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(506) 2223-1327               Published Monday, Oct. 26, 2009,  in Vol. 9, No. 211        E-mail us
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Customer service finally getting a hard look here
By Garland M. Baker 

Special to A.M. Costa Rica

Having a business — despite the effort, paperwork and bureaucracy — can certainly pay off. A small entrepreneur may dream about earning so much success that the local business goes global and becomes a landmark around the world.

However, do schools in Costa Rica teach future business owners that what pays them is their clients' preference? And if they do not go to school for business, do owners forget they have been keeping every business they have visited open by being a client there and that the success of their business depends on their customers' satisfaction?

Although it should be almost instinctive to think of customer service as the most inherent component to any business, Costa Rica has a long way to go, not only in providing clear and timely customer service policies, but also in educating its citizens to demand the satisfaction their money is paying for.

Latin American countries are not famous for providing customer satisfaction, and that varies from culture to culture (including exceptions), but they have always been a few steps behind developed nations. However, culturally, why do most Hispanic nations share the notion that when one has a business, suddenly one gets to run the show, and the peskier one gets the more business-like one appears? Well, some possible answers come to mind.

First of all, coming from a Catholic-colonized background, these cultures have been educated to obey anyone who seems powerful. Business owners are looked at as authority figures, as more important people than the average person. Owners and managers are treated with the same admiration and respect as priests, nuns, pastors, ministers, deputies, presidents. Therefore, when Latin American consumers face unfair, insulting treatment by any business in town, their instinctive response has been to quietly take it gracefully (as social subordinates), and never complain.

Secondly, many Hispanics, especially Ticos, are afraid of drawing attention to themselves. They tend to be shy, passive and nervously friendly people. Standing up for oneself is culturally frowned upon in Costa Rica; people who stand their ground are usually labeled as negative, confrontational, dramatic and even spiteful.

Besides avoiding scenes, Ticos are masters of hypocrisy. They can fool anyone with their nice tone and smiles. They would rather act behind the scenes than gathering the courage to be upfront about issues with people.

Therefore, Costa Rica has become a paradise for sneaky, abusive and fraudulent businesses that are still going strong, to the point that almost no establishment is safe from complaints.

The saying, “the customer is always right” seems to be the one motto missing in the training programs for customer service positions at any workplace.

Another theory might be that Ticos employed for assisting clients simply got the first job available, even if they were not qualified for it. One would think that any sensible business owner or manager would find out enough information about a prospective employee before trusting them with such a crucial position for their business, but just like so many other aspects of Costa Rican culture that seem to run backwards, owners do not care or value customer service providers in their establishments. It is actually one of the worst paid positions in any company, which would explain the last possible theory: customer service providers are so unhappy about their working conditions that they get theirs by taking it out on the customers, hopefully contributing to ruin sales.

Costa Rica seems to be waking up from its passivity. Once Costa Rica started getting acquainted with customer satisfaction policies — assuming it happened gradually due to the booming growth of U.S. companies in the country — the Ley de Promoción de la Competencia y Defensa Efectiva del Consumidor - N° 7472 (competition promotion and effective consumer protection act) was created Dec. 20, 1994. However, extensive informative campaigns concerning its regulations and services have never been implemented, and it still keeps many consumers in the dark about what to do if they become victims of unscrupulous service providers.

For that reason, a small group of conscientious journalists, among them Hazel Feigenblatt, Armando Mayorga, have decided to create their own blogs online devoted to posting customer complaints about treatment in banks, restaurants, appliance stores, cable companies, governmental companies, transportation, scams, among others. Ms. Feigenblatt even has a page for English-speaking customers. Interestingly, most consumers rant about their experiences in detail in the blog site, but admit not expressing their dissatisfaction or demanding better treatment to service providers while it was happening. Despite that, Ticos' perception of clients as subordinates is definitely changing, and they are learning that customers are actually the ones who run the show.

Although there are extensive reports about most establishment categories, anomalies experienced at banks and restaurants top the list. The following are some of the most outrageous situations people pay to suffer daily in Costa Rica, according to the complaints registered by the consumer protetion Web sites:

Banks

Unnecessary long waits. Customers have reported waiting up to four hours for a simple transaction in public banks, mainly due to having less than half of their staff working. Long lines are also true for some private banks.

Administrative mistakes never or reluctantly resolved. Some managers or supervisors often excuse clerk’s mistakes like depositing wrong amounts, giving back wrong receipts, applying unjustified withdrawals, giving or offering deceiving information to get clients to sign contracts or pay unnecessary, non-refundable fees, among others. Besides standing by clerks’ incompetence, they even dare to blame clients for not paying attention at the situation. Others opt for playing the fake customer-service card by apologizing, making countless promises and then cowardly avoiding follow-up calls and ignoring e-mails.

Ridiculous commissions and interest rates. While some public and private banks are famous for charging commissions as high as $7 for print-up statements, others randomly raise the credit interest rates up to 30%.

Discrepancies with infamous Law # 8204. Following governmental efforts against international and local fraud/laundering, banks recently launched publicity campaigns for updating personal information in bank account records, and have been punishing customers who fail to comply by closing their accounts.

However, the most serious aspect of this law is that it does not mention or describe the rights or duties of people who do not work and still have bank
checking on customer service

 
accounts (students, wealthy people, housewives, etc.).

The law grants banks the liberty to decide what to do with the accounts of unemployed customers, and not surprisingly, those people are being told by banks that they cannot fill out the form required by the Superintendencia General de Entidades Financieras (SUGEF) to update their data, and will have their accounts closed as a result.

Banks are only servicing customers who can abide by the new law. What upsets several customers is that the law is being imposed on every account holder, not only on suspicious ones. Besides being a waste of time, paperwork, and bank resources, they feel that banks are treating all clients as criminals until proven otherwise, instead of striving to select and apply the law only on suspicious ones and keeping the rest happy.

No security guards past office hours. Complaints about how easy banks make it on criminals that commit paseos millonarios (mugging people and taking them to different ATM vestibules to empty their bank accounts) on their customers by not having one security guard at their offices after hours. Many people have fallen prey of this type of crime, and several have even been killed. Banks eventually opted for closing automatic teller service at 10 p.m., but that has only made criminals operate earlier (a woman was attacked and robbed at 7 p.m.)

Restaurants

Bugs and hair in food. As insane as it may sound, cockroaches have been found cooked and fresh several times inside served food at renowned restaurants. Flies were also found in cheese and chili containers, and a long hair was found inside a pizza. It needs to be said: do any of the bug-infested restaurants know how crucial fumigating food-service establishments is for their prosperity? There are plenty of exterminating companies that use eco-friendly substances safe for kitchens. They do not even need the staff to evacuate. Therefore, no excuse is viable for not fumigating a restaurant.

Questionable promotions and fraud/stealing. Misleading information about promotions as well as low quality in promotion dishes are common complaints, and credit card fraud and plain stealing from clients' purses by staff members have been reported at some restaurants.

Bad food. Old, sour coffee and slightly decomposed lasagnas were reported at one prominent outlet.

Long waits. Long lines are common complaints about fast food restaurants, as well as regular restaurants, even when food has been sent back.

Rudeness, homophobia. Whether it has been rude treatment, bad food, long waits or bugs in food, one aspect most restaurants share is their lack of apologetic effort. Apparently, some waiters and delivery people are trained to put on an uncomfortable facial expression, walk away silently or respond rudely when atrocities are pointed out to them. A pizza chain's staff recently was reported as mocking, ignoring and insulting gay customers for which they subsequently apologized. The company promised to include human relations in the staff training.

Specifics of the various accounts and the names of the outlets are listed on the Web sites. However, A.M. Costa Rica cannot substantiate individual complaints.

Customers do have legal options when experiencing abuse from businesses. After the 1994 consumer protection act was created, the Ministry of Commerce added the Comision Nacional del Consumidor (a national consumer commission) to its jurisdiction, in charge of receiving, processing and penalizing consumer complaints. According to the agency's Web site, reporting steps go as follows:

1- An unhappy customer can contact the agency toll free at 800-266-7866, at consumo@consumo.go.cr, and at fax number 2284-8821 for specific instructions and information about the complaint.

2- According to the recommendations received during step 1, the consumer may be asked to visit the agency office (Avenida 3, between calles 30 and 32) with a detailed written complaint, along with the following documents: receipt / car-repair slip / contract / warranty, full name of the reporting person or company as well as a physical address where to notify them, and any other relevant document.

The Web site states that resolutions may take from 30 days up to two months, depending on the type of complaint. However, consumers have also been complaining about the lack of efficiency of this institution, from never answering the toll free line to never resolving cases. The staff seems to only follow up on high-profile complaints. Despite the latter, the commission has processed a considerable amount of complaints and penalized several companies since its foundation, slowly changing the customer service landscape in Costa Rica.

Other entities where consumers can report abuse are Defensoria de los Habitantes and Autoridad Reguladora de Servicios Publicos. The Poder Judicial is in charge of serious cases that include suing for damages, and consumers must have acquired legal representation prior to visiting their offices.

Since all institutions listed above conduct all procedures in Spanish, translators will be required for expats who are not bilingual.

An effective initiative to make businesses strive for excellence is to have them compete for a spot on an A-List of the best rated businesses Denver Channel 7 maintains such a list on its Web site for its community and rates viewer experiences in different city establishments weekly or monthly. Surely, that will keep service providers on their toes, and customers healthy and happy calling the shots.


Garland M. Baker is a 37-year resident and naturalized citizen of Costa Rica who provides multidisciplinary professional services to the international community.  Reach him at
info@crexpertise.com.  Baker has undertaken the research leading to these series of articles in conjunction with A.M. Costa Rica.  Find the collection at http://crexpertise.info, a complimentary reprint is available at the end of each article.  Copyright 2004-2009, use without permission prohibited.



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San José, Costa Rica, Monday, Oct. 26, 2009, Vol. 9, No. 211

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Fuerza Pública officers
figure in robberies, drugs

By the A.M. Costa Rica staff

One Fuerza Pública officer was unmasked as a suspected local drug dealer while another is facing an armed robbery allegation.

This is the latest scandal from the nation's largest law enforcement agency.

The Judicial Investigating Organization detained two men Saturday in Pueblo Nuevo and Limoncito, both the province of Limón. One, identified by the last names of Calvo Muñoz, resigned just a month and a half ago from the force. A second man, identified by the last names of Blanco Vega is a current policemen with 10 years of service, said the Ministerio de Gobernación, Policía y Seguridad Pública.

Both men are being tied to a robbery at a cell telephone outlet in a nearby commercial center. They are suspects in other stickups.

In the Blanco home agents said they found two weapons, including a semi-automatic carbine.

The Policía de Control de Drogas apprehended the other policeman. This took place in Barrio Copey in Tibás. The raid took place Friday night, and agents found a jar full of crack cocaine with the individual rocks wrapped in aluminum for sale. Agents said they had been tipped by a neighbor.


Robbery of Canadian tourist
leads to quick arrests

By the A.M. Costa Rica staff

Robbers stuck up a Canadian tourist Friday night, but Fuerza Pública officers quickly captured three suspects.

The men were identified by the last names of Villagrán Angulo, Solís Roldan and Benavides Obando.

The robbery happened in Guanacaste, but the exact location was not available. Robbers took a bag and other personal items as they held the tourist at knifepoint, said police.

During the arrest police confiscated a number of crack rocks.


Court orders sign language
for government TV shows


By the A.M. Costa Rica staff

The Sala IV constitutional court has told the central government that any more television programs must be accompanied by a sign language translation.

The presidency typically airs a Sunday night sequence, and similar programs are aired on radio stations. But election laws prohibit any more presidential shows until after the Feb. 7 elections.

The case came to the constitutional court with the claim that the presidency was violating the right of access to public information. The appeal said that deaf individuals should have the advantage of sign language, known here as lenguaje de señas Costarricense.


Murder sentence upheld
against U.S. citizen


By the A.M. Costa Rica staff

A prison term against a U.S. citizen has been upheld after nearly 14 years of legal wrangling.

The citizen is Lamarck Lewis who faced an allegation that he shot a bar owner the day after Christmas, 1995, in San Vito de Coto Brus. The Poder Judicial said that Lewis was in the area looking for a place to stay with his wife. When no lodgings were available, the pair were drinking and then left without paying.

The bar owner, identified as Ulises Ureña Solís, then 35, chased the couple, tried to stop them and was shot in the chest.

At one point Lewis was convicted but the Sala III appeals court annulled the sentence and ordered a new trial. He got a new trial and again faced a court in 2003. The latest sentence was appealed for revisions again to the Sala III, but this time the court upheld the conviction and the original sentence. The case was held in the Tribunal Penal del Primer Circuito de la Zona Sur.


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Old pages

Each day someone complains via e-mail that the newspages are from yesterday or the day before. A.M. Costa Rica staffers check every page and every link when the newspaper is made available at 2 a.m. each weekday.

So the problem is with the browser in each reader's computer. Particularly when the connection with the  server is slow, a computer will look to the latest page in its internal memory and serve up that page.

Readers should refresh the page and, if necessary, dump the cache of their computer, if this problem persists. Readers in Costa Rica have this problem frequently because the local Internet provider has continual problems.

Searching

The A.M. Costa Rica search page has a list of all previous editions by date and a space to search for specific words and phrases. The search will return links to archived pages.

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A typical edition will consist of a front page and four other newspages. Each of these pages can be reached by links near the top and bottom of the pages.

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Five classified pages are updated daily. Employment listings are free, as are listings for accommodations wanted, articles for sale and articles wanted. The tourism page and the real estate sales and real estate rentals are updated daily.

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Statistics

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San José, Costa Rica, Monday, Oct. 26, 2009, Vol. 9, No. 211










This is the caged scarlet macaw (Ara macao) that anti-drug police found in Curridabat.


Captive lapa
Ministerio de Gobernación, Policía y Seguridad Pública photo

Caged birds are byproduct of police raid on bar's backyard
By the A.M. Costa Rica staff

Anti-drug police got a tip that a Curridabat bar owner was growing marijuana in the rear yard of his establishment.

So the police staged a raid there last week, but they found more than what they identified as marijuana. Also encountered in the raid was a caged macaw and two caged parrots.  The raid was in the Tirrases section.

Officers said they turned the three birds over to the Servicio Nacional de Salud Animal of the Ministerio de Agricultura
y Ganadería. The birds appeared to be suffering from stress and parasites, said officers. So they were sent to the Parque Zoológico Simon Bolívar in San José for recovery.

The Policia de Control de Drogas sometimes encounters birds and animals incidental to its work.  Costa Rican law penalizes individuals who possess forest animals without permission be they endangered or not. Fines are higher for endangered species. But marijuana penalties are higher. Officers said they found just two marijuana plants, but they were uprooted and confiscated. The bar owner has not yet been detained.



Well, here is some happy news for a change!
By the A.M. Costa Rica staff

This is a story with a happy ending. Honest!

We can forgive readers for being suspicious because the news is mostly bad news.

Maybe uniting a cat with its owner after nine months will not make The Associated Press wires, but an Escazú family is happy, and so probably is the cat.

The reunion is the direct result of work by Sabana Oeste resident Margaret Sohn, who makes it her business to save animals. Periodically she sends photos of strays and found animals to A.M. Costa Rica for inclusion in the free animals classified category. She has been personally responsible for the adoption of many pets.

Her last submission was a cat she had named Tony. The cat somehow kissed an electrically charged line and suffered a permanent disfigurement of the face. The animal was found wandering, ill and hungry, in the San Rafael de Escazú area. Ms.
tony the cat
This is the ad that brought Tony/Mouse home
 
Sohn took the animal to veterinarian Eduardo Bitter, who frequently donates his time for animal causes.

Fortunately, the Escazú family contains an A.M. Costa Rica reader because last week a family member saw their missing cat displayed on the classified pages. He is not Tony but has the name Mouse. He was lost in January.

There was a reunion at the vet's office.



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Opposition parties seek resignation of transport minister

By the A.M. Costa Rica staff

President Óscar Arias Sánchez is standing by his transportation minister in the face of demands for her resignation.

Movimiento Libertario said that the minister, Karla González had accumulated an unpardonable chain of errors particularly for someone who has served as vice minister in that same agency. The political party said this as it joined the chorus from opposition spokesmen seeking her resignation.

The demands follow the collapse Thursday of a suspension bridge over the Río Grande de Tárcoles in which five bus passengers died.

Arias visited the area Saturday and talked with the families of the victims.

Government officials are trying to place the blame on the bus company and the driver. It turns out that the recycled

school bus used on the route was not approved by the Ministerio de Obras Pública y Transportes. The bus and passengers far exceeded the weight limit of four tons on the aging span. The empty bus alone weighed 5.4 tons.

However, other organizations and agencies are targeting the central government. The Defensoría de los Habitantes, for example, noted in a press release that in 2002 it called upon the Consejo Nacional de Vialidad to do emergency repairs on the span. The bridge is on Ruta Nacional No. 137 between Orotina and San Juan de Mata in the Cantón de Turrubares. The Defensoría also called on the Consejo to take immediate action with regard to other deteriorating spans all over the country.

Curiously, the Defensoría said it had been told by the Consejo in 2003 that a contract had been let to fix up the bridge. That work either was very minor or was never done, based on subsequent developments.

The central government is believed to be allocated some $15 million for emergency repairs elsewhere. 



Dock workers suffer minor penalty for five days of strike

By the A.M. Costa Rica staff

The central government and striking dock workers came to an accord Friday night.

The dock workers agreed to allow the Junta de Administración Portuaria y de Desarrollo de la Vertiente Atlántica to reduce the salaries of those who were on strike.  Only about 55 of the 1,300 workers actually were on strike. Those who struck could lose up to five days pay.
The docks were closed or working at limited capacity for most of last week. The government agreed to by early next year the 1.2 billion colons (about $2 million) that it had promised the union members. In addition, union members will be getting an unscheduled raise next month.

Meanwhile, shipping firms and producers who use the Caribbean ports of Moín and Limón have to reconcile their financial losses that are estimated to be in the millions of dollars. 


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San José, Costa Rica, Monday, Oct. 26, 2009, Vol. 9, No. 211

Casa Alfi Hotel

Some Miami Cubans giving
support to Honduran regime


By the A.M. Costa Rica wire services

The ongoing political crisis in Honduras is drawing attention from Cuban-Americans in Miami, who are concerned about the spread of leftist governments in Latin American. Cuban exiles are backing the de facto government, even as Washington supports the ousted Honduran president.

Collecting food and medical supplies is a common tool for many Cuban-Americans to offer person-to-person assistance to people on the island. Community leaders say donating basic goods like milk powder and aspirin, which can be scarce in Cuba, has a major impact for Cuban families struggling to survive under Communist rule.

A new call for donations, however, is focusing on a different community altogether. Silvia Iriondo is president of the group Mothers and Women against Repression in Cuba. Ms. Iriondo says her group wants to stop Honduras from suffering the same fate as Cuba, and it is seeking to defend democracy in Latin America.

Ms. Iriondo and other Cuban-American activists are collecting food, medical supplies and financial donations to aid Hondurans, and show support for the nation's de facto government. Organizers say many Hondurans are hurting since foreign aid groups have suspended assistance in response to the ouster of leftist President José Manuel Zelaya in June. The United States has blocked more than $30 million to Honduras, and says it will withhold up to $200 million unless Zelaya is returned to office.

Cuban-American leaders agree with supporters of the de facto government, who say Zelaya was seeking to cling to office and impose a socialist regime. Cuban-American doctor Armando Quirantes is helping to organize donations for Honduras.

Quirantes says the same thing happened in Venezuela and Ecuador, and people in Nicaragua are fighting to stop a leftist takeover there. Quirantes cites allegations that Venezuela and other leftist leaders have sent mercenaries to Honduras to undermine the de facto government of President Roberto Micheletti. Micheletti has made similar claims about foreign and domestic troublemakers to defend his decision to suspend some civil rights.

Some Hondurans say the concerns about foreign intervention started under Zelaya. Miami-based businessman Gerardo Padilla says many people were taken aback by the ousted leader's foreign policy goals. Padilla said there was a fear the country would become socialist especially after Zelaya made a speech saying Cuban and Venezuelan teachers were coming to the country to teach children what the term "socialism" meant.

Zelaya's aides reporting
that negotiation failed


By the A.M. Costa Rica wire services

Negotiators for ousted Honduran President José Manuel Zelaya said Friday the talks to resolve the country's deep political crisis have collapsed. Zelaya had set a Thursday midnight deadline for his return to power. He vowed to stop negotiations if the de facto government led by Roberto Micheletti failed to agree.

Zelaya was deposed and sent into exile in a June 28 coup, after opponents accused him of trying to illegally change the constitution to extend his term in office. 

Since then, interim President Micheletti has faced intense international pressure to restore Zelaya, who slipped back into Honduras in September and has taken refuge at the Brazilian embassy in Tegucigalpa.
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San José, Costa Rica, Monday, Oct. 26, 2009, Vol. 9, No. 211


Latin American news
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Elections in Uruguay head
for second round of voting


By the A.M. Costa Rica staff
and wire service reports

Former guerrilla leader José Mujica got more votes Sunday in Uruguay than former president Luis Lacalle, but the presidential race will go to a second round. No one got enough votes to be elected outright.

The official figures are not known, but the newspaper El País gave reports of various polling place surveys. Mujica was quoted agreeing that there would be a runoff.

Pre-election polls predicted this outcome.

Mujica, 74, was once the leader of the Tupamaro guerrillas, a group that organized political kidnappings and bank robberies in the 1960s. He was held in solitary confinement for years in a Uruguay prison.

Lacalle was Uruguay's president from 1990 to 1995. The 68-year-old lawyer founded the four-nation South American trade bloc known as Mercosur, but he has vowed to pull Uruguay out of Mercosur if he is elected president.

Mujica was the candidate of Frente Amplio, a leftist coalition. The winner will replace President Tabare Vazquez, who has successfully guided Uruguay's economy in the five years he has been in office. The new president will take office in March, 2010. Mujica said Sunday night he was certain that even as a third candidate was dropped from the ballot, he would gather enough votes to defeat Lacalle.

Voters also appeared to reject two ballot questions. One would have lifted the amnesty that was granted military personnel for their activity during the war with the Tupamaro. The so-called Ley de Caducidad was passed to balance out a similar amnesty given guerrillas. Voters also seem to have rejected a law that would have allowed citizens living outside the country to vote in national elections.


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