Does Service Suck in the Philippines?

One of the great complaints among expats and tourists alike in the Philippines is about the quality of service. Almost to a man they say it sucks. Now I don’t live in the Philippines, but have visited a bunch of times and never considered it quite as bad as advertised, though I will admit that might be because the clerk providing me with that “poor” service was a cute Pinay, making up for the service by throwing out “guapo Amerikano” every few minutes.

Now let me start out my rant with a basic concept: that anyone who thinks you can go to a third world country and get 1st world service is an idiot 🙂 Let me expound on this a bit first and use my lovely wife, Janet, as an example; I’ll get to her a bit later. What I really believe is that almost everything is cultural – even what we think of as good or bad service. The other thing I’ve got to question is the quality of service we think we get in the 1st world.

Remember that funny scene in Back to the Future, where Marty McFly travels back to the 50s (by way of a Delorian). He arrives in his small town and is shocked to look over at the local gas station (service stations back then) and watch three attendants descend on a car pulling in for gas. I am old enough to remember a time when attendants filled your tank (that’s done in only a couple of states today), checked your oil and water, put air in your tires, etc. Today if you want air or water for your car, there is a machine that costs $.75 – and you gotta run it. How’s that for service? I guess is must be OK, since most of us accepted the change and rationalized it by claiming that we saved a couple cents a gallon on gas.

I am also old enough (apparently this blog post is actually about my old age) to remember a time when doctors made house calls. As a kid I’d get the flu, my mom would call the doctor and he would come over (usually late at night), examine me and declared with great authority, “he’s got the flu.” I know, I know – you youngsters think I am making this up.

Today, if you’re sick at night, you wait till the next day (assuming the doc has office hours the next day – otherwise he might be able to see you between the front and back nine) or go to the emergency room, where a doctor barely out of puberty will poke you (after you’ve waited 3 hours). In the end you get a bill from the emergency room comparable to your monthly mortgage payment. Is this good service or just what we’ve gotten used to? If a pediatrician makes twice what POTUS makes, shouldn’t we expect him/her to miss a few hours of sleep or reschedule his damn tee time?

By the way, as a point of comparison, many doctors in the Philippines do make house calls, probably because in the Philippines doctors are not rich and they are worried that if they don’t show up that night by the next morning you might actually get better on your own.

There are a few things that have improved service-wise in the 1st world since my childhood. For example, you can go to your local box store and return just about any purchase. Most people consider this to be great service. “I don’t like the color – I’m taking it back.” And sure enough you can with no questions asked.

When I was a kid and you bought something at your local KMart (no Walmart back then) unless when you brought the item home it was broken – you were out of luck. And if it was broken, you didn’t get a refund; they gave you a replacement. And you filled out a form the length of a 1040 to get the replacement.

So it’s better now right? I suppose, but guess what? That customer service desk at Walmart with the friendly clerk who will take anything back with no questions asked – it ain’t free – ultimately we all pay for it!

Another common complaint in the Philippines is about credit cards. Some stores take them, some don’t. Machines don’t work sometimes. If you go to the third world expecting to get your Discover rewards points, you might be disappointed.

Let’s use my old age as a baseline again, shall we. I know it’s hard to believe but not that many years ago people in the West actually went to stores and made purchases with cash or check. We were primitive back then, weren’t we? Then about 30 years ago some smart tech nerd made an amazing discovery and thus we were given the ATM. The machine was amazing. You could use what looked like a credit card and actually get cash anytime, day or night – so that you could go to that department store and pay cash for your purchases.

Eventually the cash card became a debit card and we all stopped carrying cash altogether. And checks? Come on! Janet and I have a checking account but no checks. What’s the point?

But guys go to the Philippines and discover that not all stores take debit/credit cards and not all store clerks are thrilled when you present yours. I know it’s hard to believe, but most people in a developing nation don’t carry American Express. They carry pesos, albeit too few of them.

A guy posted in a forum recently about an experience standing in line at the local supermarket behind an ancient and nasty kano. They were in the “cash only” line, but the old fart insisted loudly that he be allowed to use his credit card. The shy clerk finally agreed but the card wouldn’t go through and she suggested that maybe the coot’s card was not good. The guy yelled and screamed that he had enough money in his account to buy and sell the whole damn country. The poster was embarrassed for the poor clerk and embarrassed to be associated with such a foreigner.

OK, I hear you asking – how does this relate to Janet, who is what this blog should be about (if I were smart and wanted a nice ending to the night) – so let me try to pull that together. For five years before we were married, Janet put herself through college by working in a small Pension House on the island of Leyte, far from her home in Cebu. She got up in the morning and helped clean the rooms. In the afternoon she went to school. She returned in the evening and worked at the front desk until 10:00 PM. She checked guests in and out, handled the cash register and often just about ran the place in the absence of the owner and manager. If the relief person was late or could not show for work, she worked that shift also. She worked six and sometimes seven days a week, as is the custom in the Philippines. She provided excellent service and the staff and customers loved her, as did the owner. How much money did she earn? Zero! Yes you read that right; for five years she worked and worked and was paid nothing. Her compensation was that the owner gave her room and board and paid her tuition at the small college she attended. This is common in the Philippines. It used to be common in the West and there is a term that was once used to describe this form of work – indentured servitude!

Of course Janet was bright and pretty. Every day she and I would be chatting online from the front desk computer when she would say, “it’s time for the players.” I knew what she was referring to and they weren’t the kind of “players” we in the West think of. They were a group of older, rich Filipinos, who gathered daily to play Mah Jong at the pension house. Janet’s job was to serve them. My guess is that the “players” tipped her well and that made up the pocket money she used.

Yet despite the tough circumstances, she did not complain, finished her degree and managed to give excellent service to a variety of guests – particularly the “players,” no doubt.

About six months after we married Janet took a service job around the corner from where we live. By American standards it is not high paying. The job attracts young and inexperienced workers and the turnover is fast and furious. Just like at the pension house, they love Janet. She works hards, cares for the customers, helps her fellow employees, covers for them when they are sick. She has been asked many times why an attractive girl with a college degree would work in such a job, and work hard at that. She has no answer that they can understand.

In short, she provides the type of service that Filipinos are famous for the world over – and the word poor doesn’t enter into it!

7 thoughts on “Does Service Suck in the Philippines?”

  1. I was just in t he Philippines in Feb. and everywhere I went the service was better than expected. Everywhere I went, wether it was the market, traveling or the corner store I got better service and respect than anywhere here in the U.S. Kudos to the Pinoy people! Also I had to recently call St. Lukes, the people on the other end of the phone were much more courteous and understanding than anyone on any phone here in the U.S.! If you ask me, service and manners are dead in the U.S. They thrive in any third world country you should travel. Go Philippines! Also on a side bar: when going through Japan, they were courteous and pleasant as well.

    Thank you,

    PS: My Alarm clock has gone off!

    1. Thanks Ernest. Sometimes courtesy and a smile can make up for so much. Several trips ago I was traveling from Manila to Cebu. It was a very early morning flight I was exhausted, in a bad mood, and wasn’t even sure why I was there. 5:00AM and the Pinay at the Cebu Pacific counter smiled and said, “Good morning, Sir,” and I remembered why I was there and why I loved the Philippines.

  2. Hi Dave
    The Gas Station. When you pull up two or three descend on you. ‘Full Tank Sir?’ says one, ‘Windscreen Sir?’ says another. There is one station here however goes too far in that when you are leaving, one bayot goes out on the road to stop the traffic, even though I am capable of finding a gap my self and am actually more worried about knocking him down than anything else. Air is free.
    In restaurants and bars there are a few shortcomings; mainly due to the fact that the waiter does not want to disturb you, or oftentimes is preoccupied with his or her cellphone. Of course if you live here you will learn to do ‘lip speak’ in combination with ‘eye speak’. For a beer you make a ‘kiss’ with you lips, and point lips towards your beer. The waiter will then put up one two or three fingers depending on how many at the table. Then. you point your eyes up in the air for affirmative.

    I think the term ‘indentured servitude’ is a little bit harsh. Many Filipinos would jump at the opportunity to get a degree in return for part time work. The college in question, is actually the biggest in the city. It may not be ‘Harvard’, but do you think that a college student in the US fair any better. Without a grant or help from their parents, a US student would probably have to hold two part time jobs, just to pay accommadation, food etc in a different city than their hometown. They would more than likely have to take out a student loan to cover the college fees.
    Back to service in The Philippines. When you two eventually come to stay at Caimito, you will see that some places here have as good, if not better service than the west. See you when?

    1. Pascal – thanks for your perspective. I suspect that many expats and tourists are used to the American way of asking for service, which is a bit more direct and aggressive than the lip pointing or eye raising.

      As to the indentured servitude crack, of course that was meant as sarcasm. Nonetheless working for years without pay and just having the tuition covered is I agree great in the Philippines and many Filipinas would agree to such an situation. I do not believe that many American teens would agree to such an arrangement – I know my kids wouldn’t 🙂 The days of kids working two jobs to put themselves through college are nearly over. Unfortunately the kids are often willing to go into huge student loan debt, believing that they will be able to make big bucks and pay it back, but that’s another issue.

      Speaking of servitude, when is the new master (or is it mistress) of the household due to arrive?

  3. Hi Dave- Came across your site…thanks for the good read!
    I am now @15 years with my Filipina. Service in the Philippines sometimes sucks due to simple ignorance vs a bad attitude.
    Many Pinoys simply have no idea what “good” is, so what you get is some third world estimation of it.

    Anyway…what a fun site…and you have done well for yourself!


  4. Thanks Dave- It does not seem so long…we have two great kids
    and time flies…we are in Oregon also- down by Salem.
    If you are married to a Filipina, a lot of things Change…lol


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