The other day, I took a friend who was visiting from England to see the pretty mountain villages of Capilera and Bubion, which are geared up for the tourist trade. In Capilera, we ventured into a gift shop that had attractive-looking sandals and a selection of toys outside: the kids’ stuff was displayed on the ground in wicker baskets. My two sons, aged 21 months and three, were captivated by the goods and picked up some wooden guns, toys that rattled and plastic flowers that whirl in the wind. Almost immediately, the proprietor, a miserable looking Spanish lady of about 40, came out and started wagging her finger at us. She grabbed at the plastic flower with a look of utter horror and re-installed it in the correct part of the display. I told my older son to put the wooden gun down but he had clocked the proprietor’s grizzly manner and started handling other toys in a defiant way: who could blame him, really, when they were accessible on the ground and looked so colourful. Up to that point, I had planned to buy the boys a small gift each but quickly decided that I couldn’t possibly give my dinero to misery-guts. We left the shop to escape the visible snarling and the proprietor followed us out, muttering something that sounded unpleasant.
I was surprised at this treatment, which not only lost the proprietor at least 10 Euros worth of sales but also ensured that my family and friends would never ‘darken her door’ again. Plus I’ve already spread the word about what shop to avoid in Capilera.
However, this isn’t an isolated incident: poor customer service is a regular occurrence in Spain. Speaking personally, I’ve had goods scanned through the supermarket checkout at incorrect prices; items from other people’s food and drink bills added to mine; a gas cooker with three rings supplied instead of the paid-for unit with four rings (I didn’t realise until after it had been installed); a Vodafone wireless dongle that worked for one month out of the seven or eight billed at 40 Euros each; and a cooker door that broke three months after installation and it has taken four months of contacting the supplier to secure a replacement.
Friends have reported similar problems, including a washing machine that was found to be dud immediately after purchase: the company that sold it took it away and then did nothing, leaving a single mother of three without any means of doing her laundry. I’ve also heard plenty of tales concerning incorrect bills sent by phone and electricity companies: informing the culprit about the problem doesn’t always result in a rapid ‘solution’.
Last week, I visited Nick Auvache of Solve Orgiva, an agency that helps expats with their problems. He says that, in Spain, there has been a tradition of “banging on the desk” if you want to complain, or using threats such as “I know your mother”. This reminds me of the water meeting in Canar where the village elders bang their sticks on the floor if they don’t like the outcome regarding how much water they’ve been allocated. However, for the British expat who’s probably accustomed to conducting a polite discussion with a supplier that has made a mistake, fist and stick banging may not be the desired answer to “my cooker / telephone contract / wireless dongle doesn’t work”. According to Nick, now that Spanish customer service issues are handled electronically, rather than people using local outlets and using personal threats, there’s not much of a tradition of dealing with complaints in a proper way. He says: “Técnicos (technicians) don’t want to admit that they don’t know something. It’s not a focused problem-solving approach.”
So, a few words of advice to avoid certain problems occurring or to ensure you’re not in a weak position:
· Always check your receipt to ensure that items appear at the correct price and haven’t been entered multiple times. You can demand that an item is sold for the price marked on the shelf, not the price scanned at the checkout. Beware of discount offers which may not scan correctly. If you return home and find that an error has occurred, phone customer services and ask them to access the details on their computer system so the mistake can be rectified remotely.
· If you’re unhappy with the service you’re receiving, ask for an ‘oja de reglamaciones’ (official complaint form). The proprietor is subject to a 6,000 Euro fine if they don’t make the form available to customers. If the form is absent, say that you’re going to fetch a municipal policeman to report the offence.
· If you’re cancelling a utility contract, always put it in writing. If you phone the company, ask to speak to an operative in person, rather than leaving a message on an automated system. Keep a journal of the calls you’ve made.
· Ask a utility or phone company to email you its guidelines before ordering a new service. If they don’t have any guidelines, be concerned.
· If you’ve bought substandard goods, guidelines exist as to the maximum time the vendor can take to carry out a repair. Under the 1999/4/EC directive, goods sold – if defective – must be repaired within a “reasonable” time. This varies with the nature of the goods - for example, tools bought by a workman that affect his daily business may require a more urgent repair than consumer electronics bought for leisure usage - but it does give you scope to complain.
As for grumpy assistants and those who deliberately ignore you, as my ex used to say “why work in a public-facing role if you hate the public”? I recollect the proprietor of a local Spanish store ignoring me when I was about six months pregnant and had ventured inside to buy a 150 Euro mattress. At the time, I was feeling a tad dizzy and nauseous in the heat of the day. However, ignoring my condition, the proprietor preferred to continue her conversation with a Spanish lady, while I genuinely feared that I may pass out and sink to the floor. In the end, I left in disgust and ordered a mattress from Al Campo (equivalent of ASDA), which failed to deliver it after two months of phone calls to see what problem had occurred (they never had it in stock). And the conclusion? I bought a mattress in England from eBay for much less money and shipped it to Spain in my van.
My experiences have led me to believe that it pays to complain in Spain – don’t let the language barrier stand in your way and don’t be put off because it’s tedious. If problems occur pre-purchase, such as you’re being ignored, vote with your feet and take your custom elsewhere: after all, there are some businesses here that won’t mess you around.