Saturday, March 31, 2007

My visitor last week asked whether Spain had anything like the yellow box system which allows the traffic to flow at junctions. I said it did but that it was honoured more in the breach than the observance. A few minutes later, we came upon just such a junction. The car stopped illegally in the middle of it belonged to the local police. Which said it all.

When it comes to the take-up of broadband, the gap between Spain and the rest of Europe continues to grow. The EU Commission attributes this to high prices here and reaches the conclusion that competition is simply not working in this area. Now, there’s a shock. Telefonica executives must be quaking in their boots.

If you’ve read all my post of 26 March, you’ll recall my description of the odd place in Pontevedra where they sell raisin wine. Well, this was closed down by the police on the 27th because of the sale of ‘stupefactants’. But it was open again yesterday when I walked past. Life goes on.

Here’s an amusing article in which several of the ‘greats’ of the last century are – quite rightly - knocked off their pedestals.

Galicia Facts

The word ‘Gallego’ normally means Galician. But in Spanish dictionaries it also bears the pejorative meanings of ‘stupid’ and even ‘stutterer’. Understandably, the Galician Academy of Language has asked the Royal Academy to remove these. But this is not the worst news. In Portuguese dictionaries, ‘Gallego’ is also said to mean common, coarse and/or weak. Hard to see how anything can be done about this, no matter how unfair it all is.

By the way, armed with its new tyre, my car passed its inspection yesterday and I managed to negotiate the process entirely in Gallego. I do hope Xoan and Xoan Carlos are impressed. If they’re still reading, I have a question for them – Is the Gallego word ‘balde’ [‘de balde’ = gratis] from the same root as the English ‘bald’?

And now for the latest 3-year compilation – on the mundane subjects of SHOPPING & CUSTOMER SERVICE


Down at La Barca supermarket, customer service continues to be a concept that eludes the staff. I went there on Saturday morning at 11, to discover that this was, naturally enough, a busy period. As a result, there were no trolleys left outside the entrance in the mall. No problem, I thought, as we will soon be able to avail ourselves of the stack of trolleys that were being brought up from the underground car park (or ‘el parking’) as I came up the escalator. No such luck. These failed to arrive and the imperious advice we got from the diva at the desk was that there might be some trolleys outside in the street, if we cared to look. I didn’t. And neither, it seems, did the several stooped old crones in black who were staggering around the place burdened with at least two of the plastic basket alternatives to the trolleys. On the way out, I passed the line of trolleys abandoned at the top of the escalator at the end of the mall. The collection crew were out in the car park, with another line of trolleys, taking a cigarette break. Customers? What customers?

Talking of friends and cousins, a colleague of mine is buying a second-hand car. Or ‘previously used’, as I think they say in the States. Anyway, he surprised me by saying that he would rather pay extra and get it through a dealer than risk a private sale. I commented that people tended to take the opposite view in the UK, trusting a private seller more than a dealer, especially if there was a full service history. My colleague put me straight – firstly, service histories don’t exist here; secondly, no one would trust a private seller not to cheat; and, thirdly, he wasn’t talking about any old dealer. It would have to be one in his village known to his family. This would, in effect, minimise the chances that he was being cheated. The personal factor yet again. And whose to say it’s misguided?

My least favourite company – Telefonica – have once again demonstrated their flimsy grasp of the concept of customer service. At the back of the latest bill, there is a form saying that, unless you mail it back to them, they will sell your details to numerous suppliers. Pre-paid envelope attached? You must be joking. To the amusement of my sceptical Spanish friends, who say it won’t make the slightest difference, I have taken the trouble to find an envelope and mail my negative response back to them. After this, le deluge?

I visited an ironmongers – or ferretería – in the old quarter today. What a wonderful experience. Like Aladdin’s cave. Or a pharmacy in the Tehran bazaar. Row upon row of little boxes on the wall behind the counter, each containing a collection of screws, nails, blades, door handles or whatever. And they will sell you just a single screw, if this is all you want, and wrap it in brown paper. Not insist on you taking a set of 10 in pre-shrunk plastic wrapping which drives you mad. And all of this at a price which hardly seems economic. They won’t survive long term, of course, but there’s life in them for a while yet. Hopefully enough to see me out.

There are several of these little shops in Pontevedra – haberdasheries, seamstresses, picture framers and the like. I don’t know whether I love them just because they remind me of the way life used to be when I was a kid or because I think it is the way life should be. Probably both.

One of the things I love about Spain is that even companies who are aware that customer service is critical still get things wrong. But at least they try. Last week I called Telefonica to tell them that my phone set wasn’t working. They were very nice and asked me whether I preferred the engineer to call in the morning or the afternoon. I considered asking for definitions of these terms but let it go and just said the afternoon. Then yesterday morning they called to tell me that the engineer would arrive the following day [i. e. today] at 1pm. Now, by no stretch of the imagination is this ‘afternoon’ in Spain. The latter begins when you leave work, say 1.30 or 2, or possibly when you sit down to lunch, say 2.30 or even 3. But no matter; I was quite happy with 1pm the following day. So, imagine my surprise when the engineer turns up half an hour after the call telling me that he will be arriving the next day. Well, no surprise, really. Just satisfaction and amusement. And the engineer was a lovely man who took a great shine to my border collie, being the owner of two setters himself. We parted as great friends. And at least another engineer didn’t turn up today, morning or afternoon.

Things happen here from time to time for which there is no ready explanation. I noted a couple of weeks ago that Telefonica sneaked into their last phone bill a circular saying that, unless, I wrote to them asking them to desist, they would sell my details to all and sundry. Not only was there no pre-paid reply envelope included, there was no bloody envelope at all. But, anyway, I sent off a letter and today I received a personalised registered/certificated letter from them saying that they had got my request and would act on it. So, having annoyed me but saved themselves the cost of a reply envelope, they have now incurred the expense of a registered letter. I can only suppose that the[data protection?] law obliges them to do this, whereas only common sense dictates that they show some consumer orientation in the first place. No contest, even in Spain.

Swimming against the rip tide of global commercialism, the new socialist government has announced that it plans to reduce the number of Sundays and holidays on which large shops are allowed to open. This is currently 12 and they are proposing a major reduction to 8. Not much customer orientation in evidence here and it will be interesting to see how things go. In case you don’t know, all shops except newsagents and pastry makers shut midday Saturday and open again on Monday. Nothing is open Sunday afternoon/evening.

I took some oat flakes back to the health shop today because they were full of insects. The guy was very nice but gave me two excuses:- 1. The weather has been warm. Without this I guess one would have only eggs rather than live creatures, and 2. The oats were grown organically so no insecticides were used. Perhaps so but I think vegetarians need to know that their muesli might contain animal protein as a result. Be all that as it may, I got my money back and went elsewhere.

I love ironmongers shops in Spain. They are just like shops used to be. Some of them have their smaller wares arrayed in tall rows of wooden boxes behind the counter, rather like a Chinese pharmacy. And they will sell you just a single screw, if that is all you want. Mind you, you need plenty of time to shop there. Not only are they Dickensian in appearance but also in operation. They eschew computers [or even typewriters] and write down all your purchases in longhand – looking up each product reference as they go. If the person in front of you has had a shipping order, God help you.

A wonderful example today of two major aspects of Spanish life:- 1. The regular need to prove who you are, and 2. The lack of consumer orientation shown by even major companies. A director of the national rail company [RENFE] has said that, Yes it is true that to buy tickets over the internet you must first go to a station to present your credit card and prove your identity; and No, RENFE doesn’t see why just because other companies don’t demand this that they should refrain from doing so. According to the director, this practice accords with international norms and, on top of that, is vital for the financial protection of the customer. I think we can be pretty sure that it’s neither of these. It is far more likely to be for the protection of RENFE, just as it’s for the benefit of the supermarkets that you must prove who you are for a credit card purchase of even a single toilet roll. Avoidance of business risk still ranks way above provision of a satisfactory service.

Talking of the supermarket, this continues its slow but purposeful progress away from any known concept of customer service. So much so that I have formed the theory that they are trying to drive customers away in order to justify closure. Herewith, my latest fruitful conversation with an employee:-
There hasn’t been any fresh ginger recently
Will you have some today?
Are you going to have some later this week?
Are you ever again going to have any?
Why not?
No one buys it.

One of the many things I appreciate about Spain is that consumerism is less advanced than elsewhere in the West. Mothers’ Day is not a big thing; Christmas actually arrives in December, not September; and as yet the country has not been conned into importing Halloween from the USA. Or Christmas cards even. But All Saints Day is a big thing here as it’s the occasion for visiting family graves, cleaning them and adorning them with blooms. Walking into the main square this morning, I found it had been converted into a gigantic flower stall. Perhaps it was late in the day but dahlias seemed to make up 99% of what was on offer. Or possibly they send the right message in the language of flowers.

I’ve mentioned a couple of times that Spanish web sites are less than consumer friendly, possibly being designed by a relative of the Chief Executive who's just failed his degree in IT. In the literature provided by my medical insurance company, it tells me I can get details of contracted doctors on their web page. After 15 minutes of trying to achieve this today, I gave up and called the [inevitably] premium rate phone line. Then I wrote them a letter asking exactly how I could access this info on their web page. Me and my mix of cynicism and optimism! If they reply, I will buy you all a drink.

I take back what I said recently about Christmas not arriving until December in Spain. I ventured into some shops today and found it had already arrived in all of them. Worse, the town idiot – clearly being ‘cared for in the community’ – has taken to wearing his Santa Claus hat.

After a few years’ experience now, I’ve concluded that most Spanish companies take the view that you’re important until you’ve been bribed to become a customer and then don’t care a fig how much they annoy you after that. The latest example of this is the difficulty faced in changing broadband providers. As with getting rid of your leased phone, you are presented with an obstacle course which will exhaust you both mentally and financially. In the worst case, you’re left without any service at all for 6 months. I don’t suppose Spain is the only country in the world where suppliers lock you in and then rely on sloth and inertia to keep you, however annoyed you are; but they’re assisted here by the fact that consumer advice bodies are, as yet, poorly developed. And newspapers don’t go in for such things as comparing the tariffs of all the mobile phone companies and warning you of the hidden – and possibly illegal – charges. By the time you’ve been hit with these, it’s a tad too late. I’m not, of course, suggesting that British or American companies are virtuous by nature; but in the never-ending battle between supplier and consumer, they do have fewer cards stacked in their favour.

I love the ironmonger shops in Pontevedra. Without exception, they are from an earlier age, especially in their layout. But they also operate at the pace of a bygone time. If this is any reflection of the speed at which their tradesmen customers carry out their own activities, can it be any wonder that houses here seem to take at least two years to be built? It is frustrating to wait 15 minutes just to be told that they don’t stock the drive belt for an imported vacuum cleaner but it’s my own fault for being too English. If I were Spanish, I would simply interrupt the laconic conversation and demand a quick answer to a quick question. And no one would mind a bit. One day.

At the post office today, I was denied entry just after 2pm by a security guard who insisted it was closed. I was even denied the opportunity to buy a stamp from the machine just inside the outer door. This sort of ‘jobsworth’ behaviour is rare in Spain and the guard at least had the decency to avert his gaze out of shame for his officiousness. Dear God, I hope this isn’t the first sign of as move towards efficiency.


There’s a clever new machine in the entrance to the Post Office which dispenses stamps according to the weight of your letters. As you might expect, it isn’t designed for a customer pushed for time. You have to go through 8 steps to get your stamp and, more often than not, you are then told no change is available. Call me a man in too much of a hurry but I wouldn’t have thought it impossible to indicate this before you went through the process. Especially as there’s a temptation to repeat the 8 steps to check whether the bloody thing isn’t lying.

Here in Spain, many large companies still operate a commercial strategy which can best be summarised as - Get customers by whatever means you can; Make it hard for them to leave; And then abuse hell out of them. The worst offenders are the banks, the utility companies and, of course, the state telephone company, Telefonica. Thus it is that the government has had to introduce a specific law this week to force the latter to comply with its legal obligation to allow customers to depart quickly and without penal costs. In defence of these institutions, this is probably a decent strategy where customers think all operators are as bad as each other and so don’t have much incentive to move anyway. And where people can be persuaded, in return for a couple of cheap Portuguese towels, to open a deposit account paying only one per cent interest.

A fish, they say, stinks from the head. When my local supermarket was a lowly Champion store it took its tone from a manageress who seemed to think rather more about herself and her appearance than about the customers. But at least she wore the store’s uniform. Now that the place is a Carrefour hypermarket, she’s become even more of a diva and has taken to strutting round in what, elsewhere, would be considered evening wear. You can imagine in which direction the service has gone.

Generally speaking, levels of efficiency are not very high in Spain and levels of customer service [as distinct from friendliness] are low. However, a couple of organisations have recently raised their efficiency levels to new heights. Sadly, they’ve traded off levels of customer service. In the case of Telefonica, I’m now having money taken from my account several days before the bill is received for review. But the biscuit is taken by the company which now supplies my water and which doesn’t even bother with the nicety of a bill. If I had an ounce of confidence I’d ever get a response, I’d write letters of complaint. Instead, the traditional time-wasting trip to the local office and a face-to-face chat is clearly called for.

My local supermarket masquerading as a hypermarket has plumbed new depths of customer non-service. At the peak shopping hour this afternoon they had no baskets available. Not content with this, they’ve introduced a new bag policy…..
Me: Can I have large bags, please
Checkout girl: You have to go to the office for them now
Me: Why, for God’s sake?
Checkout girl: I don’t really know. I think it’s because they’re more expensive and they
don’t want customers to have them.

My guest discovered today there’s a chasm here between customer reception [usually excellent] and customer service [often woeful]. He was trying to get a return ticket on the train from Pontevedra to Madrid at the discounted price which is always given in Spain. The problem was his ticket for the first leg of the journey had been issued in the USA and lacked the ‘right code’. Neither the station clerks, the RENFE agent in town nor even RENFE’s customer service personnel were willing or able to do anything to override the computer’s inability to deal with this. After 2 hours and a lot of walking and talking, we conceded defeat.

A helpful ironmonger today directed me to a nearby electrician, where I found the shop is closed on Saturdays during the 3 summer months. Customers are clearly a lower priority than other calls on the owners’ time during this period. I wonder whether they’ve even noticed the new hypermarket just round the corner. Or perhaps they have and have given up the fight.

A year or more or so ago, I scoffed at the practice of the local TV station of putting adverts on the screen during football matches. They started with brief banner ads along the bottom of the screen when the ball went dead but then moved on to showing half-screen ads even during play. Well, there’s no stopping a truly bad but profitable idea, especially in a country where it is a common marketing tactic to see how far you can go in displaying contempt for your customers before they scream. And so one of the main TV channels last night gave us the World Cup game replete with not just ads but also endless trailers for their next programme. As with the local station, we were blessed with ads even when the ball was in play. But the technique which allowed this was almost impressive. Traditionally, it’s been a problem during games here that the score was not shown in the corner during the game but - God knows why - only came up on the screen every 15 minutes exactly. But last night we were given it every few minutes - but with an ad attached every time. As if this wasn’t enough, box ads were appended to a host of statistics which flashed up on the screen with monotonous regularity. Some of these [e.g. ‘Shots on Goal’] were reasonably relevant but other [‘Kicks into the penalty area’] were clearly specious and merely shown as a hook on which to hang an infuriating ad. Indeed, by the end of the game I was expecting to be advised how many blades of grass had been trodden on by the respective teams. If not by each and every bloody player in turn. It’s at times like this that you realise just how weak consumer movements are in Spain and how much something like an Ombudsman is needed.

Another classic shopping experience today. Two weeks ago I ordered a basic blues book for piano. After a call telling me it was in, I trekked right through town today to pick it up. It turned out to be for the guitar. When I told them it was useless the reply was simply ‘No problem. We’ll just order another one’. No apology, of course, for wasting my time; this is what time is for in Spain. The fact Spaniards tolerate this sort of thing with equanimity might explain why a young Dutchman recently wrote to me from Ourense saying he’d had to quit his job in a vineyard as he couldn’t persuade the owner that his concept of time and efficiency simply wasn’t shared by potential customers in northern Europe.

A welcome step in the direction of consumer protection today. The Catalan government is obliging all phone companies to open an office in every town of more than 10,000 souls. This is to give long-suffering customers a fighting chance of getting their complaints/ queries dealt with in a country where you tend to be ignored once you’ve been locked in to a contract. Let’s hope it catches on in the rest of Spain.

Someone has made an analysis of the email services provided by the likes of Google, Yahoo and Hotmail. I can’t say it came as any great surprise to read that the provider with the slowest and least efficient offering gloried in the name of ‘Latinmail’. At least no one could say they hadn’t been warned. Though ‘Mañanamail’ might have been a bit more honest.

I’ve mentioned that Chinese ‘bazaars’ are cropping up all over the city. These have been met with consternation and now by concern on the part of local shopkeepers. The latter, of course, are in business for themselves and not for their customers. So, as they regard hard-working, lower-priced, open-more-hours competitors as unacceptable, they’ve taken the traditional route to meet the challenge. They’ve persuaded the local council to pass a law preventing the Chinese shops from opening longer than them. Stuff the customers.


You don’t have to be religious to regret how much the worship of commerce has replaced that of God in British society. When I took my mother and younger daughter to church at 3pm on Good Friday, we had to fight our way through the traffic heading for the shopping centre across the road. And I see that, at least to the young, Easter Sunday no longer goes by this name. Sandwiched between the bank holidays of Good Friday and Easter Monday, it now seems to be called ‘Bank Holiday Sunday’.

I had one of those Spanish shopping expeditions today. I bought a ping pong table from a
sports shop but it came without bats and balls. Inevitably, the place that sold me the table was out of these, as was the sister shop they sent me to. But they did deliver the table on time this evening and I was able to find the 3 hours and civil engineering skills required to assemble it. This left me no time to play on it, with or without bats and balls. And tomorrow is another day.

The idea of customer service is still taking its time to catch on in Spain. An ad I saw yesterday for a wine club is not exceptional in allowing you only to join via a phone line which just happens to be a premium charge number

Getting close to customer service.

I’d like to buy one of those [rat-catching] cages I saw in the window last week
We sold it
Do you have another one?
Will you be getting another one?
Can you order one for me?
Ermm. Better if you come in from time to time to see if our supplier has sent us one.

Getting even closer to customer service.

Have you got a replacement pad for this [small but not-inexpensive] leather notepad?
Do you mean you don’t have one in stock or you don’t sell them?
We don’t sell them
But I bought this [small but not-inexpensive] notepad here.
OK. We can order you one.

Because the personal relationship is so paramount in Spain, one of the worst things you can do is move away from someone you feel is giving a poor service. This is seen as bad form and ‘unfriendly’. And you can certainly expect a frosty greeting – if you get one at all – on the numerous occasions you pass in the street. Not that us Anglo-Saxons worry about such things.

I’ve frequently mentioned just how important the personal factor is in Spain. In fact, it’s hard to achieve much without it. I’ve also said customer orientation here is not yet what it is elsewhere. So it’s both surprising and unsurprising the government should announce a law obliging companies to offer Customer Service phone lines manned by real people and not by ‘robots’, as the report calls them. Of course, it’s one thing to introduce a law and another to effectively police it.

I’ve very rarely suffered from bad service in Spanish shops. But, then again, it doesn’t often rise above what you might call neutral. It’s civil but neither very good nor very bad. This contrasts with the eternal pleasure of dealing with shopkeepers on Merseyside, where humour is more or less essential to the transaction. Well, for most of them.

A reader has reminded me that the El Corte Inglés department store [the only one in Spain?] is a major exception to the rule that Spanish service is rarely very poor.

Footnote: Future compilations will deal separately with those bastions of poor customer service, the banks, Telefonica and El Corte Inglés


Ulixes said...

It seems that Galicia is full of paranoids trying to make sure you are whou you say you are, full of supermarkets of small towns that do not sell ginger for just one guy interested in buying it. We are racists, we do not know how to drive, and we sell oats full of insects.

Fine, but may I ask you why on earth did you come to Galicia? I guess you paid your taxes in the UK, and may had your friends and relatives there. Now, why you came to Galicia is a mistery to me.

Did we ask you to come? Do we need you? To me, you sound like a Catholic priest trying to educate some Indians.

Ulixes said...

And by the way, have you ever been 2 weeks without telephone because there was a fault in the exchange? Had the engineer had to come to your house "sometime between 1pm and 6pm" to fix a fault that was outside? Three times to fix the same fault?

Do you pay for a 8Mb broadband and actually get 1Mb (if you are lucky)?

Do you like when you call the Customer Services of a company and the person answering the phone does not have a clue of what you are talking about because s/he lives I don't know how many thousand miles away and s/he just reads the answers from a paper? And have you had problems to understand because her/his English was almost uncomprehensible?

I think I could keep writing all the night....but I won't.
May be you have not lived in London.

Ulixes said...

Dear Mr Davies,
I have read your emails. Obviously, nobody forces me to read your blog, but since it is public I assume I am allowed to. You feel free to give your point of view about “life in Spain”, in particular in Galicia, which happens to be my country. I don’t share your opinions and I think your analysis is shallow and biased. I do not blame you, since you may not have been living in Galicia for a long time, you may not even be fully integrated and you might lack a deep knowledge of both the language and society. But I think some of your opinions could mislead some of the readers that do not know Galicia first hand. That’s why I wrote a few comments. If you only like to see comments agreeing with you, please feel free to remove mine. I will take no offense. In fact, life would be much easier if everyone agreed with you, wouldn't it?

Regarding my sentence “It seems that Galicia is full of paranoids trying to make sure you are who you say you are”
I was just exaggerating your statement: “A wonderful example today of two major aspects of Spanish life:- 1. The regular need to prove who you are, and […]”

Ulixes said...

Regarding your second email. I may not be retaliated by any Brit living in Madrid if I dare to criticise the UK, but I have got a couple of emails from a Brit living in Galicia just because I commented his opinions written in his blog.

The point is not only that you are foreigner. There are not few Galicians that after a short stay abroad come back to Galicia criticising everything and feeling superior, and I would criticise them as well. But it is true that I think that foreigners should either enjoy our hospitality or go back to their home countries to try to rule there, if they please. Of course, foreigners should also be welcome to apply to the Spanish citizenship and get involved in the government of our country once they got it. But meanwhile, they are voteless, as I am here, and they should “either take it or leave it”

I do know that if I go to a foreign country I will have to adapt my lifestyle to theirs, as I am doing now. I am grateful that I was given this opportunity here and of course the pros out-weight the cons, so I try to moan as less as possible. But I have to realise where I am. I cannot go to Harrod’s, ask for a “Lacón con grelos” and be surprised if the only reply I get is “What??”. The same way, if someone asks for some ginger in a small supermarket, he shouldn’t be surprised if there isn’t any. I think you were lucky that at least the guy knew the meaning of the word “jengibre”. Many people that I know do not. But on the other hand my brother lives in a Galician town and eats tons of it, so I am sure that bigger supermarkets must sell it. Just a matter of looking in the right place. But when you move abroad you need a little bit of patience until you learn where you can find everything. Since you have moved abroad not less than five times, I am sure you already know this.