Living On

Armen is heavily missed. His absence left a hole in independent observation of the political and economic risk situation in Latin America. Beyond the merely analytical though his work was wide-ranging from Armenian philanthropy and social observation of Latin and European lifestyles through to being a "fly on the wall" at the Cannes Film Festival every year and reporting back on the more exotic foibles of the international jet-set.

We miss his wit, his sense of history and his bon mots (in French, Armenian and, even, Turkish). Armen was very much a product of the Levant but then, like so many other Levantines, converted to an international stage where they offer insight into all around them. This record tries to humbly accumulate his collected writings for public consumption so they can be preserved and appreciated for the urgency of the moment in which they were written to the timelessness of the observations.

How best to categorise the uncategorisable? Maybe Armen could be described as an Armenian/Anglo/Franco Samuel Pepys for our times.....

It is ironic that ultimately it was the very mediocrity and self-satisfaction of the Chilean "system", which he documented so thoroughly, that brought about his tragic end.

Friday, February 27, 2004

QUALITY OF SERVICE IN CHILE - The Role of Foreign Companies

Over the past three weeks, a debate about the quality (or lack thereof) of service provided by Chilean corporations has taken a substantial amount of
space in the letters section of El Mercurio ("the only newspaper which
matters in Chile"). The debate was sparked by a February 6 letter from a
foreign lawyer resident in the country, and attracted many responses,
nearly all of them in agreement. For once, though it is a subject that
readers know is close to my heart, I have hitherto played the role of
bemused observer. It is time to enter the fray.

THE LETTER To put the subject into perspective, here is my translation of
the February 6 letter signed by Felipe Velasquez Fernandez, describing
himself as a "Corporate consulting Lawyer". I apologise for those resident
in Chile who have already read it.


I am a foreigner who has been living in Chile for over a year. Following
various months of actively visiting shops, cinemas, restaurants and
department stores, I have arrived at the conclusion that what I initially
thought was the exception is unfortunately the rule : we are talking about
the dismal quality of customer service in Santiago.

Whether it is a clothes chop, a bookshop, a department store chain, an ice
cream parlour or a restaurant : for the service staff, the entrance of a
client in their establishment looks more like a declaration of war than an
attempt at buying or selling.. Sales staff look aggrieved when an
impertinent intruder comes in to interrupt their calm. Without
exaggerating, I can say that only in a very few shops, in the time I have
been here, those who worked there took the trouble to answer my greetings.
The "good morning" or "good afternoon" are not acknowledged by those
supposedly there to serve the customer. Some react by a sort of angry
grunt. Others simply prefer not to strain their vocal chords answering
those they do not know.

It looks as if sales staff assume that they are doing the customer a favour
by serving him. They think their business grows by inertia, and not through
satisfied customers . Mistreating customers is alarming in this city. It
looks as if many of those people come to work as if to a torture camp.
Their boredom is visible on their faces, and in their general attitude.

Chile is admirable in many ways. Its economic development is fantastic. But
the real business of the future is for those companies who come to Chile
and teach what is customer service. In that, this beautiful country is in
deficit. "

POINTS RAISED AND NOT RAISED IN THE LETTER On the basis of my own widely
commented analysis, observations and experiences, and the public reactions
to the letter in the paper, there are several points to note. There is
neither character or culture of service in Chile. The staff interfacing
with the public poorly trained, poorly paid, poorly treated, poorly
motivated and kept uninformed of corporate matters. Contrary to what the
writer says, customer satisfaction is not the motor of corporate growth,
but greed, secret charges and illegal usury interest rates which both the
Central Bank and the Ministry of Finance refuse to punish.

It is also strange that Mr. Velasquez does not mention the appalling levels
of customer service by banks and utilities. I would suspect that he has
many minions who take care of his formalities for him, and he lives in some
sort of serviced apartment where he does not need to worry about paying
bills. Some readers of El Mercurio have suggested that he is probably
Spanish, which appears very likely.

If he is Spanish, he should think twice before throwing the first stone, as
we should remember that the largest chunk of banking, electricity, water,
telecommunications and toll roads is in the hands of Spanish firms. We are
talking (just citing my own recent experiences in February) about Banco
Santander sending you a letter profusely advising you of the new increased
limit on your credit card, but forgetting to advise of it the authorisation
agency, which means that your wife gets her expense refused in the middle
of Argentine Patagonia. We are talking (again) of Telefonica, who managed
to unilaterally change our main phone line to a card-operated one "because
a girl in Santiago put in the wrong area code", and then refusing to talk
to me at their main Viña office ("you have to handle all business on the

FOREIGN EXAMPLES Just being a foreign company does not guarantee good
service. Similarly, some purely Chilean owned corporations (such as Lan
Chile) can provide good service if they put their minds to it. Shops and
department stores may indeed serve you as Mr. Velasquez says, but
supermarket groups, all Chilean owned, as well as the same-ownership
do-it-yourself stores, are rather good. There is also a part of Chile which
works rather well : the government. Procedures and service at most
government offices (identity papers, tax matters, judicial procedures) have
been speeded up beyond recognition, and the staff are more helpful than in
the private sector.

Anyway, if you do not provide good service at home (as is the case of
Spanish companies), there is no reason why you should do so in your foreign
holdings. If you run the place from a regional office in Miami staffed by
Cubans more interested in getting their former homeland back to the dark
ages of Batista rather than answer your complaints, it is not going to work
either. If you pass-on your operation to a franchise, or in any case run it
with Chilean staff trained the Chilean way (a 2 week training seminar in
Milwaukee is not going to deprogram them from three generations of genetic
exploitation of the customer), do not expect miracles. Let us not limit the
criticism to the Spaniards (though they have a huge can to carry). Let us
mention the (now departed) British company who provided us with water
services in Viña after the company was 2privatised". An absentee Chilean
manager in Santiago and a new regional executive changing each three months
and sitting in the English countryside did not help. The Dutch-owned ING
group whose offices in Viña and Valparaiso never have any of the forms
required to pay-in the pension contributions of your maid ("head office
does not send us any"). Italian-owned ENTEL has a fully staffed office at
the airport. but neither it nor the three newspaper stands in various parts
of the building ever stock any prepayment cards for mobile phones ("head
office does not send us any").

I agree with Mr Velasquez. There is a need for foreign expertise in
customer service, but it is an uphill struggle against a counter-culture,
and you have to have the expertise in the first case. We Levantines come
from a part of the world where personal service is an art, but bad
behaviour is very frowned upon and has to be washed in blood. It is not for
nothing that the Hamurrabi code comes from these parts. Full marks for the
grieving father and husband from the Urals, who apparently did-in the
Danish air traffic controller working for a private company in Switzerland
in July 2002, whose mistake caused the crash of an airliner full of
children going on holiday. You cannot wait eternally for judges, who
finally end-up white washing the culprits of many deaths (such as the fire
in the Alps tunnel), or who put journalists and other whistle-blowers in
jail for revealing that public figures took part in raping and murdering
eight-year old girls...