out at the bar with the other waiters. Just hanging out. During a three-hour fight, we had two beers each. Needless to say the guy got a horrible tip.

Think about that. 10 guys, all with jobs, hanging out. If the waiter had done his job, we would have each thrown in at least one dollar per person. He would've gotten a $10 tip at the minimum. Why would any person, especially someone who is paid mostly in tips, go to work for 8 hours and not try to make as much money as possible during their shift?

Anyways, the class seemed to catch on as I broke it down that way.

Driving into Panama City on the Corredor Sur

The other day I was out getting gas. I stopped by the Delta gas station in Villa Lucre to fill up my car. The attendant walked over (many of the gas stations still have full service here), said something in Spanish (I didn't really hear what he said, plus my Spanish sucks), but I assumed he was asking what kind of gas I wanted and how much. So I gave him $20 and told him what kind of gas. He started laughing, took the money, but then kept his hand out for me to shake. This time I listened and understood that he was saying something along the lines of, "Geez, I was just introducing myself and you gave me money." We both laughed. As he filled up my car we spoke a little (as much as my limited vocabulary would allow). He asked my name, shook my hand, talked about how hot it is outside, and asked where I was from.

And I'd just been expecting to pay the guy and get my gas. This guy's name is Ariel and he reminded me that it's just as important for the customers to pass a smile and be polite as it is for the employees/workers to show good customer service skills. For a gas station attendant, this guy seemed to really get it. He was going to make the best of each day.

Right then and there I told him how appreciative I was for his attitude and his all around great customer service. I made sure that he understood that the tip I was giving him was because of those two things.

So I was thinking, we expats/foreigners, can make a difference. It might take a long time, but I think that we can help change the way Panamanians view customer service. Next time you're in a place of business and someone goes out of his or her way to assist you, or to strike up conversation, or anything that would be considered great customer service, don't just tip them, but make sure you tell them why you are tipping them. Do your best to explain that it's because you appreciate all that they do each day. I guarantee if we all did this more often, they would tell their coworkers how they just got a large tip because they had a fantastic attitude. Those coworkers might need to see it a few times before they believe it and apply it, but eventually it'll catch on.

Panama is ready to hit a tourism boom (I think it kind of is experiencing one already) but if the customer service levels stay where they are now, tourists will come, check the place out, have a bad experience, and leave with no intention of returning. Let's help turn that around.

Ariel Arauz at Delta in Villa Lucre

What I'd like to do is post a page on this blog dedicated to the customer service challenge. If you're out and about, and you come across somebody worth mentioning, tell them they did an outstanding job, then ask if you can snap a photo with your camera phone. Send me your story, their name, where they work, and their photo, and I'll put it up on the blog. Maybe they'll get a kick out of seeing their photo on some ol' average joe's website. Maybe it will even help them get a raise or something if the boss finds out. In the meantime, posted above, is a photo of Ariel at Delta gas station. The fellow next to him didn't seem too thrilled to have his name mentioned so I won't put it on here. Ariel is the guy on the left. I'll also post his short story and photo on my customer service challenge page.

Thanks for reading.