Wednesday, November 12, 2008

Everything Just . . . Works

Someone down here was telling us not too long ago that he loved traveling to the US. When we inquired as to what he enjoyed so much, he thought for a minute and said, "Everything is so . . . I mean, everything there just . . . just works." Since we were not completely sure what he meant, he went on to give us several examples. And the more I've thought about his comments lately, I am really looking forward to our trip back in December/January. I'm really looking forward to things just "working".

One of the things he mentioned was the way people will line up and do things so orderly. He was amazed in the mall food court when people were forming single-file lines behind each cash register instead of all squeezing in around the counter and trying to get the cashier's attention so they can place their order next. The four-way stop concept was impressive to him too; everyone actually stops and then one at a time they proceed through the intersection.

He also talked about how things generally weren't broken but that if they did break, they were immediately repaired or taken care of. The roads were in such great shape. A broke down car gets towed quickly rather than sitting in the middle of the road blocking traffic for hours. Stores' bar code scanners work, along with their credit card machines. And he also liked how everyone in the service industry wants to do whatever it takes to keep the customer happy.

Eric and I have had especially bad luck with things breaking/not functioning properly/bad customer service, some of my favorite examples lately include:

- Yesterday while in the recording studio, the camera man and I started smelling something burning - something very electrical smelling. Turns out, the fuse box had a small fire in it, but no big deal (to anyone other than me). The A/C unit got wiped out, but they assured me there was no problem with the camera or lights. I had to continue recording without air. With the lighting system in the studio, it quickly got up above 40 degress C (105 F) in our little sound-proof room. I required a lot of make-up touch-ups!

-The pump at a gas station mysteriously stopped working after we had received just about 1/3 of a liter of alcohol in our tank. The attendant just sort of shrugged and said she didn't know what the problem was, but that our total was 55 centavos.

-After waiting for almost an hour to ship a small box at the post office, I had my turn, filled out all the paperwork, and then their credit card machine wouldn't work. It had been like that all day they said, but they were sure if I came back in a half hour it would be working again. So I did, waited again for my turn, but then once again the machine didn't work. They suggested I just try coming back the following day. I ended up going and pulling out cash from an ATM several blocks away, but in the end it had taken nearly 3 hours just to send a piece of mail.

-At the grocery store recently I was excited to finally find a frozen turkey breast (frozen turkeys are hard to come by around here!) I wanted to buy one, but there were only two left - one had a tear in the packaging and the other one had a smeared price tag/bar code. We ended up taking the latter, and alerting the cashier that there was another one still in the cooler with a readable price tag if he needed it for the price. He sent someone else to the meat department with my turkey and they came back with the other one. After pointing out the tear and exposed meat and explaining we chose the other one for a reason, the cashier sent a manager to the back with this opened turkey. She returned empty handed and said the other one had an unreadable price tag. After asking if they could just enter in the price using the good tag, she informed us that they couldn't because it was based on weight. We suggested that they weigh my turkey then and determine the price using the posted price per kilo, but we were informed that would be impossible. Eric then suggested that they just sell us the turkey for the price of the opened one then. They said they couldn't do that because there was a couple reais difference in the price. Eric calmly and politely told them that that seemed to him like the store's problem, not ours and that we just wanted to be able to pay them for our turkey. And at this point we had the cashier and the manager just looking at us as if we were crazy. I commented to them that it seemed to me like this was an easy enough situation to handle. And the manager offered to sell us the turkey that was opened. We once again expressed our concern over the tear and the exposed meat and asked them if they could please find a way to charge us for the turkey breast we wanted. The manager just said it wasn't possible and walked away. The cashier gave us an apologetic look and said, "Difícil, né?" (Difficult, huh?) As the crazy hormones that inhibit me from having patience these days took over, I just shook my head and told him that actually, no, it really should be quite simple, nothing difficult about it.

-We ordered an espeto (kabob) of chicken at a restaurant along with a couple small side dishes. When our food came out, the waiter used a fork to push the chicken off the espeto and onto a serving dish. Of the six pieces of grilled chicken on the stick, two of them went flying off and landed on the floor. The waiter smiled, apologized, and finished putting the other four pieces on the dish in front of us. Two-thirds of the meat we ordered ended up on the floor, so we were certain the waiter would be bringing us some more at any moment. But we finished the meal with the remainder of our chicken at our feet under the table. We asked for the check, thinking that there would just be an adjustment to our bill, but instead we found that we had indeed been charged the full amount for our meal and the server had still added on the optional 10% service tax (tip). The bill wasn't high and we just paid it, but we still have to laugh about it!

Poor service, technical problems, and such can certainly be a universal problem, but here everyone just always seems so complacent and laid back about it! (I have mellowed a lot living here, but I'm still not nearly as care-free as the locals!) While I have certainly experienced things just generally being more complicated to accomplish here than back in the US, I had never thought of it in terms of "things just work" there. But my Brasilian friend may be on to something with his observation!

I can't wait to see what my reactions are after being away for an entire year. I'm quite certain though that there will be a pretty equal mix of things that I find I've missed while I've been away from the US and things that I will be excited to get back to in Brasil!


Beth O. said...

I think everyone should take an extended trip outside the US. It really makes you appreciate what you are coming back to. After 6 weeks in France and Germany, I just wanted to come home to a place that had stores open on Sunday!

Anonymous said...

I have had excellent service returning items to stores in Belo Horizonte. Since I had the bill and my credit cards the transactions happened just like they do in North America.
The best return was to a Carrefour (French chain of small grocery stores) in BH, downtown. I took a damaged food item to the courtesy desk and explained in my limited Portuguese the problem. The staff member indicated she would have to get the manager which she did in about 30 seconds. I was prepared for a delay and went to the side of the counter settling in to wait, wait and observe the store, the people. In under a minute the manager was handing me my money. He almost had to nudge me!
Speaking of language, since most shopkeepers don't speak English they very often ask a customer to help or find a colleague to help me. I had my hair cut once when my daughter was visiting and since she is the style expert she had to tell the stylist what we wanted. The shop found a customer, daughter told her, customer told the stylist what I wanted. Everybody happy! Usually we all hug after this type of interaction.

Emily said...

We too have had no problems on the few occassions when we needed to return something to a store! (Like you, we also had kept our receipt.)

AcesHigh said...

some of the histories are ludicrous. (i hope this is the correct word)

Maybe the problem is Minas Gerais. Mineiros are known to be too complacent.

I would flip out if the turkey and chicken stories happened to me.

As for the chicken on the supermarket store... many supermarkets hire, for social reasons, people from APAE and other institutions for people with mental deficiencies. Like people with Down Syndrome. Maybe the cashier was one of them? What I didnt knew was that they hired MANAGERS with mental deficiencies.

Anonymous said...

That could happen anywhere in Brazil, it´s not a matter of being complacent or not, the problem is having abundant, uneducated and ignorant cheap labor working in those positions, what happens even in allegedly "first-worldish" parts of the country. The "turkey" situation wouldn´t happen if those workers had a brain.

Anonymous said...

I am here in Belo Horizonte for 3 weeks (Business trips). It's been a mixed experience so far-Language problems, good scenery, aggressive drivers that seem to speed up as I am about to cross the street etc. But overall been good. Really enjoyed reading your blog and maybe you can post something like a must do and where to go list of things in Belo. That would help a lot of people.

cherie said...

Any time I've traveled outside the U.S., I've loved the differences, the exoticisms, but in the end, I've always been glad to get back to the way things work here.

Corinne said...

I just got back from the US and I can SO relate to the "it just works" comment. I LOVED driving in the US, and the Macy´s saleswoman spent about 30 minutes on me at the lingerie department trying to decifer the correct bra size for my mom (based on pictures, some wrong measuring and my guesstamates). I was so impressed!! But then, I have seen so many people in Brazil go over and beyond (carrying my wheelchair bound mother over 100 meters down stairs to a boat landing and then back up again) and actually had a US American Airlines service person say "are you done?" in a surly tone, when I tried to explain my customer service problem. It is hard to generalize. That said, I would not trade my yearly trips back stateside for anything!! I love touching base again, eating all the food I miss, and just generally being in a country when I know how it works (whether it always does or not).

Ray Adkins said...


I hear your pain, but it does sounds like it is a Minas thing to be so complacent, in Sao Paulo people would have strangled the manager and the cashier over the turkey fiasco.