A few of my girlfriends from New York came to visit me the other weekend and I couldn´t have been more excited.  After chatting a mile a minute as we caught up on everyone´s gossip over wine and cheese at their hotel, I realized I needed to give them a really important tip for their time in the Southern Hemisphere: ¨nothing you will do here is quick – NOTHING.¨  They didn´t know what I meant but were quickly about to find out.

Besides visiting some touristy things around the city after a long and relaxing lunch at my favorite Puerto Madero eatery, Central Market, they asked about getting their hair blown out.  I warned them before we even set foot in the salon about the magic rule.  When we arrived at the salon there was a long wait (puzzling when we saw three clients being attended to by five stylists) so we decided to come back.  At 7pm Lauren and I dropped the girls off and went for leisurely coffees and to walk around Galerias Pacifico.  An hour later we went to check on them and there they were, hair dripping wet sitting in swivel chairs.  No big surprise.  They were beginning to understand what I meant.

Customer satisfaction standards don´t seem to exist in Argentina

Reminding myself of the difference in pace while living in Buenos Aires has been good mental therapy to avoid going crazy in places like the supermarket.  I’ve learned never go to a supermarket in a rush or super hungry in Buenos Aires or else I might have a minor heart attack from sheer frustration.  The thing that gets me is that people don´t move with any sort of urgency in so many different places of service, and everyone around me seems to put up with it.  I have analyzed why the checkout at a supermarket takes an eternity and here´s what I came up with:

Firstly, there will be a grocery store packed with people buying things and only three people working the checkouts, one of which is a reserved fast lane for old people, and another for 10 items or less.  Let´s just say they don´t take this rule lightly.  I was once sent to the back of the line with everyone scowling at me when they discovered I had 13 items.  Secondly, people go on huge grocery binges here since they get their paychecks once a month and everything is so cash-centric, so you can expect to be waiting to pay behind someone buying hundreds of items.  Next, the amount of time wasted by the checkout person asking for exact change (a constant problem here) and then the client searching for it is mind-boggling.  Then, if you happen to pay with a 100 peso bill they stand there inspecting it, holding it up to the light, scratching it – another minute wasted at this because of counterfeit problems.  Afterwards, the same person then bags your groceries, but usually stops to chat, ask a coworker for more change, or I’m not really sure what they just don’t seem in any sort of rush to get you out of there.  Another few minutes at this, everyone moving at a glacial pace.  If I was in New York people would have started shouting by the exact change asking part, no one would stand for it.

What I have come to realize is that Argentina is just not much of a customer satisfaction/customer-is-always-right kind of place.  In fact, I am hard-pressed to find any country that is on the same kind of standards as the U.S. in that respect.  But people also don´t seem to demand a higher standard of service, probably because it´s all they know.  I can´t help but think that they could benefit from changing these habits and expecting more.   People here have a level of patience I find both impressive but also something that prevents the country from moving forward because they put up with such disorganized and inefficient systems.

For example, I visited a cyber cafe the other day to use the internet and saw a gigantic line when I arrived.  Then I looked up and realized why.  Everyone in the line was waiting to use a service here called RapiPago.  ¨Pay fast,¨ it means, except that there is nothing fast about it.  These are located all over the place, in pharmacies, paper supplies stores, and I even saw one on the beach in Mar del Plata.  I have yet to pass one that didn´t have a huge queue.  It´s how everyone here seems to pay their monthly bills, and I wondered why they wouldn´t save themselves the hassle of carrying around huge stacks of cash and waiting in long lines and just pay bills online.  The other day it ocurred to me that it has to do with the fact that people in general don´t have a lot of money in their bank accounts.  It´s quite the standard for employers to pay 80% of a salary into a bank account and the other 20% in cash, sometimes more.    The banking and money situation here is such a pain in the ass that it´s no wonder foreign companies don´t want to invest here, why people who have money keep it offshore, and why people probably don´t spend as much to stimulate the economy.

Another example – if a taxi driver takes a round about route and you try to confront him or doesn´t want to drop you exactly where you want, you can´t really do much because they are not expecting a tip and you can´t use that as a bargaining chip for better service.  A waiter in a restaurant also doesn´t have much motivation to provide good or attentive service either because it´s typical to leave less than a 10% tip.  You cannot run a quick errand or grab a coffee on-the-go here.  People walking the sidewalks almost never seem in a rush to get anywhere.  Even buying clothes can bring me to the point where I, someone who gets a mental high buying new clothes, is tempted to leave them and run for the exit at the mere frustration of the check out process.  Years ago when I worked retail and saw a line forming at the register I moved twice as fast, but no one here seems eager to ring in their sales.  Discounts or sale items don’t really exist and there is no return policy – you buy it you keep it.  While I have been delighted to find items 80% off in a place like Banana Republic back home, you are lucky to find something that is reduced 20 pesos here (roughly US$6).

The process of ordering a drink at a bar or club here just might take you until your next birthday.  After great relief when I finally got the bartender´s attention at a club recently, in a crowd of what felt like 100, I found out I needed to wait on a separate line to pay for the drink first.  I couldn´t get over what a waste of time it was in a place where getting a drink is already so time-consuming.  Wouldn´t they sell more drinks and make more money if they eliminated this system, I wondered?

So I´m frustrated when things don´t go in the Manhattan-speed I am used to.   The problem is, things here don´t even go in Milan speed.  In fact I don´t think the word ¨speed¨ can be used to describe most things in Buenos Aires where a service is provided.  Then I realize this is also one of the reasons why I left New York.  To get away from the hustle and chaos of a city where eight million people are always in a race to be somewhere and every second counts.

*Image:  http://www.kiwipumps.com

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