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Expat Life and Expert Advice on Living in Argentina

June 7, 2009

As a 5 year veteran of the city of Buenos Aires, having married an Argentine woman, having bought and sold property here, and having started businesses, I feel as though a large community out there may appreciate tips on living and doing business in Buenos Aires, other parts of Argentina.

Getting back onto the subject of expat issues in Argentina is something I strayed away from for a while, but this week, having met a few newcomers to Buenos Aires made me think of how valuable some of this information can be to those who may need it.

Newcomers specific issues usually have to do with the language barrier which can be formidable, especially for those who do not have a strong base in Spanish. This makes everything difficult from the get go: finding an apartment, getting your apartment set up with cable, internet, phone, cleaning service, paying bills, and especially disputing charges.

Just this week a friend of ours asked us to call on her behalf to help her get internet installed. Now, everyone out there has dealt with a nameless, faceless corporation at some point in their life. These corporations like Citibank and United Airlines have their shortcomings in the US because they do not actually care about resolving customer issues since their businesses are highly streamlined toward you spending money and not being able to get it back. But here is the key, these American (I will use this term to indicate persons, places, things, or entities from the U.S.–we can debate the merits of the use of this term in this fashion in another blog) WILL do everything in their power to help you spend money on their goods and sevices. Then comes the not being able to change your flight or the dispute over late charges and suddenly they are all out of answers.

The grand difference is that in Argentina these types of companies do not even lift a finger to help you spend your money in the first place. There are 3 main internet service providers in the city of Buenos Aires: Fibertel, Arnet, and Speedy (there is also Claró but they do a slightly different service). We called the first on behalf of our friend to help her get her internet up and running since her Spanish skills are not up to the task yet. They said simply “no ofrecemos servicio en esa region,” which means they do not offer service in that section of the city. We asked who does. “Ni idea”, was the response.

We called the second. Same interaction.

Then we called the third. They do service this area. We then began to inquire about the different types of services our friend could get. The woman on the phone sounded shocked, “you mean, this is not for you?” She asked. No this is for a friend. “Well I can’t give out private information.” WHAT!!?? What private info? We are asking you for info about your company, what you charge, and what services you provide. This is PUBLIC information we explained. This is how you get our money, we told her.

Still, she refused to even give us an explanation of what services Speedy offers. She said that she had to talk directly to the client. Ok, fine, we said, do you speak English? No. Well, our friend who is interested only speaks English. Do you have a different office we could call where they do speak English? No. Then how, without our help, is this person going to get internet, and make your company richer?

“I need to speak directly with the client”. Did you hear a WORD we said? Did you listen at all? We said she DOESN’T SPEAK SPANISH!! How are you going to talk to her??

“I can’t give out private information.” What!!

We had to hang up the phone and call back. We went through the same interaction with no less than 3 other “customer service agents”.

When we finally did get someone on the phone who actually listened and understood our dilemma, they told us about their service, and suggested we go into one of their offices to sort out the matter. A pathetic alternative, but at least an alternative was offered.

This is typical of service companies in Argentina: no listening, no effort. I wonder what it will take to get people to change their behavior.

Sorry to start off on a sour note, but this is what just happened this week. There will be positive posts to follow, I guarantee, or I wouldn’t be livi

9 Comments leave one →
  1. June 10, 2009 8:03 pm

    Did you change your name to Livi?

    I can completely picture that conversation. I do have to say though that I once heard a segment on just this very thing on This American Life where a woman had a dispute with a phone company in the States and it was just so depressing. Like you said though, it is comical to see large companies trying to streamline things and not getting the “ingresos” part right.

    I also had a conversation, or an argument really, with a cop. He was trying to tell me that I needed to have my garage door authorized before he could ticket anyone parking in front of it and therefore blocking access to my factory. Fucking idiot.

    • June 10, 2009 8:07 pm

      Thanks for the comment Frank!
      I think I could fill up gigabytes of text with rants on cops. Both here and in the U.S. Did you ever get the permit for your garage door? Ha!

  2. June 12, 2009 3:41 pm

    Last month I discovered I couldn’t place any phone calls from home although I could receive calls. I hadn’t reached the final date for bill payment as yet. They next day my Speedy service was disconnected. I called Telefonica about the problem and was told that I hadn’t paid my March bill. Well, I never received a bill for March and the April bill in hand didn’t include unpaid charges for March. Telefonica informed me of the unpaid charges which I paid immediately and asked them to send a copy of the bill. I was told that I would be charged for reconnection.

    This is the first time in ten years I have been late with payment through no fault on my part. Their billing system is as bad as the mail service. If the phone bill doesn’t arrive, call them for the electronic payment number and pay it without the bill in hand. You will be charged 30 pesos for the reconnection. You receive no notice of any kind in the mail that your bill hasn’t been paid and they are going to disconnect your phone. It just happens, and you must deal with their bad system.

    I am still waiting for a copy of my March phone bill.

    That’s life in Buenos Aires. I love it here, but things are very different and take getting used to. I had no help from anyone when I arrived in 1999.

    • June 12, 2009 6:07 pm

      Thanks for the comment Jantango!

      I had very similar things happen with bills not arriving and then getting charge by that same company for something that was their fault! How frustrating!

      Argentina does take getting used to and there are tremendous benefits to living here as well, which will certainly be the subject of future posts.

  3. June 25, 2009 4:19 am

    Hi, I just found your blog and can completely relate to a lot of stuff you’ve written about – except for the same things would happen to me across the cordillera in Santiago de Chile!!! The buses only running in packs and not stopping at preset routes, the complete lack of customer service and me practically having to tackle a salesperson down to try and give them my money in exchange for a product, reminded me of my own experiences. It’s not just Argentina, believe me.

    • June 25, 2009 12:57 pm

      Thanks for your comment Renée!

      I totally agree about these experiences in Santiago as well. I think that many of these anecdotes might apply to the vast majority of Latin America if not most of the world. I think that the U.S. has a peculiar cultural value which is that the customer is always right.

  4. Sara permalink
    December 13, 2009 11:54 am

    I’m a Porteña born and bred, and therefore a survivor of the system.
    Have just discovered your blog, which is very interesting and funny, too.
    I have two suggestions:

    1) Buses: A friendly 60 bus driver explained to me why they sometimes they don’t stop for passengers. If they overtake an earlier bus, the are obliged to pick up it’s schedule and sometimes have to make up lost time. Yes, there are schedules, only known to them and supervised by inspectors who occasionally hop on and off buses.

    2) The “I’ll only talk to the client” stonewalling tactic. Simply say YOU ARE the client. I’ve passed as my daughter, my friend, my maid, and my sister in law. As long as you have the correct information, (date of birth, ID, address, etc.) they have no way of knowing who you are.

    In my experience, cell phone companies are the very worst. And the competition for the title is tough.

    Keep well, keep blogging….


    • December 13, 2009 12:59 pm

      Thanks for your comments Sara! Your explanation of schedules is quite interesting as well: if there are schedules then why would one bus ever overtake another? Also, what is the point of having schedules if the people don’t know what they are? I’m not saying I don’t believe you, I’m just saying that a schedule without consistency is not a schedule. What I have found to be the biggest truism about this country is that it’s predictably unpredictable.

      • Sara permalink
        December 13, 2009 7:17 pm

        Hi: this is what the 60 driver told me, a few years ago: They are assigned schedules upon leaving the terminal – they have to be at certain intersections within a certain time window, for instance, Cabildo and Juramento at 4:30/4:38. If a bus takes too long unloading and loading passengers, the next bus may overtake it. In that case, the second bus must pick up the first bus schedule. I’ve seen inspectors board the buses, talk to the driver for a few stops, check the ticketing machines, and get off again.

        The driver also told me they had to undergo psychological evaluations and stress tests every six months. To make sure they did not go bonkers driving in BA’s traffic. Someone else confirmed that.

        This may be true just for the 60 line, which runs every three minutes or so. It’s highly efficient, running several alternative branch routes: 60 del bajo, 60 del alto, 60 Panamericana, 60 Escobar, etcetera. A few years ago they ran a “Preferencial” express service: AC buses with seated passengers only. They trip cost about twice what the normal 60 costs, but about a third of what a cab ride would cost. The trip from San Isidro to Belgrano took under twenty minutes. It has since been discontinued.

        Anyway, with BA’s chaotic traffic and endless street closings, I don’t see how those drivers can be expected to meet any schedules.

        As for life in Buenos Aires, we are strong believers in that old saying: That which doesn’t kill you makes you stronger. Porteños are getting to be regular Schwartzennegers.


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