July 19, 2010

Cultural differences: Consumer complaints

I'd like to start a cultural difference discussion about consumer complaints. These are only my observations and are very general so I hope that no one takes offense. I bring this up only to share something that my patient Honduran husband has been trying to teach me (with only a modest amount of success!) for almost 9 years in Honduras.

I have the US American 'complaint gene' — truth be told, I have an overabundance of that gene. In the US, the customer is always right, they say. We are miffed if the clerk isn't friendly and expect that they will show the appropriate appreciation for our money or patronage. Heaven forbid that a meal be cold or the bread stale. If there is a problem with goods or services, we complain and demand action. Anything that doesn't "make sense" or isn't "fair" must be rectified!

US Americans have a long history of complaining, starting with "No taxation without representation!" There is no doubt that history of complaining has resulted in lots of good changes that protect citizens and consumers and hold businesses and governments accountable. In some cases, it goes to the extreme (think hot coffee), but that is a different topic.

The first thing that you have accept is that things are not always fair in Honduras, nor do they always make sense by US standards, and very rarely will you be able to change that. 'Buyer beware' is the motto here. If you buy something that is the wrong color or size or food that is already spoiled, you may not be able to return it. And that may be true even if the thing doesn't work or has been misrepresented. Look it over carefully, check the expiration date, plug it in to see if works. Ask about price before you buy, and just walk away if it seems too high. Don't ask about guaranty, because there is none, no matter what they might tell you.

In Honduras, and maybe many other Latin American countries, complaining is considered rude and a lack of respect for the person to whom you are complaining. To the clerk you deal with, his or her job and the risk of annoying the boss with a question are much more important than leaving you a dissatisfied customer. In general, admitting that his initial answer was wrong or that he doesn't know the answer is not an option. Almost all of the time, the first person that you deal with does not have the authority to make the change that you want even if they did agree with you, so complaining just gets that "no" embedded in stone.

If the person won't listen to or act upon a calm, reasonable explanation, you may be able to move up the line to a manager or owner, but surprisingly, in La Ceiba, often that person with authority is not on site or not available to customers so don't burn bridges with the clerk. Do you really think that the clerk will ask the owner to call you so you can tell him what an imbecile the clerk is?

I've found that getting angry or emotional when faced with a difficult situation almost never ends up with good results in Honduras, no matter how righteous my cause might be or how many reasonable people might agree with me. El Jefe always tells me, "When you lose control, you lose the battle." It tends to close any options that might otherwise have been available. I still have problems with this! I am an emotional person by nature and it's hard to change. I get especially emotional in any situation that seems unjust to me. Thankfully, El Jefe is a miracle man who deals with people much better than I do.

Losing the battle can happen with business owners as well. Pride and dignity mean more than money in Honduras. Sometimes a business owner would rather lose your business and your money than submit to an angry gringo making demands of him. "I'll take my money elsewhere!" will likely be met with "gracias!"

I would also like to point out that sometimes it is the gringo's lack of knowledge that gets him or her into trouble. Gringos aren't always cheated or overcharged or treated unfairly. And sometimes assuming that things are the same way that they are in the US (or should be! as some say) is the problem.

The best advice that I can give is to choose your battles. Not everything matters! Other advice is to show your appreciation for good service and give your business to those establishments that deserve your patronage — I think that is especially important in a small town like La Ceiba where we don't always have a lot of choices and where people will remember you the next time you come in. In the next article, Consumer experiences I'll give some examples of my experiences — successes and failures.

What do you think? If you live in Honduras or another Latin American country, how do you deal with tough consumer situations? Have you found the magic language to make a wrong thing right?
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