August, 2012:

What Colombia taught me about transforming a “Culture of Care” and Customer Service


I had the honour of speaking in Bogota, Colombia, last week to approximately 200 business leaders. I decided to add some extra days to my travel and venture to Cartagena as well. Everyone I spoke with said, “Be careful … are you sure you want to go there? … It’s not safe”.

The good news is I felt safe the entire 8 days of my trip. The feeling lasted until I had to depart on a Canadian airline flight back home to Canada. At the boarding lounge, I was told by the airline that my suitcase in the luggage hold would be inspected by the Policia. Now, being in a foreign country where I did not speak a word of the language (something I’m planning on correcting), we could not communicate well enough for me to completely understand why I was holding up the entire aircraft full of people. Did this happen often? Were people regularly left on the plane for an hour or more?

I’m still amazed that neither the airline agents nor the Police were upset with me as I became a little more panicked as the minutes ticked by. (My travel companions were already on the flight as I had insisted they go ahead. Little did I know that they were at the front of the aircraft with the pilot refusing to fly if I did not get on.) The interesting thing is that both the airline representatives and even the Policia used the international language of smiling and nodding to calm me down while waiting for my suitcase to come up to the bridge — which took about an hour!

After a very intense search of every seam in my packed clothing (including the bag of Juan Valdez coffee beans), I was allowed to get on the bus that took me over to the aircraft and I arrived to cheers as I boarded the flight. No one seemed upset that I’d held up the plane, and my travel companion was delighted to see me come down the aisle.

I thought deeply on the flight home, “What was different here?” I’ve traveled almost the entire globe as both an airline crew member for seven years and as a professional speaker for the past 13 years. I’m on airplanes or in an airport sometimes up to nine times per month, so I constantly assess the level of customer service at each hotel, airline, airport, restaurant, retail chain etc. I teach, train and help organizations transform teams into a culture of care, especially in the travel industry.

Why was everyone I met in Colombia friendly, helpful and even seemingly delighted that we were visiting their country? Why were there so many police around the city, at entrances to the hotels, tourist areas, on the streets, in the airport? (We even got stopped by the Policia while in our taxi.) At first, I was startled by the amount of security forces I saw; but I soon realized that this is a country that is desperately trying to change its reputation and brand as a safe place to do business and travel to. I thought, Wow! Am I right in the middle of the transformation? Are they truly trying to create a sense of safety (and yes, actually succeeding in making it safer)? Is it perfect? Maybe not, but I could sense they (the government, businesses, the people) are seeing hope and trying. It appeared to be a country dedicated to changing its reputation to a culture of care. It confirmed to me there are economies that are coming out of the ashes globally and they are working hard to catch up.

With the vast amount of natural resources now becoming accessible (oil, mining, agriculture), along with a country that is trying hard to change, investors from around the world are flocking there to not only get a return on their investment, but also to help put in much-needed infrastructure (roads, bridges, water/sewer and gentrification of neighbourhoods). With this objective, they are bringing jobs to a population that has been riddled with high unemployment and political strife. I believe there is a culture of care embedded in the people of Colombia, but it will continue to take the right leadership to ensure the hope and safety of both visitors and its own population takes hold.

I often ask readers who care about customer service and creating a “culture of care” in their environment: Has a transformation happened, is it happening, or does it need to happen? What would you have to do if you wanted to improve, and how long do you think it would take to achieve the next level of service to continue to hold or gain your market share?

How long will it take to fully change the culture of Columbia and ensure the world knows about it? We’ll be watching carefully.

By the way, if you are going to Cartagena, stop by this restaurant. We stumbled upon it in the old historic town, left at the bottom of the stairs of the Cafe del Mar. It’s called Salou, and we had a beautiful Sea Bass and Coconut Rice dish (specially made in Cartagena) that was to die for. We learned the owner and head chef was trained in my home town of Vancouver, British Columbia. Visit:

To book safe and great customer service tours while in Cartagena, use Gema Tours (American Express Travel Services). Visit:

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