Dennis Jones is a Jamaican-born international economist, who has lived most of the time in the UK and USA, and latterly in Guinea, west Africa. He moved back to the Caribbean in 2007. This blog contains his observations on life on this small eastern Caribbean island, as well as views on life and issues on a broader landscape, especially the Caribbean and Africa.







**You may contact me by e-mail at livinginbarbados[at]gmail[dot]com**

Friday, June 13, 2008

Back in town.

After two weeks away from these lovely shores, it's funny what happens to bring you back to ground with a hard landing, so to speak. I think I am a keen observer of social behaviour, so I am constantly intrigued why almost all the rational, tolerant, equitable, and pleasant Caribbean people I know who live here rail against the surly, rude, dismissive, angry animal called the Barbadian service worker. Where we come from in other parts of the region we were brought up to expect a certain civility and respect for customers. That seems to be something that is evidently lacking in Barbados. We puzzle over whether it is a reflection of something called "national character", or springs from a clear lack of training, or both.

Take at random some offerings over conversation last night. Why does a conversation with one of the major phone carriers, who in Jamaica is known as "Careless and Worthless"--not my terms, just local parlance, end with a remark from the customer that it has been a "painful experience", and the response from the service provider employee "For me, too!" You pay for a service; you don't get it; you seek to find out what to do next; you get hit with hostility at worst or a clear lack of sense of what the customer needs. "We have someone on it." is not what the customer needs. I remember when my Internet service went down some months ago and I asked for an idea of how long it might take to repair, to see if I needed to find another solution. "I can't say." Give me a rough idea, I asked: a few hours, a few days, adding that each hour could cost me several hundred US dollars. "Oh, that would be putting my neck on the block." came the reply. Well, hello, my head is already in the noose as I can't work. After pushing more, I got an indication that it would be within the next 72 hours--that's very long but at least I had an idea. It turned out to be less, so in the end I was relieved. But clearly there is not a standard service time of if it exists, the employees are reluctant to commit to it. Why? It cannot be met? By contrast, I am told, experience with the other carrier that sells digital phones is a contrast in courteous behaviour. Does the behaviour spring difference spring from the days when one had a monopoly and could do as it pleased? In a little defence of Cable and Wireless, I have found some employees there who are pillars of great service and civility, but they acknowledge that they are exceptional.

Why does a cashier in a supermarket named JB's (Jaw Breaker?) respond to "Could you give me change for $20, please?", with "No...I'm not going to ask my colleagues if they have change, either." Why is it that when asked if she would check the engine at a gas station, the pump attendant responds "I wont touch no radiator. Who goin' pay if I get burn?" Perhaps the concern is legitimate, but there are ways to express it that don't make the customer feel that she has done some wrong.

There is a feeling amongst my friends that this treatment has a racial element. I am not convinced. Sure, I have had the "You black, I go treat you like dirt" treatment in the stores, while seeing some sickening fawning over some half naked white tourist, who perhaps can't count well enough or is so taken with the good exchange rate that he does not care. Over the phone, I have not had enough experience of how white/non-Caribbeans are treated, and true, I sound much less Jamaican than English. Can that explain why surveys of tourists find that the friendliness of the people is a major attraction of visiting this treasured isle?

Some Bajans say that they are proudly confident people. People from other Caribbean countries often note a certain inferiority complex. That squares more with the view of other Bajans who say that amongst Caribbean nations they have a special characteristic--an inherently passive nature. So, repeated Reudon Eversley in today's Nation, entitled "The 'suffering' Bajan":

"It's our inherently passive nature which works sometimes to our detriment. It exposes us to being taken for granted. It can encourage people to do things to us."

He goes on to say:

"Suffering in silence is very much part of the average Barbadian's experience. It's a choice which mirrors a deep inner feeling of helplessness which so many Barbadians reveal in their everyday language."

Is this leading us to the answer? Bajans are bitter and tired of suffering and the fear of being taken for granted so take it out on anybody who asks for any favour--kick before you get kicked? No more suffering in silence if someone needs you to guide them. I need some Bajans to confirm that they get the rough shod boot in the goolies treatment.

The irony of the article is that it talks about how the consumer, grouping together, can get producers and service providers to do better. Mr. Eversley focused on the fight for lower prices and adds:

"Many years ago, I made a conscious decision not to pay the ridiculous prices asked for some items in Barbados. If more Barbadians would start doing the same, they might be pleasantly surprised at how quickly some prices will start to fall. ... A consumer boycott, as a "spontaneous expression of disgust", can enhance the struggle for better prices. It's an effective and powerful weapon!"

As I have written before, I am amongst several who have taken similar decisions as regards eating out, and in another vein avoid supermarkets like I do serpents and dragons.

But this fight needs to drive for more than lower prices. It needs to be a fight for better service, too, and service with a sense that the customer merits consideration. The problem is that somehow the Bajan worker does not see eye to eye with the consumer on this, and the client is often viewed as a problem. Admitted, we customers can also be unkind. But if an employee justifies a bitter set of responses by saying we are frustrated, tired, unhappy, etc., then join the club. Worse is, keep treating customers like dirt and get used to the idea of staying home and remembering the days when there was a paying job. Or is job security too assured?

The words from Mr. Eversley which ring loudly with me are:

"Consumers must recognise their enormous power and put it to effective use. Every business relies on the patronage of customers. Without customers, no business can survive."

Have Bajan businesses started to learn this lesson? If so, are they going to share it with their employees.


geraldo said...

Olá Dennis,
I was looking for blogs in Barbados when I found by chance yours. I must say that I like to read articles on the blogs and sometimes I make comments. Your style is very good.
I have a blog too, but I am afraid I am not a good writer. It contains more photos. Indeed beautiful photos in their majority from the nature.
Receive my best wishes from Brazil:

Shellina said...

Interestin read Dennis and loving the 'careless and worthless' reference- guessin S is still havin trouble wiv the house internet?! Do you think that the attittude that you have come across in Bdos is only present or perhaps more prevalent in certain areas such as retail or dya think that you are just as likely to encounter it at say a restaurant or from a police officer?