…a very responsible blog…catavino.net…[it's] refreshing to see such professionalism.
Robert M. Parker Jr.

A Thin Line Between Cultural Norms and Complete Incompetence

Lights outPrepare yourself for a dramatization of a dumbfounding event that occurred at Catavino Headquarters last Thursday morning.

Scene 1: The Mystery

The scene opens with me sitting down at my computer with a steaming hot cup of coffee. While scrolling through the news of the day, which included the ongoing trucker’s strike, my computer screen goes blank, my printer light dims to black and my lamp shutters before vanishing into the morning light. Shocked, I started flipping all the light switches on an doff in the house, hoping that it was simply a blown fuse in the office. It wasn’t. My entire house was without power, while the rest of the building continued chugging along heard by the elevator making its rounds from floor to floor. Clearly, only our apartment was the only one affected.

Realizing that I needed to call our electrical company, I fingered through my files to find my electricity bill, which typically lists a customer service number here in Spain. What it didn’t do, however, was tell me what the difference was between the two numbers listed. Playing inni minni mini mo, I chose the bigger of the two and dialed their number.

Endesa (Electricity Company): Hello, this is Maria. How can I help you today?
Gabriella: Hey Maria, my power just went out. Can you please help me?

Endesa: Sure. Do your neighbors have power?
Gabriella: Don’t have a clue, but the elevator and communal hallway have electricity.

Endesa: Well then it sounds like you need a private electrician. We can send someone over, but it will run you 70 euros that you’ll need to pay in cash when they arrive.
Gabriella: Ahhh, well, when we pay you every month, don’t we pay for this service too, considering that you’re the only major provider for electricity in Spain?

Endesa: No.We only handle issues that lie outside of your house, not the electrical issues that occur inside your house.
Gabriella: I see. I’ll get back to you.

Scene 2: The Big Confusion

Totally lost, I phoned my Catalan landlord for guidance. She suggested that maybe, just maybe, I hadn’t payed my bill. Assuring her that I had, I hung up the phone and dialed the second of the two numbers provided by Endesa, hoping to ease my electricity woes with an admission by Endesa that there was a fatal error on their part with my account, and while taking full culpability, all would be remedied within the hour.

Clearly, I was completely delusional.

Endesa: Hello, this is Pilar. How can I help you today?
Gabriella: Hey Pilar, I see there is another telephone number on my invoice for you guys. What is this number for exactly?

Endesa: This number is to check issues with your account.
Gabriella: Great! My power just went out, and I’ve been told by someone at your company that we need a private electrician, but she didn’t say anything about if everything is okay with my account. Can you please check?

Endesa: No, it’s not. Your power was turned off because you didn’t pay your bill for 73 euros from November of 2007.


(incredibly long pause)

Gabriella: Pilar, it’s June of 2008. Why are you turning off my power for an issue that happened 8 months ago? Why didn’t you contact me in, let’s say… in December?
Endesa: We sent you a certified letter by mail which was signed by someone in your home.

Gabriella: By whom? My cat?
Endesa: I don’t know. You have to check the post office. They know.

Gabriella: Even if you sent me a card by mail, for which I clearly didn’t receive, wouldn’t you call me first before taking away my power?

Endesa: Obviously not.
Gabriella: But Pilar, you take money out of our account ever single month for our utilities. So why didn’t you take money out of our account for last November?

Endesa: If there is an issue with your account, you must remedy it either by person or by phone, but we don’t take the money out of your account.
Gabriella: No, you just cut off my power!

Endesa: We did warn you, but if you want to remedy the situation now, you can pay me by visa and we’ll turn your power back on.

Scene 3: Full on Naiveté

Having begrudgingly paid her 70 some odd euros with gritted teeth and clenched fists, I accepted our defeat. But as minutes crawled at snail’s pace into an hour, my rage reignited, realizing that this issue wasn’t going to be resolved in a day. This, like all bureaucracy in Spain, would take the majority of my time, patience and attention.

Endesa: Hello, this is Maria Jose. How can I help you?
Gabriella: Hello Maria Jose. It’s been an hour and I still don’t have power. Can you please help me?

Endesa: I see that you just paid an overdue bill by visa. Technically, we have 24 hours before we turn it back on.
Gabriella: What!? Wait…I can’t wait 24 hours.

Endesa: Sorry, that’s our policy. You just need to wait like everyone else.

Scene 4: The Bullshit of Bureaucracy

Accepting the fact that an online wine marketer’s worst nightmare had come true, I packed up my backpack and trucked 25 minutes by foot to the nearest hell hole of an internet cafe with food encrusted keyboards and antiquated software like IE 6. As day ebbed to night, Ryan and I entered our pitch black apartment to four glowing eyes looking eagerly at us for food. Using the dim orange light from the street, we stepped on cat tails and stubbed toes until we uncovered our first candle. Smiling at each other from our feeble success, we continued our hunt to eventually uncover a half dozen more candles, which we scattered across the kitchen while preparing our steak and potato omelettes over a much appreciated gas stove. Let it be known that chopping potatoes under the candle light is not only dangerous, but completely stupid, as you cannot see if what your cutting is actually a potato or your finger.

Our bellies full, and our house filled with odd aromas of chocolate and lavender from our scented candles, we turned in for the night, confident that tomorrow our electricity would be fully restored and our lives would return back to normal.

Stupid wine blogger…

Endesa: Hello, this is Beatriz. How can I help you?
Gabriella: Hey Beatriz, it’s been 24 hours and we still don’t have power.

Endesa: Oh, well technically, we have 48 hours before we have turn on your electricity.
Gabriella: WHAT!!! I was told that it only takes 24 hours.

Endesa: Whoever told you that was incorrect. We have 48 hours.
Gabriella: I can’t wait 48 hours.

Endesa: Where are you located?
Gabriella: Terrassa

Endesa: One moment

5 minutes pass costing me 1.8 euros a minute

Endesa: It appears that the technicians in Terrassa are quite busy are not answering their phones. So you can go to their office located on the north end of Terrassa.

Gabriella: Um, let me get this straight. You cut off my electricity without warning me. Then you tell me that I have 24 hours before I get my electricity back, which was suddenly changed to 48 hours. Now, you tell me that I have to physically walk to the opposite end of the city to tell the electricians to come to my house to switch my electricity on!?

Endesa: Yes. Or, you can call this number. They never answer, but you can try.

Scene 5: The Grand Finale

Looking to Ryan with tears in my eyes of frustration, I was wondering how long I could go without downing a few aspirin to ease my throbbing headache. Should we dial, knowing full well that no one will answer, or just suck it up, pack a frisbee and spend the day in the park hoping for the best when we got home? Sighing, I literally crossed my fingers and dialed the number. On the third ring, to my complete astonishment, I was met with a human voice.

Global Electricity: Buenas Dias. This is Jose Manuel of Global Electricity. How can I help you?
Gabriella: Hello. Do you work for Endesa?

Global Electricity: The better question is, who doesn’t do work for them?
Gabriella: Listen, I don’t have power, and they told me to call you.

Global Electricity: Do you have the order number?
Gabriella: No.

Global Electricity: Then I can’t help you.
Gabriella: But I was told to call you. Please help me!

Global Electricity: You need the order number located on the piece of paper.
Gabriella: I don’t have a piece of paper!! All I have is your number and no electricity. Can you please help me?

Global Electricity: Is this a result of an overdue bill?
Gabriella: Yes, and I paid by visa.

Global Electricity: Did you pay over the phone?
Gabriella: Yes!!!

Global Electricity: Oh, well that’s different. So where do you live?
Gabriella: Rambla Sant Nebridi

Global Electricity:Ah, we didn’t get an order to fix your electricity. So we assumed you have it.
Gabriella: Obviously, that would be wrong.

Global Electricity: So you want us to come fix it?
Gabriella: …………………

Global Electricity: Got it. We’ll be there shortly.

For me, this is a pure testament as to how much persistence, patience and pure, unadulterated passion one needs to actually manage and run a successful wine business in Spain. The long lines, forests of paperwork and ridiculous number of hoops you need to jump through is astonishing, and I’m constantly bewildered how Spaniards can not only keep their cool under such frustrating conditions, but make such amazing wine. What’s your secret? What keeps you Zen in moments of total and complete chaos and confusion with Spanish bureaucracy?

Cheers,

Gabriella

Thanks to both Darren Hester and Oneras for their photos!

  • Tim

    I sometimes think that customer service reps everywhere get pleasure from effing with customers. I'm running out of places to boycott because I have done so with so many for poor service. Unfortunately, you usually can't do that with the power company. I'm glad you're back on the grid.

  • CusCus

    Ah, what keeps us Zen is stop worrying and opening one of these bottles of wine. Then, decide to take a day off instead of fighting against Endesa. It's way safer than trying to peel potatoes and cook an omelette in the dark.

  • Notes from Spain

    This seems to be a very Spain problem. A friend recently had 500 euros taken from his account for not prperly registering the removal of his car from active service in 1997

  • Robert

    I've been waiting to hear this story since I heard of the event – let's face it, both of you off twitter, blogging and skype for more than a few hours means something drastic HAD to be wrong! Now I understand, or rather, I sympathise. I could write a similar post for my TV/broadband suppliers in the UK, but I think that applies everywhere in the world I'm a believer that there is something to 'Scream Therapy'

  • Vitor Mendes

    Thank you Gabriella… you made very happy… why? because i´ve already seen that scene far too many times here in Portugal… Here we have several companys, EDP (electricity), PT (phones, internet, etc..) and all the water supplying companys… No one takes responsibility for anything, because you only talk with someone seated, with earphones, and they don't get paid enough to help you… try to be motivated on 400 euros per month… So, the solution is, my friend… try not to suffer, and hope that this kind of problem only happens to others… But, i must say this, have you thought of writing for theatre? I am sure that you would be a success…. I had to close the door to the store so that i could laugh at ease… :-)

  • http://www.cheapwineratings.com Tim

    I sometimes think that customer service reps everywhere get pleasure from effing with customers. I’m running out of places to boycott because I have done so with so many for poor service. Unfortunately, you usually can’t do that with the power company. I’m glad you’re back on the grid.

  • CusCus

    Ah,

    what keeps us Zen is stop worrying and opening one of these bottles of wine. Then, decide to take a day off instead of fighting against Endesa. It’s way safer than trying to peel potatoes and cook an omelette in the dark.

  • Pingback: meneame.net

  • http://www.notesfromspain.com/ Notes from Spain

    This seems to be a very Spain problem. A friend recently had 500 euros taken from his account for not prperly registering the removal of his car from active service in 1997

  • http://www.wineconversation.com Robert

    I’ve been waiting to hear this story since I heard of the event – let’s face it, both of you off twitter, blogging and skype for more than a few hours means something drastic HAD to be wrong!

    Now I understand, or rather, I sympathise.

    I could write a similar post for my TV/broadband suppliers in the UK, but I think that applies everywhere in the world

    I’m a believer that there is something to ‘Scream Therapy’

  • Vitor Mendes

    Thank you Gabriella… you made very happy… why? because i´ve already seen that scene far too many times here in Portugal… Here we have several companys, EDP (electricity), PT (phones, internet, etc..) and all the water supplying companys… No one takes responsibility for anything, because you only talk with someone seated, with earphones, and they don’t get paid enough to help you… try to be motivated on 400 euros per month… So, the solution is, my friend… try not to suffer, and hope that this kind of problem only happens to others… But, i must say this, have you thought of writing for theatre? I am sure that you would be a success…. I had to close the door to the store so that i could laugh at ease… :-)

  • gary

    We have a simiolar situation with Sky TV in the UK – except they put their call centre in India – I paid TWICE for a service they did replacing my sky box. It took me six months to get the money back, plus the cost of the calls and an ex gratia sum for my effort. In the end I had to write. I am currently having the same kind of issue with a credit card – there has been a fraudulent use of it for £7 or so – no big deal money wise but They cant talk to me until I can quote a ref number off a letter and I have now been told for four weeks that the letter will be with me in five days…. up to now Ive had a tenner hush money off them So. believe me, its not just spain – its endemic where numpties are reading system messages from screens and calling it customer service. Sorry you didnt meke the GME this year – I'll be in BCN in august if you and ryan are about for a beer…

  • Andre Ribeirinho

    You could be living in Portugal and the story would be just the same. Nothing really changes every year and whoever is in charge doesn't really care if 1.000 have a problem getting service. The other 30 million pay on time so that's fine for them. Quality process is a non-existent thing. How do I deal with it in Portugal? I keep pilling up bureaucratic stuff and then on one week I try to sort all of them out. I guess that doesn't work in the case of electricity. To that I agree CusCus, get a bottle of wine and enjoy the moon :)

  • Pingback: Good Old Spanish Customer Service… - Notes from Spain: Travel, Living in Spain, Podcasts, Forum and Photos

  • gary

    We have a simiolar situation with Sky TV in the UK – except they put their call centre in India – I paid TWICE for a service they did replacing my sky box. It took me six months to get the money back, plus the cost of the calls and an ex gratia sum for my effort. In the end I had to write.

    I am currently having the same kind of issue with a credit card – there has been a fraudulent use of it for £7 or so – no big deal money wise but They cant talk to me until I can quote a ref number off a letter and I have now been told for four weeks that the letter will be with me in five days…. up to now Ive had a tenner hush money off them

    So. believe me, its not just spain – its endemic where numpties are reading system messages from screens and calling it customer service.

    Sorry you didnt meke the GME this year – I’ll be in BCN in august if you and ryan are about for a beer…

  • ValenciaSon

    Sounds like you may need a portable generator. I just heard on TVE that the electric bill in Spain is going up by 5% next month. I have similar customer support problems with Verizon FIOS. Good luck.

  • http://blog.delaranja.com Andre Ribeirinho

    You could be living in Portugal and the story would be just the same. Nothing really changes every year and whoever is in charge doesn’t really care if 1.000 have a problem getting service. The other 30 million pay on time so that’s fine for them. Quality process is a non-existent thing.

    How do I deal with it in Portugal? I keep pilling up bureaucratic stuff and then on one week I try to sort all of them out. I guess that doesn’t work in the case of electricity. To that I agree CusCus, get a bottle of wine and enjoy the moon :)

  • Jose

    What can I say being Spanish…?. sigh… well… Vicodin help us a bit….. Regards, Jose

  • ValenciaSon

    Sounds like you may need a portable generator. I just heard on TVE that the electric bill in Spain is going up by 5% next month.

    I have similar customer support problems with Verizon FIOS.

    Good luck.

  • http://olaf-unomas.blogspot.com Jose

    What can I say being Spanish…?. sigh… well… Vicodin help us a bit…..

    Regards,

    Jose

  • Julie

    Hi Gabriella If that can be of any relief : the same happens in France, quite regularly, with all administrations and services that know we cannot do without them. We recently had such problems with our Internet provider, and a colleague even told me that France Telecom created two phone lines for his appartment, he then took an Internet access for one of the lines and, when they finally decided to suppress a line, obviously, they suppressed the one with the Internet access… And it will take him another three weeks to get the line shut, the Internet access cancelled, to open a new line and re-activate an Internet access. Good luck ! best regards, Julie

  • Julie

    Hi Gabriella

    If that can be of any relief : the same happens in France, quite regularly, with all administrations and services that know we cannot do without them.
    We recently had such problems with our Internet provider, and a colleague even told me that France Telecom created two phone lines for his appartment, he then took an Internet access for one of the lines and, when they finally decided to suppress a line, obviously, they suppressed the one with the Internet access… And it will take him another three weeks to get the line shut, the Internet access cancelled, to open a new line and re-activate an Internet access.

    Good luck !

    best regards,

    Julie

  • Tyler Balliet

    Having spent about year in France I can completely understand the frustration. My cousin is from Spain and now that she has lived in the US for a few years, she even complains about this sort of thing when she goes back. My buddy is still trying to figure out how to import a proper washing machine into Spain as he constantly complains about how they never work. I guess it's give and take, right?

  • http://www.thesecondglass.com Tyler Balliet

    Having spent about year in France I can completely understand the frustration. My cousin is from Spain and now that she has lived in the US for a few years, she even complains about this sort of thing when she goes back.

    My buddy is still trying to figure out how to import a proper washing machine into Spain as he constantly complains about how they never work. I guess it’s give and take, right?

  • Gabriella

    Thanks everyone for your wonderful comments and insight! However, I wonder if we really tackled the big question: Is this story an example of a cultural norm that we should get used to when living in another culture, or is this something that we need to address look at as simply poor customer service? Case in point, if my heater is busted in the US, I can order the part and fix it myself. Here in Spain, I cannot. When my heater blew last year, I was at the mercy of the heating company to fix it, on their time frame, because they have a monopoly on their parts. Therefore, I, nor any electrician, could fix it for half the price. Only they can fix their machines for an astronomical amount of money. Is that cultural, or just unfair? And where do I draw the line?

  • http://www.catavino.net Gabriella

    Thanks everyone for your wonderful comments and insight!

    However, I wonder if we really tackled the big question: Is this story an example of a cultural norm that we should get used to when living in another culture, or is this something that we need to address look at as simply poor customer service?

    Case in point, if my heater is busted in the US, I can order the part and fix it myself. Here in Spain, I cannot. When my heater blew last year, I was at the mercy of the heating company to fix it, on their time frame, because they have a monopoly on their parts. Therefore, I, nor any electrician, could fix it for half the price. Only they can fix their machines for an astronomical amount of money. Is that cultural, or just unfair? And where do I draw the line?

  • Andre Ribeirinho

    I think it's a very cultural form of acceptance. We all complain, we all say that monopolies are bad, but who's voting for those who are elected to continue to allow this?

  • http://blog.delaranja.com Andre Ribeirinho

    I think it’s a very cultural form of acceptance. We all complain, we all say that monopolies are bad, but who’s voting for those who are elected to continue to allow this?

  • David

    One short but contundent answer… what keeps us Zen is… REVENGE!!! A pure Spaniard should then go out and get the electricity from a traffic light or whatever. hahahaha… I guess this is also the clue for our wines: temperament. So sorry that you get such a bad impression from our big Corporations…

  • David

    One short but contundent answer… what keeps us Zen is… REVENGE!!!
    A pure Spaniard should then go out and get the electricity from a traffic light or whatever. hahahaha… I guess this is also the clue for our wines: temperament.

    So sorry that you get such a bad impression from our big Corporations…

  • Jose

    Cultural or unfair? Let me think a second… hmmm… I dare that's unfairy cultural #-/ I don't think it's an spanish culture, but a strong difference between the concept of 'customer service' that exist in US and the one that exist in mediterranean countries… Regards, Jose

  • http://olaf-unomas.blogspot.com Jose

    Cultural or unfair? Let me think a second… hmmm… I dare that’s unfairy cultural #-/
    I don’t think it’s an spanish culture, but a strong difference between the concept of ‘customer service’ that exist in US and the one that exist in mediterranean countries…
    Regards,
    Jose

  • JIKvig

    I feel bad about it, but I kinda giggled when I read this… Sorry:-) Glad it all turned out ok though

  • Gabriella

    Andre and Jose, you both bring up good points, but I wonder if Vitor wasn't hitting the mark when he talked about salaries. When I had my brief employment with a large telemarketing company in the US, my salary was based on commission. The more people who signed on, the more I got paid. Obviously it behooved me to work my butt off to give customers what they wanted so that I equally benefited. Here in Iberia, there are few jobs, that I'm aware of, that are commission based. You are paid pitance for your work do and have to struggle to make ends meet as prices for basic goods continue to increase. So where is your motivation to help the customer when you aren't even being paid a respectable salary for the work you do? Additionally, I have found that the US inherently believes that the customer comes first. I have not found this mentality here, which is both good and bad. Bad because the customer is typically brushed off as insignificant. On the other hand, the customer is never given too much power as seen in the US model, winning lawsuits left and right because they have upper hand. JIKVIG: Please don't apologize for laughing, because you ought to. The scenario is way too ridiculous not to get a good chuckle from it ;-)

  • http://jikvig.com/wine/ JIKvig

    I feel bad about it, but I kinda giggled when I read this… Sorry:-)
    Glad it all turned out ok though

  • http://www.catavino.net Gabriella

    Andre and Jose, you both bring up good points, but I wonder if Vitor wasn’t hitting the mark when he talked about salaries. When I had my brief employment with a large telemarketing company in the US, my salary was based on commission. The more people who signed on, the more I got paid. Obviously it behooved me to work my butt off to give customers what they wanted so that I equally benefited.

    Here in Iberia, there are few jobs, that I’m aware of, that are commission based. You are paid pitance for your work do and have to struggle to make ends meet as prices for basic goods continue to increase. So where is your motivation to help the customer when you aren’t even being paid a respectable salary for the work you do?

    Additionally, I have found that the US inherently believes that the customer comes first. I have not found this mentality here, which is both good and bad. Bad because the customer is typically brushed off as insignificant. On the other hand, the customer is never given too much power as seen in the US model, winning lawsuits left and right because they have upper hand.

    JIKVIG: Please don’t apologize for laughing, because you ought to. The scenario is way too ridiculous not to get a good chuckle from it ;-)

  • Jose

    Yep, I do fully agree with Vitor. Many times, when people say how bad is the phone customer service of any company I use to say that 'according to their wage… well… enough to say if they pick up the phone'… while they stare at me… Anyway, have you realized how many rants by second raise an spanish… bad customer service… and for instance, bad service in bars and/or restaurants… Or a topic raised in the blog of Manuel Camblor (La Otra Botella). When a bottle of wine is tainted with TCA, what's the behaviour of a spanish customer and of a USA customer? and the behaviour of the shop or restaurant in both sides of the sea? Cheers, Jose

  • http://olaf-unomas.blogspot.com Jose

    Yep, I do fully agree with Vitor. Many times, when people say how bad is the phone customer service of any company I use to say that ‘according to their wage… well… enough to say if they pick up the phone’… while they stare at me… Anyway, have you realized how many rants by second raise an spanish… bad customer service… and for instance, bad service in bars and/or restaurants… Or a topic raised in the blog of Manuel Camblor (La Otra Botella). When a bottle of wine is tainted with TCA, what’s the behaviour of a spanish customer and of a USA customer? and the behaviour of the shop or restaurant in both sides of the sea?

    Cheers,

    Jose

  • Andrea

    Wow, glad I stumbled across this post, feels good to know that everyone living in Europe goes through this crap. Like other commenter's posts, it's just as bad in Portugal, I can't even tell you what kind of craziness I've gone through but I'd say one of the worst was not having gas or hot water in my new apartment for the first month because nobody knew what the correct and up-to date regulations were…….then when I finally got it, 2 weeks later it dies right in the middle of my shower on a holiday here so of course no one was available to fix it. I call the very next morning but because it was a Friday, nobody could come until Monday. Luckily I didn't pay anything because I had a warranty on my gas heater but after all of that I've come to learn that anything ridiculous is possible with European bureaucracy………..just got to be patient……

  • Pingback: Welcome Star Tribune Readers to Catavino, Our Humble Iberian Home!

  • Daniel

    This post is just too funny. I was living in Spain for 10 months and it just sucks… It's clearly a third world country.

  • Pingback: Learn Spanish with Lingus.tv » Blog Archive » Overcoming Cultural Differences

  • http://www.somniohostels.com Lauren

    Oh man! That is SO similar to our story. I saw your comment on our blog (http://www.hostelterritory.blogspot.com) I actually contacted Ryan almost two years ago about a post on Craigs List looking for writers. We played email tag, and then things got too busy with our hostel business. I'm glad to see your blog is doing so well. You guys should check out Monvinic, the new wine bar/restaurant/appreciation center in Barcelona. It's right next to our hostel, so drop me a line if you ever stop by!