Tales from my travels #1 — learning lessons in customer service from punctures in many countries
Until the other day, I‘ve never got a puncture in London. It happened just driving down a quiet London street, where there shouldn’t be nails left lying around. I changed the tyre, headed to the nearest depot and asked to get it repaired. Except that they wouldn’t. Instead, I was read a 3 minute Health and Safety lecture — I was quite impressed that the guy had learnt it by heart — and was told that, even though the only damage was a nail, and the tyre was almost new, I had no choice but to buy an expensive new one. And no, they couldn’t do it immediately, they were short staffed, and too busy (it didn’t look that way) and I’d have to come back tomorrow.
That got me thinking about the other punctures in my life (yes, I know, it can be sad). Most were in Latin America, where they’re more to be expected — dodgy tyres on ageing rental cars, driven on potholed and unmade roads. Punctures there are so common that repairers can be found every few kilometres along almost any road. They’re not big impressive sheds belonging to national chains, and they don’t have posters on the walls of their waiting rooms extolling the virtues of their (claimed) low prices and commitment to service. In fact, they don’t have waiting rooms. Most are small sheds in advancing stages of decay, with rudimentary tools, surrounded by an accumulating detritus of dead tyres and bits that have fallen off vehicles.
But I’ve found their customer service universally fantastic. They never try to sell you a new tyre — they cheerfully patch up the unpatchable. It takes just a few minutes, and costs pennies. The repair lifespan can probably be measured in thousands of potholes — I don’t know how many, I’ve always got the rental car back to the depot before the tyre failed again. As I knew it eventually would.
They don’t do call outs, but I’ve always been lucky to chance upon near-instant ad hoc roadside assistance.
In Brazil, I found that my rental car had a spare but no jack. A passing vet stopped, got paranoid when I said I was going to walk to the nearest village (only 1km away, but he thought I might be mugged), and phoned his brother, who arrived a few minutes later on his motorbike, with a huge truck jack hooked over his shoulder.
In a desert in Northwest Argentina, a travelling salesman in the only vehicle to pass helped me get the tyre off, took me and it to the nearest town to get it fixed, and then back again — a 50km round trip.
In Costa Rica, with a jack but no spanner to turn it, a troupe of local boys ran off for tree branches to lift the car.
And, having taken a wrong turn in Managua (Nicaragua) onto a badly potholed road at nearly midnight, a group of guys lurking on a street corner (they said they were security guards) physically lifted the car while another changed the wheel and invited me to swigs of his beer while I waited. I was told later I’d been in the most dangerous part of a dangerous city, but I’d met nothing but good will.
Every one of these people refused to take my money (well, most agreed in the end). I really believe they were just showing goodwill to a stranger in distress. As I hope I would do myself.
I learnt real lessons here about customer service, both from the tyre repairers and those who helped me along the way, none of whom I was ever likely to meet again, but all of whom made my day happy and strengthened my faith in humanity.
Wherever I’ve been in the world, I’ve found wonderful people. Not just when I’ve needed help with tyres, of course, but in almost every interaction of whatever kind that I’ve had. Sure, there are some bad people out there — but 99.9% of us, regardless of country or creed, adhere to the basic lprinciple of wanting to enjoy the best possible life and help each other. Meeting different people is one of the main reasons that I love travel so much.