The customer is always right…except in the native tongue

Firth McEachern was working in San Fernando, Philippines in waste management.

“Adda ti Black Forest Sundae yo?”

“Wala po” the Jollibee cashier replied.

“Adda Beef with Mushrooms?” I asked again.

“Mayroon po.”

“Ilokano ka?” I probed.

“O’o Sir.”

“Tapos, apay agtagtagalogka ket Ilocano ti pagsarsaritak kenka?” I asked her, curious.

She blushed and looked surprised. “Diak ammo sir.”

This is the scene I go through practically every time I go to establishments like Jollibee’s, McDonald’s, Greenwich, KFC, and the CSI mall here in San Fernando.  Even though I speak to them in Iloko, they frequently respond to me in Tagalog, even if they are Ilokano!

What ever happened to the maxim, “The customer is always right?” If I am a paying customer, it is up to the establishment to be as accommodating to the customer as possible. If I speak in Tagalog, they should respond in Tagalog. If I speak in Iloko, they should respond in Iloko. Of course, this is not always feasible because not every waiter is guaranteed to know the local language, but if he or she does, there is no reason not to.

I wanted to find out why it was so hard to get staff at medium and high-end establishments to speak to me in the regional language. So one day I asked the manager of a local Max’s restaurant about it. The very friendly, thoughtful man told me that many managers will tell their employees to only speak in Tagalog and English.

“What’s wrong with that?” You might ask. “Tagalog is the universal language here in the Philippines so everyone understands it. And English is also an official language.”

Both are true statements. But if a customer begins speaking in the local language, what better proof does the staff member need in order to know that the customer speaks the local language?! The evidence is in her face! In other words, the decision of an Ilokano employee to continue talking in Tagalog with someone who is blatantly speaking Iloko to her is no longer about ensuring understanding. The employee is simply being inattentive and rude to the wishes of the customer. Therefore, it would be in the best interest of everyone if managers told their employees to speak in whatever language their customers used, when possible.

There is one impediment to this idea. Since it has been such a habit of fast food chains and department stores to speak Tagalog to their customers, many customers are already shy or unaccustomed to addressing staff in the local language.

There are two preferred options to overcome this minor glitch. Out of respect for the local language, commercial establishments should by default greet their customers in it. In Hawaii, for example, it is common to hear establishments greet their customers with “Aloha” instead of “Hello”, even though English is much more commonly spoken. This practice gives Hawaii a fun and unique flavor. The same could be applied to the Philippines. Establishments could greet customers in the predominant language of an area (in Ilocos and Cagayan Valley—Iloko) and then the customer can feel free to reply in that language, Tagalog, or English—whatever he’s most comfortable with.

The second option would be to do what many Canadian agencies and establishments do in bilingual areas. In my hometown of Ottawa, which has a large English and French population, employees will often greet clients with two languages simultaneously. “Hello, bonjour!” they tell you as you walk in. This way a client immediately knows that the establishment has both English and French-speaking employees, and can speak in either language. In government offices this is in fact mandatory by law. It would be cool if establishments in the Philippines got in the same habit, so that if you walked into Vigan Jollibee’s for dinner some evening, the cashier would alternately say, “Naimbag nga rabii! Magandang gabi!” kind of like the news anchor on GMA’s Balitang Amianan.

These changes are small but potentially revolutionizing. They would make the experience of going to restaurants/shops in different regions more unique, raise the reputation of local languages, and most importantly, improve customer service by demonstrating greater flexibility.

I leave you with one revealing comparison: why is it more likely to hear Spanish at a McDonald’s in Los Angeles than it is to hear Iloko in McDonald’s here, despite the fact that Spanish has no official recognition in the United States and that there is only 41% Spanish-speaking people in Los Angeles compared to 93% Ilokanos in La Union? This fact should illuminate the extent to which local languages are discriminated against here, and that something should be done about it.

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About sustainablecitiesnetwork

Sustainable Cities International is a registered not-for-profit organization based in Vancouver, Canada. Operating since 1993, the mission of Sustainable Cities is to catalyze action on urban sustainability with cities around the world. We work by connecting and mobilizing people through the process of co-creating. We facilitate a thriving, international network of cities that act as urban laboratories: adopting, testing and improving on innovations. Ideas are accelerated through sharing of experience and cities are making transformational change a reality
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One Response to The customer is always right…except in the native tongue

  1. Bernard says:

    Added, I really like your site! 🙂

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