How can we be hospitable yet give bad service?

I hate becoming one of those annoying people who keep comparing the Philippines and Filipinos with other countries and nationalities. But my multiple horrible — they are not simply bad — experiences with what passes for customer service in this country have pushed me over the edge.

And I am not alone. There are millions of us. I think the reason why we have not staged a People Power-like revolution over this is because we just do not have the time and the energy to do so after standing in line or holding the line for customer service representatives. And I think these companies with poor customer service know that and that’s how they get away with it for so long.

I am not talking about the customer service of small- and medium-sized companies. I am not even talking about the service provided by the government — that is a on league of its own, deserving of not just one, but a whole series of articles.  I am talking about the big companies we deal with on a regular basis — in the telecommunications, airline, and retail industries.

We are all familiar with the horror stories because we have all experienced them at one point. In this era of technological advancement and the Internet, we’d expect some improvement in the way we do business. We get excited about “convergence” (yes, PLDT, I am looking at you!) only to be utterly frustrated when we get to their business center and be told that: “No, we cannot check the details of your billing statement on this window, ma’am, we only accept payments here. You have to get a new priority number to line up for another window.” And when you are finally ready to pay, they tell you that: “Oh, we only accept credit card payments here, ma’am. If you want to pay in cash, you have to go and line up for the machine next door, but the payment will not reflect on our system until two to three working days so your service may still be cut off during this time.” This convergence is not a coming together but a falling apart. Not evolution, but deterioration.

Sure, you can just call. They are a telecommunications company, after all. Once you call, though, you get an automated voice message system that asks you to press all the buttons and follow all instructions coming from that annoying voice with what they think is an American accent. Then you wait and wait for a real person to talk to you while listening to what they think is soothing music. After explaining and arguing for almost an hour, this is the advice you get: “Oh, we cannot do that over the phone or online, ma’am, you have to physically go to the business center.” And they have the audacity to claim that they are “the good choice” (yes, I’m talking about you, Sun Cellular) when in reality you have no choice. At all.

Speaking of choices, when you need to fly somewhere in this country, you only have two — Philippine Airlines or Cebu Pacific. It’s like a choice between being delayed or being cancelled. Oh, there are those rare moments when they make a big splash of announcing that you landed ahead of schedule! No, we don’t want you early either. Because we made plans around the arrival time you said on our ticket. We don’t want to wait for our airport pickup or burden our hosts.  We just want you to be on time. We just want you to do what you said you would do. We don’t want surprises from our airlines. Unless it’s a free upgrade to first class. But then again, what good is an upgrade if you still wait a long time? Isn’t that the point of flying to your destination to arrive faster? And please don’t get me started about trying to rebook a flight. So when I flew with an international airline of another country during my recent trip and got excellent customer service from their Filipino staff, I could not resist making this remark: “Oh my goodness, so it’s possible to get great service from a Filipino in the Philippines but only if it’s owned and operated by a foreign company!” How sad.

And what’s up with the retail industry asking for, instead of giving, change from their customers? “Do you have three pesos, ma’am?” If you had the exact change, wouldn’t you have just given that in the first place? And you do know that the question “Is it OK if the change is less than one peso?” is a rhetorical one, right? That you just have to be OK with it. And you need to be OK with waiting for the annoying process of having one clerk check your three small items and another to put a stamp on the price of each item and yet another check all the items on the receipt and then another bag the items. And when you change your mind about getting an item, they tell you, “Sorry, ma’am, I’ve already punched it in the cash register” like it’s an irreversible phenomenon.  Then as you exit the store, yet another clerk checks your items and receipt.

No wonder you get culture shock when you go to another country and they let you check out all the items yourself, pay in cash or card, and bag all of them or just carry them out without a bag. No one at the exit checking your receipt or your bag. How do they do that? Why do they trust you knowing you are Filipino? Because in your own country, they assume you will cheat or steal. They ask for two valid IDs if you pay through credit card in the Philippines. Abroad, the cashier does not even take your credit card. You just swipe it through the machine yourself and sign electronically. In some cases, you are not even asked to sign anything. Swiping your card is enough. But in your own country where your bank is based, they ask you to check your balance first before swiping your debit card under the ridiculous pretense that the machine might be offline.

I remember reading an article a while back on BusinessWorld that reported that Filipinos are the most forgiving, among Southeast Asians, of bad customer service. This conclusion was drawn from an online survey by a Singaporean firm. It means that Filipinos are not as inclined as our Southeast Asian neighbors to ditch a product or service due to poor customer service.

I wonder if it has something to do with us being a predominantly Catholic country, where suffering is considered a blessing, in disguise or not.  But then again, how can we be known for our hospitality yet give bad customer service?

I think it is because most customer service people in Philippine companies are not empowered to intervene and provide a solution to problems. They are there only to receive complaints, trained only to handle problematic customers but not to resolve problems themselves. The customer gets handled or managed rather than actually served.

Another sad commentary about Philippine society and culture where having choices is actually an illusion. When only an elite few control the government, business, and media, there is no real service nor real choice. The citizens and consumers are not truly empowered. They are merely placated and entertained. Cue soothing music.

First appeared on Mindanao Times, November 13, 2014