Adventures in Living Abroad – Customer Service

Talking with Clients

If there’s one thing I can say for my home country, it’s that customer service is, for the most part, such that you leave feeling as though you “won” the encounter. This is largely because of all the lawsuits and sue-happy freaks who will descend on you if you don’t cater to their every whim, and while it has created a “friendly” service environment where the staff are always smiling and helpful (for the most part), customer service around the world varies. By a lot. As you begin to explore other countries around the world, you’ll find yourself coming up against the good, the bad, and the downright horrific. You either learn to roll with the punches, or go home crying.  

I’d already been living in Bulgaria for a couple of years before I had a truly “bad” experience, and by that point I thought I had been pretty hardened to the customer service of Eastern Europe and the Mediterranean after 12+ years traveling there on top of living in the region.

For those of you who haven’t been, the basic store operates as such: you walk in, and the workers are mostly either smoking cigarettes, on their cell phones, or browsing something on the computer. If you ask them a question, you are either answered curtly, with no pretense of smiling or friendliness, or you are outright ignored. If you don’t bring exact change, you are ignored, or you will be asked to come back later when you have exact change. The overall attitude is “I’m only here because I have to be, and I’m not going to give you any service because…well, because fuck you, that’s why”.

It’s worse in the old Communist countries where the older generation (50+) automatically hate anyone who hails from the United States due to cultural brainwashing back in the day (similar to how anyone from the U.S. who grew up in the previous generation fears Russians, or in the current generation, fears anyone from the Middle East). Long story short, I had just purchased a laptop (the same one I’m using now, actually) and a laptop bag and had gone home, only to find that the laptop didn’t fit into the bag; they had sold me one that was an inch too small. So the next morning I went back to the store with my receipt to exchange it for a slightly larger bag.

Upon arrival, I presented my receipt plus the bag to the attendant, which prompted her to call her manager. Who obviously had better things to do because she came storming down the stairs with her face all scrunched up and yanked the bag out of my hand while snapping at the girl, “What is the problem?” I explained (at the same time as the girl behind the counter) that it was too small and I simply needed to exchange it for a new one, to which the manager promptly replied, “Well, you obviously didn’t try hard enough.”

I’m not usually one to be struck speechless. I almost always have a witty comeback. But in this case…it was a first. I just stood there, slack-jawed and feeling my blood curdle a little, while the manager stalked off, grabbed the laptop model I had purchased the day before…and then spent the next five minutes trying to shove it with all her might into the bag. Complete with grunts and muttered cursing. When it finally was proven that the bag was indeed too small, she handed it off to the first girl and stomped back up the stairs…all without a further word (much less a glance) to me.

I had similar experiences throughout most of Eastern Europe in my 6 years of traveling there and 2.5 years of living in Bulgaria, although that was by far the worst. Several times I was asked to come back later when I didn’t have exact change; that only happened during my first year of traveling there. After that, I made sure to save all my coins and smaller bills for those “you never know when” situations so I didn’t have to leave and come back.

Colombia, on the other hand, has been one of my most pleasant experiences out of all the countries I’ve visited. Rather than the faked (forced) politeness out of fear of being sued in the United States (or having some hipster 99%er freak out over not getting their way and their 1st place medal just for being born) and the cold indifference of Eastern Europe, everyone in Colombia was just plain friendly.

I had one shop owner close up shop after I simply asked where I could find a shoe-repairman. He literally closed down and then took me on a 45 minute walk around the local neighborhood, showing me all the local eateries, the banks, the ATMs, the key-makers, the seamstress, the furniture-guy, the carpenter…all of whom were his local friends and who he was happy to support through referred clientelle.

Meanwhile, here in Mexico I’ve seen both sides. Before I learned Spanish, it was a 50/50 chance I’d get someone who was genuinely friendly or someone who was “fuck you gringo, go home”. Once I got Spanish under my belt, however, I’ve yet to have a bad customer service experience here….although I’ve had to learn how to roll with the mordida system of pre-tipping people to get them to get things done in a reasonable manner. Some call it bribery, but really it’s just an express fee.

Even though customer service might seem like it is the “best in the world” in the United States, there is an uglier side to the “customer is always right”. And that is the hipster generation of entitled lowlifes who actually think that just because they are a customer they have the right to be right 100% of the time, no matter what. And because the laws of the country have catered to this type of customer for so long, you now have businesses who are terrified of getting sued so they bow to the whim of customers, no matter how ridiculous.

And if they don’t, you have instances such as this freak of nature who exploded at the drive-through in McDonald’s because they weren’t serving chicken McNuggets yet because it was still too early. Best part of the video? When she screams, “Don’t make me assume my ultimate form!” (Video is NSFW!)

This has also directly led to most Americans being viewed with disdain outside of their own country when traveling abroad, because they make the absolute worst types of clients when visiting restaurants, hotels and beyond. Because they are used to the extreme end of “the customer is always right”, they’ve been brainwashed into believing that they have an inherent human right to be right, 100% of the time.

As a result, you’ll see Americans (and Brits to some degree) leaving some of the most ridiculous reviews on places like TripAdvisor. Comments such as, “The staff didn’t smile at me sufficiently” or “the bowl of fruit wasn’t fresh enough” or “they had white towels and I wanted brown towels”, all associated with low ratings for the establishment because the customer wasn’t satisfied with something or another. Usually things which have absolutely nothing to do with the service being offered by the company. Honestly…the staff not smiling enough?

Think I’m joking about that one? “No melon is ever ripe enough for people on TripAdvisor,” says travel analyst Jared Blank. “There are hotels that rate in the top five in the world, and people are still complaining. I’m always shocked by the comments: from the quality of the fruit, to the mobile-phone reception on an island in the middle of nowhere, to whether the person on the front desk was smiling sufficiently upon their arrival. It blows my mind.” You can read the full article, as well as my own take on the nature of the industry, here: Review Sites – The Good, The Bad and The Ugly.

What’s ironic is that all of my Mexican, Bulgarian and Colombian friends have always said the same thing about the customer service in the United States: “It’s the best in the world. Everyone is always smiling and it’s just so damned efficient and everything always works and everyone is always on time!” What they don’t see is the uglier side of the how and why the system is the way it is…or the extremes. Just as I’m sure most don’t always see the extreme side of bad customer service, such as what I fell prey to in Bulgaria a few years back.

Consequently, I don’t believe in the “customer is always right” approach, because guess what: the customer isn’t always in the right. Sometimes the customer is a condescending prick who deserves to be treated accordingly, and sometimes they are as shown above in the McDonald’s video. Just because you breathe doesn’t mean you are “right”, and in my mind businesses do not have an inherent responsibility to make you feel good about yourself. They have a simple requirement to provide you with the service or produce they tell you they have. Nothing more and nothing less. 

What about you? Do you have any horror stories in customer service to share? Or any “above and beyond” stories on the flip side, such as my above-and-beyond impromptu tour guide in Bogota? What are your thoughts on the subject? Let me know in the comments below!

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About T.W. Anderson

T.W. Anderson is the founder of the Marginal Boundaries brand. He is the writer, editor, videographer, photographer, and social media guru alongside Cristina Barrios, the other half of the brand. In his spare time, he is the creative director of the Saga of Lucimia, a forthcoming MMORPG from Stormhaven Studios, LLC.


  • Jennifer says:

    You are so spot on that the teenagers and college age kids feel this sense of entitlement. And ironically they give the worst customer service of all in the US! Having worked in customer service for many, many years I have to say that the customer is NOT always right.

  • @Freya : some level of help, sure. That’s their job, after all. But either extremes are “meh”. And yes, Colombia was awesome :)

  • Freya says:

    I guess it’s a balance, the customer is not always right but some respect and help are definitely expected from customer service. I love the experience you had in Colombia, that’s a part that makes travel so unique.

  • Ahhh, I feel your pain, Kenin. So glad I never worked in retail =P

  • Tim,

    Having been a retail general manager for 15 years, I can say you are absolutely correct. I can’t tell you the number of times I received complaints from customers that were just absolutely absurd. I’ve heard everything from “your salesperson sold me too good a TV” to “your delivery driver got stuck in the snow in my driveway”. In easily 50% of the complaints I’ve heard it’s more about the customer feeling some insane sense of entitlement than an actual problem. The worst though is when I sued to get complaints about acts of nature. You can’t believe how many times people have called my stores with complaints like “your delivery team brought me a sofa while it was raining” as if we were supposed to just stop delivering furniture every time it rained in Florida. I must say the one thing I don’t miss about retail is the customers :-)

  • @ Frank: Smile more, dammit! :) And where’s my fraking white sheets!

  • Frank says:

    HA! You are so right in every regard in this article. About Trip Advisor: what gets me are when people visit another country and complain about the level of English spoken by the staff. Americans aren’t the only ones to blame here – but if you’re visiting a foreign country there has to be some understanding that not everyone will be able to serve you in English. I also used to wonder what people meant when they complained about lack of turndown service, seems to be a common complaint on TA (I just didn’t know what that was). Now that I know I just can’t understand how people can get upset about petty stuff like that.
    Frank (bbqboy)

  • Mexico is a great place, Jaryd, and as long as you make an effort to speak the language, it’s been one of the friendliest places I’ve visited.

  • Jaryd says:

    Geez never before had I experienced those sorts of things when i visited Mex. To me it is still one of my favourite countries.

  • I haven’t really had any issues here yet, Valen. As long as you at least TRY to speak a little bit of Spanish, they are always friendly and ready to help.

  • I haven’t had to deal with customer service issues YET here in Mexico, but I dread the day!!

  • LOL :) Dan, if there’s one thing I’ve learned after living in Bulgaria, Mexico and Colombia, it’s that urgency = not existent outside of the U.S. or Britain. I’m also married to a Mexican and believe me….there is no such thing as being in a hurry or doing something NOW. Life happens as it happens and “ni modos” for everything else :)

  • I can’t help myself sometimes looking through some of those Trip Advisor reviews. People get worked up over the strangest things! Then again we’ve had some pretty terrible service. Mostly island nations where our “sense of urgency” isn’t really understood :-p

  • Wow. Thanks for sharing your experience. Customer service is definitely easy to take for granted. Especially if you’re from the states. But thank you for giving a heads up.

  • Laura: That sounds like when I was living in Bulgaria and traveling throughout the Mediterranean. Complete indifference is the name of the game, with outright disdain if you don’t have exact change or happen to come in just before lunch break or similar. No false friendliness there, just brutal honesty. :)

  • I cannot remember when I last had a great custom service experience. But you know, I live in Spain. One cannot expect that here.

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