Unicorns, leprechauns, and excellent customer service: 3 things you probably won’t find in Spain

March 20, 2017

by Klara Nordström

“Thank you ma’am for being so patient with me, give me just one more moment please”.

For the sixth time in less than a month I am on the phone with Orange, trying to get out of paying a 150 euro fee I was informed should be half as much.

The man on the other end of the line speaks from a script in a robot-like voice, insists on calling me “ma’am”, and takes his sweet time while I’m paying something around 45 cents a minute to be assisted in English. 

After insisting that the fee is “unacceptable!” for about half an hour, he informs me that someone will get back to me within three days to discuss my eligibility for a refund.

spanish customer service madrid
Casa Camacho on Calle San Andrés, close to Plaza Dos de Mayo. The service here was actually pretty good.

When I say thanks, he replies “you are very welcome” making it sound like he just did me a huge favour (not like it was his job or anything).

At least he is not calling me a “f***ing annoying client” like I overheard his colleague do a few weeks back. 

Spanish Customer Service: the pain in Spain

But in fact, robot-man seems like a decent guy. He is nowhere near the top of my list of mind-numbingly mediocre Spanish customer service experiences, such as:

  • The gym receptionist, who told me that since I didn’t specify the phone numbers of the four friends I listed for a free try-out the very moment I signed my contract, none of them could now take advantage of that offer. Not even the one standing next to me with a valid ID card, desperately looking for a new gym to join.
  • The bank teller that snickered when I came in on a Wednesday, informing me that I could only pay bills on Tuesdays or Thursdays in the first two weeks of every month and only between 8-10 in the morning.
  • The MAC shop assistant who acidly corrected my Spanish while showing me their selection of foundations and concealers (I’m sorry for butchering the Spanish language by saying “el piel seco” when it is clearly “la piel seca” and incomprehensible otherwise).

Sound familiar? Of course it does.  My friends and I have even coined a term for it: Blatantly ignored by the store clerk for 25 minutes and then borderline insulted when asking for assistance?

My friend, you’ve been spained.

The horror stories are of course many (hint: this is definitely not the first article of its kind), and they more or less all confirm that many Spanish businesses don’t seem to subscribe to basic business logic.

And not only do they not care about your money, they think you are the crazy one.

Who’s the crazy one now?

This is why being spained is so excruciatingly frustrating: there is not even the slightest sympathy to be had. Trying to convince that gym receptionist that letting my friend in to try the facilities would be mutually beneficial was actually impossible (believe me, I tried twice).

She couldn’t be less bothered about signing new clients, and she refused to acknowledge that having phone numbers (written down at a single point in time) as sole identification method was an insane policy to begin with.

In fact, she did nothing to hide the fact that she found me completely ridiculous for insisting, excessive eye roll and all.

I’ll admit that to a certain extent, there is a no-frills casualness to Spanish service that can be pretty fantastic, in all its “ponme una caña!” glory.

And yes, there are places with excellent service too. It’s just… they are so rare. The theories as to why this is the case usually revolve around variations of in “Spain you work to live, not live to work”, which, in all fairness, is probably what makes most of us spend years and decades in this country to begin with.

Some are lamenting the loss of Spanishness in the city. Others, waiting for things to change. Looks like we still can’t have it all, folks.

So, while we pray for the customer service revolution to reach Spain (and do our part to speed up the process one Yelp review at a time), let’s let it all out and rant, shall we? What has been your worst spained experience so far? Let us know in the comments!

Oh, and what about Orange? After two more phone calls (and a sarcastic tweet!), they eventually got back to me, declaring that they would pay me back the money. About a month later, the money actually arrived.

The End.

[Note from Mr Chorizo – Thanks to Klara for writing this article about Spanish customer service. Being completely ignored by waiters is one of those aspects of Spanish life I’ll never understand or get used to. What do you think? Let us know here in the comments… Thanks! And for much much more, check out Cultural Differences between Spain and the US or my own article about adventures with customer service in Madrid.]

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About the Author Klara Nordström

Accidental madrileña since 2012, I believe in feminism, the internet and aircon. Oh, and also ABBA.

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  1. I was in a carrefour once, saw a queue of over 30 people waiting for just two checkouts (with rather unmotivated operators I might add).

    I walked around until I found an employee which wasnt hard as there was about 4 stood in a group talking in a middle isle.. I asked them if it was possible to speak to a manager… one of them in the group asked me why amd I stupidly told him that it was because there were only two cashiers and I was wondering if there was a possibility of having some more to serve the huge queue that had built up to around 35 people now.

    Firstly he told there was checkout people and floor people and that noone else in the building would be able to take a checkout to help the queue. And secondly he told me that there was no manager on shift….. at all…

    I quieried this while quite puzzled repeating “so you are telling me there is nobody here… like absolutely nobody here managing this building?” “Nope he said multiple times smugly. Suffice to say it took over 45 mins to be served and I vowed not to go back. (I later realised that if there was no manager, who the hell was cashing the tills and sorting the money)

    I made a complaint online… then a second…. the second complaint included the part about my first complaint being ignored… the second complaint must have gone to an undermanned email inbox somewhere as well. One that they just delete occasionaly when it takes up too much harddrive spaces.

    I have spent easily over €2k with their competitors since that day… and I have never been back to carrefour. So I guess only they lose out, not me. Mercadona is cheaper anyway and in the one near me I get served in a reasonable length of time by comparison

    So I got spained harder than a guiri in la oficina de extranjeria..

    On that note, have you been there yet? What a delightful wild goose chase you will be sent on… like an easter egg hunt.. only the easter eggs you seek are actually rather angry(and lazy), spanish civil servants Who later reluctantly offer cryptic clues as to which randomly choosen government office you can visit next. All so they they can avoid doing their job for another day… its enough to make a Brit like me cry into his PG tips.

    TL;DR A brit suffers a queue, goes sightseeing the inside of government waiting rooms and ruins a perfectly good cup of tea.

    1. “So I got spained harder than a guiri in la oficina de extranjeria.”

      Haha! I didn’t realize people from inside the EU were having the same issues as we Americans do.

      I lived a few years in Belgium and Germany, so I was thoroughly trained to deal with poor customer service. My level of patience would make a Buddhist (like Daniel) envious!

      However, dealing with the government has been a different story. All governments are ridiculously slow and bureaucratic, but Spain is in it’s own league (as far as I’m concerned).

      German and Belgian civil servants offer that all too familiar look of disgust, like they are doing you a favor, every time you work with them, but they tend to get things done, and in an efficient manner. They will shame you with their grimaces, but they do their jobs and stuff gets done (unless you’re a french-speaker in a flemish commune, or anything but a french-speaker in a french commune, in Belgium).

      My experience in Spain with legal paperwork is akin to pulling teeth from a severely agitated shark. And after being told different wrong information by different people and being met with, “tranquilo, no pasa nada” even though my paperwork expires in one week, and they’ve had my submission for 3 months, you get to a point where you want to explode.

      It does give me solace to see others in the same position as me: trying to stay in Spain, despite the pain. Sometimes I feel like I’m in an abusive relationship, Spain beats me and treats me poorly, but I keep begging to stay. It must be something in the water 😉

      1. Thanks for commenting, Timothy! I’ve been here forever, so I can’t really compare Spanish bureaucracy with anything else. But nobody who I talk to seems too happy about it. Have a great day 🙂

    2. SAME HORRIBLE CUSTOMER EXPERIENCE I received from CARREFOUR SESTAO. I bought 30 items such as socks, fish, meat ( chicken pork and beef)
      I put the pastries inside the transparent plastic bag because it´s case is not sturdy it will surely open while inside my shopping bag , I also put the fabric conditioner inside the plastic transparent bag provided by carrefour. The cashier in Carrefour Sestao ( June 18) SCOLDED me and HUMILIATED me and SHOUTED at me saying I should be ashamed using plastic in every item when infact out of my 30 items I only put plastic to 4 items ( 2pastries and fruits and vegetable). This is the same customer service employee that sometimes in working as cashier. My Family had the same issue with her ( that same Spanish Carrefour sestao emplyoyee) , my husband last April has been humiliated also by the same creature but he has no time to file a complain. It is so difficult to talk to the right person or the manager , as you said they MAKE EXCUSES LIKE NO MANAGER ON DUTY OR THE MANAGER IS IN THE MEETING. Tonight I am lucky to finally talk to the manager but unfortunately it sounds like she is a friend of that creature ( in my opinion, I refuse to clasify her as human) I said that I have been complaining against the same creature but she´s still the same or worst maybe I should call a police next time. The manager said we are adults already we can do what ever we want in my understanding it´s a sarcasm. CARREFOUR, IF THIS COMPLAINT DOESN´T REACH YOU , OR IF YOUR EMPLOYEE PREVENTS COMPLAIN FROM REACHING THE RIGHT PERSON, MAYBE TIME WILL COME THAT YOU WILL LOOSE YOU CLIENTS.

  2. Yep, I sometimes experience a bit of the “reverse cultural shock” you mentioned in one of your previous posts when back in Madrid for a break (I’m a Madrileño migrant in the UK) and confronted with suchlike attitudes. Not only have I got to suffer the occasional comment about service in Spain being excruciatingly poor (not to mention bureaucracy) coming from Brits but also (one gets used to decent service quite easily) I have to endure it when in Madrid.

    I guess that an historical situation of stagnation in a country where small, well established, subject-to-little-or-none-competition retailers were the majority is partly to blame. Spanish economy has been historically riddled with monopolies in key sectors, and the monopolist mindset has had a knock-on effect down into the retail sector. Businessmen (and shop keepers, for the case) just can’t see the importance of providing careful, dedicated customer service because they haven’t had the necessity to compete until recently. On the other side of the formula, we have a relatively recent (and currently shrinking) middle class which is still in the process of internalising their entitlements as consumers. This could explain the fact that overall, Spaniards are rarely critical or demanding when faced with poor service (39 years of political, unquestionable obedience might have also had a part in shaping this collective mindset). The issue of ever-secured civil servant positions would make for a complete chapter…

    Looking on the bright side, this can only change for the better.

    So one of the tasks I give myself every time I’m back home is trying to be a bit of a (polite) nightmare to people dealing with customers and failing to provide a decent service. I make sure they don’t get away without a bit of a rant and an explicit statement that I’ll never shop there again (the louder the more people there are in the place at that moment)

    Saludos.

  3. What you said in the post is all true, but know what? Let’s go to an ex-soviet country, you will see what a poor service you got. I used to think (when I still lived in Spain) it was the worst one. Yeah. Until I came to Latvia. Yeah. 40 minutes waiting for your beer in a restaurant. Yeah. Totally normal. The food? Oh, buddy, if you ask for a salad you must consider first they have to plant it, let it grow, collect it, prepare it… so if you are lucky, after one hour and a half, maybe you have it on the table. I know what I’m talking about…

    We have come to accept than when a bunch of friends go to a restaurant together we won’t actually eat together. When someone is finishing his food, another dish is coming.

    About bureaucracy? I think is the same everywhere. Total chaos. Nobody knows anything. I tried to register myself in the apartment I was living in but my application was rejected who knows why. I tried three times. Nothing worked. Two years after I moved to another apartment I got an email from the Registration Office to inform me that the owner of that apartment was requesting my “unregistration” from his property. Where I never was officially registered. Brilliant XD

    I think is just the Human kind nature. Let’s have some laughs at it.

    Elena

    1. The difference is Latvia is not the 2nd most visited country in the world. We should aim towards excellence and take lessons from those countries that are way ahead of Spain regarding customer service (Japan, Korea, US, Canada…), rather than being complacent. You don’t tell the Norwegian oil ministry: hey, don’t worry about anything guys: In Spain we have no oil!

      Sometimes bad customer service seems like a weird PR guerrilla campaign to attract customers. In Barcelona I knew a few unfriendly and slow places with excellent food. This is romanticized by locals and foreigners alike. Some “expats” (ew this word!) tend to feel unique cause they found this “really local places” (?) where the waitress speaks no English, the chef shouts a lot, the tables are dirty and the food is amazing. And they would think it’s some kind of enriching multicultural journey….

      I hate this! I think it shows laziness, a complete lack of business ambition and professionalism regardless of how good or bad the food is. Those places “only locals know”… Ughh… Please, please, don’t feed that narrative. Do whatever you do with your money, but don’t encourage bad business practices or we will get more of that. As a Spaniard, I think foreigners are our only hope here. At some point you will face the “if you don’t like it, go back to your country” but don’t worry, just leave and go to other business, maybe owned by a Latinamerican immigrant who doesn’t take your money for granted. Have no mercy for us!!!

    2. I agree with Eli , once I won a lawsuit against Spanish who shouter at threw stones to me and my 2 kids saying ¨ve te a tu puta pais¨
      in my humble opinion, RACIST ARE PEOPLE WITHOUT MONEY AND EDUCATION. People without money can not travel and see the outside world or doesn´t have any idea that other country even exist !
      According the site that a professor in North of Spain showed me , big portion of the ratio of employment shows that ¨ENCHUFADO ¨ are employed by ¨PADRINO¨ those who got backed up got work even without college diploma , sometimes those with diploma but without padrino can´t even find a decent job.

  4. By the way! You want an excellent customer service in a phone company? Try Pepephone. Since I have my Spanish mobile service with them I can’t be happier. Everything is so easy! Even with just an email you can solved your issues!

    You should try out!

    Elena.

  5. I’ve lived in Madrid for more than 2 years. We have stopped going out to dinner because the service is horrible, the food isn’t good and the prices are too high. I’ve actually had waiters/waitresses take my food order and then QUICKLY walk away without taking my husband’s order. Sorry, but I see nothing more than lazy people who really aren’t too smart.

    I watch them run around doing busy work, not taking care of customers and actually intentionally looking away/at the floor to avoid a customer’s request for service.

    I have a friend who went with a group to a restaurant and the group wanted to get a plate to share, but one had an allergy. They requested one item on the side so that everyone else could add it to their plate. The CHEF came out of the kitchen and said that he refused to prepare such an item because it was tacky and he didn’t want his other clients seeing such a thing coming from his kitchen. Not only was this a bit shocking but he stayed at the table for more than 25 minutes berating loudly his customers and making a scene in his restaurant! My friend was ready to crawl under the table in embarrassment.

    In general, I find many Spanish to be narrow-minded and unable to fathom that the world exists beyond their borders. I’m saving money for when I do return to the US where our wait staff run rings around them – with a smile and actual hospitality.

    1. As a customer in Madrid and Bilbao , I always experience humiliation from cashiers , snob by grocery employees , yellings from waitress or waiters.
      I am shock how employees YELL to their boss and HOW THEY CALL THE LAWYERS / DOCTORS BY NAME and talk to them like their SUBORDINATE !
      Customer service? they feel like they are giving the client a F*cking favour !

  6. Can confirm the above, it is indeed 2022 and absolutely nothing has changed. The eye rolls you get when asking for assistance, assistance in fixing a problem created by Spanish ineptitude, is omnipresent. I think the comment about historical zombie compliance to a past dictator is spot on, the prisoner mentality still present in Spain turns people into resentful service people. And the younger service generation is making it worse because they don’t care any more after the pandemic stripped them of any hope for the world. Society does have a way of resolving these things however, and that’s by rewarding countries that do uphold values we can all agree make this world a better place.

  7. The experience in Spain really stunned me by its worst customer service ever had in my life. When I stepped into Sephora to look for a product, no one comes to attend you until I asked one idle shop attendant by myself. When I showed the picture and she just said “no, we don’t have this brand.” And went away. But I saw that brand on the shelf but just not that specific product I need so I think they may have it just not showing it on shelf. So I have to catch her again and ask her again that you do have the brand. She then became very impatient and told me “yes we have the brand but not the line you want.” —- this is incredible in other countries where the shop assistant will normally introduce you another product that may be similar to what you look for. But they just ignore the customer needs. Another example is that when I entered a restaurant and I will wait at the door so that someone will assign a seat for me but they just ignore me for at least 5 minutes without asking when they pass in and out. And when I come to ask someone he just seems to be surprised and seems to ask me “what do you want?”
    In general, the customer service in Spain is very bad and it seems that the customers owes the service providers a huge debt that they just treat you as coldly as they can. 😖😖

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