Adventures with Customer Service in Madrid

July 11, 2017

The other day I went to the doctor’s office.

Really, I just want to see if my private insurance will get me into the clinic.

And less than a minute later, I’m whisked into a little room where an emaciated 72-year-old man sits behind a desk.

Doctor García.

Who just stares at me.

No buenas tardes, no nothing.

I tell him what I’m there for – just a blood test to make sure everything’s working well on the inside. I tell him I’m generally healthy, despite the inexorable march towards impotence and death that is the fate of any man in his 30s.

He silently reaches for a notepad and writes a long, indecipherable paragraph in tiny block caps.

The writing takes several minutes.

Silence the whole time.

Then he says, “Come back tomorrow, fasted, any time from 8 to 11.”

And I’m done.

No hasta luego, no nothing.

I guess I should say that I might have this effect on people because they see my blue eyes and red beard and immediately assume they’re going to have to speak English with me.

I’ve been speaking Spanish on the daily for more than a decade… but they don’t know that.

And maybe the terror of having to confront their life-long failure to learn more than 200 words of a foreign language makes them freeze up and go silent.

Or maybe they’re just not too friendly with strangers.

customer service in Madrid, Spain
These girls aren’t Spanish and (probably) don’t work in customer service. But I had to use some sort of photo here. This is Calle de Santiago, Madrid.

More adventures with customer service in Madrid, this time inside a couple of our fine financial institutions…

Adventures with customer service in Madrid – at the bank…

Banco Santander spent half the spring remodelling its office down the street.

It was closed for a while, and I hadn’t really needed to go in anyway.

When I finally did, I found that the customer service area had been replaced by a waiting room with a coffee machine and those hard modern couches in geometric shapes… totally uncomfortable.

But totally modern.

At the door, there’s an iPad where you have to enter your name, National ID and reason for visit in order to get a number.

And there’s an old woman who’s obviously never used an iPad before struggling to get through the whole thing.

They’ve gotten rid of standing in line at the window, and instead we’re standing in line at an iPad. And grandma is having trouble with the Enter key.

I help her out. She gets her number and I get mine.

I sit on the hard geometrical couch for a few minutes until it becomes obvious there’s nobody actually working anywhere in the branch office.

They’ve just done a clever job of hiding tellers in cubicles, where they do nothing – and make the customers talk to the iPad about it.

So I get up and go to another bank.

And at the other bank…

My account at La Caixa is basically dead.

But I just need to pay the fees for my visa renewal, so it’s no biggie.

The reason why I opened the account at La Caixa is that back in the day they were the only bank that’d work with my 9-digit passport number.

Other banks had refused.

Eight digits or no deal.

Still, the woman who opened my account had to call her manager to figure out what to do with my single last name. Spanish people have two. I have one.

Correct answer: just put a period or an asterisk or the letter x in the second last name field on the computer.

Computer’s happy, everyone’s happy.

(This is a big enough problem that I’ve been interviewed by El País about it.)

Anyway, the reason I’d stopped using La Caixa is because I moved out of that neighborhood. But every time I tried to go to a branch office near my new house, they told me to go to “my office”.

La Caixa has been voted “best bank in Spain“. But apparently they’re working under the assumption that it’s still the 1940s and people spend their whole lives living on the same street. When they get married, they buy the flat next door to mom’s house, so they can go over for paella every Sunday.

So logically, they know the fishmonger’s grandchildren, they’ve been hanging out at the same corner bar every afternoon for 35 years… and they have no problem with a national bank refusing to serve them in any but one of their 5,251 offices.

Today at La Caixa, there’s a big guy in a suit at the door. He takes my ID an tells me I should go to my office on the other side of town.

I insist. I tell him that I haven’t been to that neighborhood in 7 years, and that if they’re truly the best bank in Spain they should be able to deal with the fact that Spain has more than one neighborhood.

So he passes me to a frail woman who fails for 20 minutes to do what could be done in one – if the computer were working.

Then she sends me on my way. “Come back in 8 to 10 days”, she says. “The system should be working by then.”

Oh well.

Banco Sabadell always works. You just have to stand in line behind all the old people.

En fin… is customer service in Madrid all bad?

Not always.

I should mention that Spanish people are usually thoroughly decent once they get to know you.

My butcher and baker know me by name. My fishmonger asks me about Trump’s latest crisis as he guts my sardines. The girl who makes my coffee in the mornings got ridiculously friendly after I’d come by about 5 days in a row.

My constantly-breaking flat has been visited by a long line of polite and highly competent repairmen, and I’ve even had friendly treatment at Aluche.

But still… Customer service can be kind of annoying sometimes. Just check out Klara’s article for more about that: You’ve been Spained.


Mr Chorizo.

P.S. What do you think? Am I wrong about customer service in Madrid? Am I an entitled asshole for thinking people should acknowledge my basic humanity if I’m giving them money? Are you a Vice President at a Spanish bank who wants to apologize for all the problems I’ve had? Either way, hit me up, right here in the comments…

P.P.S. Here are some more observations about Spanish culture, if you’re into that kind of thing. And here’s a bit about cultural differences between Spain and the US. Have fun!

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About the Author Daniel

How did I end up in Spain? Why am I still here almost 20 years later? Excellent questions. With no good answer... Anyway, at some point I became a blogger, bestselling author and contributor to Lonely Planet. So there's that. Drop me a line, I'm happy to hear from you.

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  1. Daniel, ya sabes que naci en España y por tanto conozco las costumbres. But just because I know the way Spaniards work does in no way mean I understand and much less that I am sympathetic with their ways. Yo are a bigger man than I am, I don’t think I have told you, but when my parents retired and went back to live in Spain, in 1985 I was still single and living by myself in the house they left me in Harrisonburg, VA. I decided to go live with them in Spain because my life here was not what you would call a shining example of good living. But I met my first wife just before I left and she had studies Spanish in College and gone to Spain for some months and had fallen in love with it. To make a long story short, I’ll tell you that I came back so we could get married and we moved to Spain in 1986. After 7 years I was desperate to come back home, I could no longer take the lifestyle and the ways in Spain.I do visit practically every year because I love it for short periods, but even though I have thought of doing what my parents did and go back to stay, I don’t think I could do it and that is why I thing you are a bigger and better man than I am. I ACTUALLY DO ENVY YOU because deep down, I honest to goodness do love Spain

  2. Hey Daniel,

    I agree that customer service is light years from other places, especially the US (which often times borders on false and insincere). However, choosing the banks is like cherry picking the worst of the worst. I try to do all my banking online just to avoid having to enter the bank branch an put up with those pseudo funcionarios. With the crisis and the current bank consolidation, hopefully customer service will be a priority for banks since it as area that can offer excellent returns as far as winning and keeping customers.

    My experience with private medicine has been excellent and haven’t experienced what you have but it’s nowhere near they type of service offered in other countries where the customer is “king”. Like you mention, if you shop in neighborhood stores you have an excellent opportunity to make relationships with the shopkeepers and receive a personalized service just like in the 1940’s!

    The customer service experience is improving, in general, but still has a long way to go.

    1. Thanks for commenting Lucia, that’s a really interesting article. It became clear to me years ago that what expectations about “niceness” are more cultural than universal…

    2. Lucia, I loved the article and I agree with what it says. Thanks a million for the link. Please forgive me for my curiosity, but if you don’t mind, are you Spanish like I am? if you are, I notice your English is impeccable, are you living or have you lived in an English speaking country or have you studied to the point of learning it as if you had lived in the aforementioned place? I am 74, have lived in America for 60 years and I am incurably curious. Once again I ask your forgiveness if the questions are inappropriate.

  3. I cannot laugh more reading your article :D. I am Madrilian born and bred and I totally agree with every single line you wrote. Customer service is a different set of people and it looks like the only way to get things done is threading them (not with body harm, although sometimes you really imagine it in cartoon fashion).
    Nevertheless, it is really important to get a friend or a person of trust (manitas de confianza, pescadero de confianza…) that solves your problem really fast and already knows you and what you want. And for that being nice and smiling always help…a little.
    We, Spanish are social people and a friendly approach…but if it does not work shouting (without biting) also does the trick 😉

    1. As I said to Lucia, Your English is impressive. I have family and friends living in Madrid and I would love to meet you and Daniel and any others living there, the next time I visit Spain which God willing should be next year, If none of you mind

  4. Do you live in San Lorenzo or did other branches do the exact same ridiculous thing at the exact same time?

    Excellent piece! I’m signing up for more.

  5. Great article! I have 2 customer service gems that I’d like to share and help me to remember that I’m (probably) not the asshole- the surly waiter in a Cava Baja bar, that we always used to frequent as the food was decent and well priced and we couldn’t be bothered to seek out an alternative, despite usually being simultaneously scowled at or ignored by him, no matter how often we went. Well, we finally stopped gracing them with our guirri custom when he dropped a knife onto my lap and refused to acknowledge or apologize for the blatant attempt to finish me off, once and for all! Also high on my list is the well known cheap clothing chain that I’ve only seen in Spain that are named as the opposite of ‘Righties’ (ahem…);and their insistence that I return a faulty pair of boots to the branch I bought them in (what if that was in Barcelona, I wondered, would they refund my AVE ticket??). Aaah, Spain! Anyway, good job with the article!The struggle is real…

  6. Hey Daniel,

    Great article and stories. I’m a Spaniard back to the ‘fatherland?’ after 11 years in ‘Europe’ (Finland and the UK). I resonate with all you say and I have myself put some time to think about this stuff.

    I concluded that Spaniards are medieval people in the midst of a global economy. Your iPad story illustrates this perfectly: the latest technology and business practices are quickly imported and incorporated, but they are not able to modify the cultures’ ancient ways.
    You may agree most of Spanish corporate websites are utterly useless: the info is wrong, the javascript is a shambles and links are 404ing like it’s 1999. And this is because the companies know that people will go to the branch anyway so what is the point of updating the website.

    Nothing responds to business logic, bank managers think having a shiny and modern branch is a priority over efficiency and effectiveness. Nothing gets measured, it feels contra naturam. Employees are not expected to perform efficiently, they are simply expected to obey to any of their bosses’ preposterous and emotion-driven idea.

    That is why I find borderia is limited to work-life/services/economy. I discussed this with an American friend and he told me I was trying to import liberal protestantism into a catholic (medieval) country. My question is, is it possible to keep the warmth and friendliness of Spaniards and at the same time have an economy that works efficiently?

  7. Hi Daniel, I have pretty much 0 experience with customer service in Spain but it sounds a lot like France. I have loads of what I call “Welcome to France” customer service stories that would make a wide-eyed, bushy-tailed North American shake her head in disbelief. The customer is always wrong. It used to frustrate me but now I just laugh!

  8. I’m a Spaniard who has been living abroad for over 6 years. I come back home every 2 years and every time, as soon as I land, I suffer reverse culture shock when I face customer service. At first, I would think it’s simply horrible but -as you describe- you sometimes find very friendly people too. So how is this possible?

    After much thinking, I came to the conclusion this is caused by four factors:

    1. In Spain, we don’t have standards for customer service. It’s not regarded as a professional area which needs to have business standards. It’s the amateur world. And like amateur rock or theatre, it’s quite random. You may experience the best and the worst performances in one afternoon.

    2. Compared to other economies, pymes (SMEs) are king in Spain, specially micropymes where the boss doesn’t feel he/she needs to put up with bs.

    3. People don’t make a distinction between work and life. Therefore they show their personality at work. If your cashier is miserable she is gonna show it to you. And if your butcher is a happy and talkative guy, he is gonna try to be your friend from day 1, even if you just buy the cheapest chorizo every time. I know many foreigners find this lack of boundaries kind of exotic, but they are burdensome after a while.

    4. People working in service usually feel they are too good for what they do. They have degrees, languages… But instead of showing they are overqualified by overperforming at work, they show it making you feel like an idiot for making them fold jeans in Zara. “How do you dare to waste my time making me work for you!? I have a degree in Anthropology and speak fluent Portuguese!”.

    I often hear so many discussions about R&D, start-ups and so on, which is important… But nobody mentions Spanish needs to have a modern customer care with corporate practices. We tend to idealize micropymes… They are great as a starting point but having millions of small companies that aim for nothing more than surviving.

  9. I actually think your stories are on the mild side. I now do all my banking online so I can completely avoid having to face dealing with non-customer service at the banks.
    My theory is that in Spain on a personal level people are wonderful: warm, fun, easy to get to know, excellent friends and amazing people. But when they are at work they just want to go on their next coffee break or get home, they don’t really want to talk to the person across the counter who has a question.

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