The Road to Madrid

The Road to Madrid

Essential truths about customer service are the same in any language.

I’m back from a trip to visit my fortunate son, studying abroad in Spain. We decided the rest of the fam deserved a little abroad time as well, and used my daughter’s high school spring break as an excuse for a visit. 

Europe’s great capitals are legendary for tiny hotel rooms and we quickly decided the three of us would be more comfortable and save money in an apartment.

I tend to prefer hotels in countries where I don’t speak the language fluently (my Spanglish is passable). A good concierge or even a competent bell desk can help solve problems and make things happen that mere individuals can’t. For example, we experienced constant difficulty making online purchases in Spain (museum tix, soccer tix, tours) with our U.S.–based credit cards, and there was really no one savvy to help us short-circuit the mess. 

For Seville, we booked an apartment through the Homeaway Inc. website; for Madrid, we discovered a local rental company, HomeClub, and rented direct through it. My assumption was the Madrid–based company, with a staffed office operating 9 a.m. to 8 p.m., would provide the more hospitable and responsive hosting.

I would be wrong, and our experiences with the two illustrate eternal business truths that transcend language and nationality.

Our first stop was Seville. The VRBO rental apartment was owned by a man named Pepe, but managed by Estefan, an energetic entrepreneur who moonlighted as a concierge-about-town for independent travelers. 

We arrived in Seville on Friday evening, had a long wait for our luggage, and did not arrive at the apartment until after 9 p.m. As our cab pulled up, the lights quickly came on and Estefan bounded out to help us with our bags. His English was solid, he explained how everything worked, and answered all our questions beyond that, despite the late hour and a girlfriend waiting for him. 

After we were oriented, Estefan asked what we planned to do in Seville and suggested we book sights in advance and avail ourselves of his English-language guides. He had friends at some restaurants we might like as well, who could get us a table on short notice. I saw “commission” writ large and mostly ignored his offers. 

Despite this, we got a couple texts a day from Estefan inquiring how our stay was and if there was anything he could do. He was just as friendly and polite when we didn’t earn him an extra dime as he was when he was hustling for them. We ran low on toilet paper one day and he was at the apartment within two hours with more. And, inevitably, we regretted not using guides at the Alcazar and cathedral, due to their complexity and the inadequacy of the English-language curation. 

We arrived in Madrid at midday on a weekday. At the rental company’s request, we had messaged them with our arrival time and we waited 20 minutes at Atocha Station to avoid arriving early. Nevertheless, our “greeter,” a young independent contractor, arrived 20 minutes late while we stood in the rain with our bags. Her English wasn’t good enough to explain how the apartment worked, much less answer other questions. She shorted us a set of keys and gave us inaccurate instructions for the HVAC and Wi-Fi. After she left, we realized the hot water was shut off. This is customary when there are gaps between stays, but it was her job to turn it on. Attempts to restart it were futile, and the company’s fixer was summoned; I lost most of the first day in Madrid waiting for him to arrive. He got the water hot, repaired the Wi-Fi, and explained how to work the heat and the washer-dryer. By then, it was nearly 7 p.m. 

I’d never been to Madrid and probably will not be fortunate enough to return. That half-day I lost had value. 

The remainder of our stay was uneventful, and we received an email of apology the next day from the company. But the experience reminded me of the value of first impressions and motivated employees. I’d never been to Madrid and probably will not be fortunate enough to return. That half-day I lost had value. And since it occurred right at the start, it colored my impression of our rental agency in a way that a bad checkout could not. (The company initially withheld our damage deposit because we didn’t return the set of keys the greeter never gave us!)

Why a company would entrust its first and only in-person customer contact to its least trained and valued employees boggles the mind. 

Before we arrived in Spain, I had mistakenly assumed a resourced company with staffing and systems would inevitably outshine an idiosyncratic solo entrepreneur. No, and the takeaways are age-old: 

  • An eager, responsive sales team may bring customers, but that condition is temporary; only a great experience creates return business. So it needs to be a higher priority.  
  • First impressions are the most important, and businesses ignore them at their peril. 
  • Your most important employees are the ones who are part of the core customer experience. 
  • Nothing outshines a motivated entrepreneur. 

Happy travels this summer!

Adam Platt is TCB’s executive editor.

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