Customer Service in Portugal

If you have the right set of expectations about customer service in Portugal, you’ll find it’s not terrible and maybe, just maybe, almost good. But the job you need will get done. Usually.

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customer service in Portugal
The other day, I called the company that had serviced my hot water heater a few months back to see if I could have a technician come out to look at it again because the problem persisted.  I opened my phone call with a strong boa tarde, good afternoon, as the Portuguese do. I used my cheeriest speaking voice to explain the situation. And instead of the attendant on the line saying something like, sure, what seems to be the problem, or what address are you calling from so I can look up your account, or even just how can I help, she replied tartly: well, there’s a charge for that.  As if I had demanded a free, brand new hot water heater instead of a follow up visit to fix an issue their company left unresolved.  What kind of customer service is that? I was flummoxed, then angry, then just bummed out. 
If it were the first time something like this had happened to me in Portugal, maybe even the tenth time, I wouldn’t be writing about the subject.  Unfortunately, it’s the nth time, and while I grant that it’s still the exception rather than the rule, it’s not so exceptional an exception.  Of course, it’s not like US customer service always, or even usually, tends towards exceptionality, but I think it’s fair to describe it as…not hostile.
Now, if you ask most American tourists about their whirlwind visit to Portugal to take in the 17 points of interest in Lisbon their guidebook recommends, they will consistently tell you the Portuguese were “so nice.”  I recently discovered a whole Reddit thread devoted to Portuguese piling on a foreigner living here who questioned whether a culture of customer service even exists in Portugal, accusing the poster of being an arrogant a**hole who didn’t understand how things are done. 
AITA, too?
Well, yes and no.  Portugal isn’t winning any global awards for best customer service.  And plenty of Portuguese will freely complain about atendimento ao cliente, customer service, in Portugal, even if they are flatly uninterested in complaints coming from the mouths of foreigners living in Algarve beach houses.
However, to fully address the question, we need to step back and consider the larger picture.  Therefore, allow me to introduce my General Theory of Portuguese Customer Service© and how the theory might apply to you as a customer in Portugal.

Customer Service in Portugal: A Theory

At its most basic, good customer service helps businesses retain customers and earn new ones.  According to Investopedia, customer service should help customers resolve issues quickly, personalized to the needs of the particular customer, and be delivered by proactive customer service agents who listen and can empathize with the customer.  All of this generally holds true in Portugal, the United States, and anywhere with a market economy where consumers have options.
In Portugal, however, this pattern can break down on one of two fronts: the “supply side” or the Portuguese who are providing customer service; and the “demand side” or the expectations of customers about what constitutes “good” customer service from those supplying it, especially when those customers are American.
On the supply side, Portuguese salaries are among the lowest in Europe and work hours are among the highest.  This does not make for the ideal recipe to motivate people towards exceptional service, but rather doing just enough to not get fired.
On the demand side, the Portuguese already know all this and generally do not expect anything but the bare minimum of politeness from the average store clerk or government worker, so they are less often disappointed by it – and occasionally may find themselves pleasantly surprised by an unusual degree of friendliness.  For Portuguese standards, that is, where “neutral” is the most generous way to describe the basic customer service ethos here.  “Friendly” or “deign to greet you with a smile” are expectations that foreign ignoramuses tend to hold.  Unfortunately, we Americans are often viewed as foreign ignoramuses, especially with our excessively toothy grins, a dead giveaway you’re from the States.  Maybe even more than socks with sandals.  The Germans have a real foothold there
Supply and demand come together as follows.  You can generally expect the level of customer service to be higher where the salaries of the workers providing this service are higher.  You will perceive these levels of service to be higher – that is, you will describe the customer service you are receiving as “good” – the less exposure to American-style expectations about customer service you’ve had.  That is, if you are American or Portuguese, or if you fall more “American” or more “Portuguese” in your priors about how you should be attended.
I love a good diagram, and since this post isn’t wonky enough for my taste, let’s complicate it some more with a visual bastardizing a demand curve in economics to explain the logic.  We’ll use the example of customer service in an average Portuguese restaurant.
In the diagram below, any point along the red line represents a place where the supply of good customer service meets people’s expectations for good customer service, or the demand.  So, the average Portuguese customer in the average Portuguese restaurant will have middle-of-the-road expectations about the customer service they will receive (i.e., demand), which works out because in the average Portuguese restaurant the customer service provider they get (i.e., their waiter) will earn an average salary and provide average customer service.  In other words, the Portuguese customer’s demand for customer service meets the supply of what’s on offer in the restaurant.  That’s the yellow dot in the center of the diagram.  Middling expectations, middling quality.  Everybody’s happy.  Ish.
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How much time have you spent on Power Point today?
The other colored points lie outside the curve, meaning supply does not meet demand.  At the same level of supply – that is, the same waiter earning the same average salary and providing the same average customer service –  the average American in this restaurant will likely have unrealistic expectations about the quality of the customer service they can expect, so their demand for good customer service will exceed the supply.  (Red dot.)  This leads to a bunch of complaints on Reddit.  We can visualize the “size” of the American’s disappointment at their unmet expectations as the small grey triangle labeled in the graph with an American flag. 
Even worse, consider the average Saudi Prince in the average Portuguese restaurant (just work with me here).  He is even farther off the curve with even more wildly unrealistic expectations about customer service quality. (Black dot.) In his case, demand exceeds supply by an even greater amount. We can visualize the “size” of his disappointment as that much larger grey area labeled in the graph. I don’t even want to know what happens when you disappoint a Saudi Prince.
On the other end of the scale, the average Mongolian villager may have even lower expectations about how good the service should be than the average Portuguese. (Not to pick on Mongolian villagers here, but for the sake of example let’s assume Portuguese cafés, and café culture in Portugal in general, are better than in Mongolia as a rule.) In this case, supply exceeds demand, and the Mongolian villager gets a “surplus” of customer service, or way better service than he was counting on.  The “size” of his windfall is the large grey triangle labeled in the graph. 
So, at this restaurant, the Mongolian villager is happy, the Portuguese is doing well enough, and the American and Saudi Prince are unhappy. Ish.  I mean, give them all enough Portuguese wine and it will work itself out. 

Exceptions to the Theory

Low wages in Portugal go a long way toward explaining the quality of customer service here. People just aren’t paid enough to do their job adequately and do it with a spring in their step.  However, there are circumstances and particular industries where customer service may be better or worse for reasons not directly related to the salaries of people working in them.
The first is when speaking to someone over the phone.  It’s low cost for a customer service rep to tell someone to piss off in so many words when they don’t have to look at your crestfallen face.  (Note: no one here will *actually* tell you to piss off; it’s all in the subtle tone of voice that indicates you are the single most stupid person they have ever encountered. This is not unique to Portugal, rather standard practice in Europe generally. Sometimes you get lucky, though, and land on a smiler.)  I would rather send an email into the ether, never to be answered or even opened, or get in the car and drive in the rain somewhere to show up in person than talk to a Portuguese customer service agent on the phone.  This is less true for large, national or even international companies where the conversation is recorded and they can’t insult your dignity outright, and more true for mom and pop operations where mom or pop is answering the phone.  Or no one is.
The second concerns small businesses in the skilled trades, such as plumbers, electricians, and general contractors.  Investopedia claims “successful small business owners understand the need for good customer service instinctively” but they’ve obviously never been to Portugal.
Take plumbing, for example.  Most plumbers work as independent contractors, or for family outfits.  There is no behemoth Ikea of plumbers making sure you know that “your call is important to us” and these small businesses don’t invest a lot of time into customer service because there aren’t enough picheleiros, plumbers, to go around.  They don’t really need you or your business, Mr./s. Foreigner With Big Money To Spend on Plumbing, because some other customer will be along right after you.
The reason for this also comes down to supply and demand.  There is a labor shortage in the trades and construction: salaries were always low and people didn’t want to do this work.  But now with the real estate boom in Portugal, and people just needing general maintenance on their homes, there’s not as many skilled workers left to do it.  So, prices for these services went up and customer service….didn’t.
The same goes for general contractors and electricians.  You may never even get the chance to be disappointed by their atendimento ao cliente because they won’t bother answering your emails or calls. 
On the flip side of all of this, we have the tourism industry.  Hotels, tuk-tuk operators, and restaurants catering to foreigners understand that tourists have options.  There are a bazillion hotels in Portugal now compared to only, like, 9 plumbers.  Tourism, much more than other sectors, has to earn your business, in part, through good customer service.  That’s why American tourists on their whirlwind visit to Portugal to take in the 17 points of interest in Lisbon their guidebook recommends will describe everyone they encounter as “so nice.” 
Also, although there isn’t a strong tradition of tipping in Portugal like there is in the United States, people working in tourism here are aware of it and are at least somewhat motivated to provide the sort of quality service an American might feel inclined to tip.  To wit: I took some visiting relatives from the US to a restaurant here recently, and though I spoke to the server only in Portuguese, she obviously knew we were all American.  (Besides the English, we were the loudest ones in the restaurant.  ‘Merika!)  When she brought me the check, she graciously presented me with the total, and then a second total calculated with an additional 10% gratuity “if I would like to include one.”  The last time I was in that restaurant with a group of Portuguese, no one gave us this option and we left a few coins on our six-top table.

Final Thoughts

If you’re an American, you might be thinking, as I did once upon a time, something along the lines of “This problem can be solved by shopping online from large, multinational companies.” I applaud your attempts at strategic thinking.
Alas, there are not as many options for online shopping in Portugal and the process tends to be less convenient overall when compared to the United States.  Furthermore, the number of large businesses of the Ikea and Amazon variety that can offer streamlined, highly automized services with ease are limited.  As I discuss in my post about investing in Portugal, the Portuguese equivalent of the American S&P 500 index only has 20 companies in it, nowhere near 500.  Well, it did but now there aren’t even 20 that are big enough to qualify for the index.  It’s simply a much smaller economy.
If, by chance, you’re thinking of moving to Portugal, take heart.  None of this matters as long as your expectations about Portuguese customer service align with what you’re likely to get. 
Wrapping up the story I opened this post with, let me say that the technician who finally came out to look at my hot water heater arrived promptly, shook my hand when he introduced himself, took the time to explain how a temperature regulator in a plumbing system works by drawing a diagram on his smart phone, and though he never cracked a smile the entire time – not even when I made what I thought was a pretty decent joke about my children’s questionable bathing habits – he did identify the problem.  I just have to go on another customer service odyssey to fix it.
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