Six weeks into my new job in São Paulo, I’d swapped Spanish for Portuguese, started the process of adopting a cat, draped a yellow-and-green flag from my balcony, and got calluses from rock climbing with a gang of psychologists who’d become my first Brazilian friends.
But my home life was a shambles. I was sleeping on the floor because a lorry-drivers’ strike had delayed delivery of my mattress. My new refrigerator didn’t cool so I was subsisting on peanut butter. My mobile phone was tethering the internet to my laptop since, a month after I signed a pricey broadband contract, the company had yet to install cables. Every morning, my assistant Nathália and I made a round robin of phone calls to half a dozen customer-service departments, each of which offered what appeared to be a solution. Every afternoon, the promised item or technician failed to turn up.
Nathália and I did what Brazilians do when official channels yield no results: we found a jeitinho, a “little way” around. Nathália discovered that if she called the white-goods company and pretended to be interested in buying a new refrigerator, she would get routed to a human being rather than an answering machine for miffed customers. The problem was that this only produced more phantom technicians (especially on days when Brazil was playing in the World Cup).
I decided it was time to hire a husband. Rotten customer service plagues many countries, but the inability to fulfil so many basic daily demands in Brazil, combined with the country’s penchant for bureaucracy, engenders particularly deep despair. Hence the term “rentable husband”, local slang for a handyman, which reflects not just the technical skill that such individuals offer but the emotional support Brazilians need after dealing with their broken appliances and then spending countless hours on hold, only to be told that the problem is their fault.
I was accused of turning my refrigerator upside down or sticking children’s toys into its motor – both implausible, since I live alone. Mauricio Vargas, the CEO of Reclame Aqui (Complain Here), a website where Brazilians rat out companies, says that the principle that “the customer is always right” is alien in Brazil. When a commodity boom and generous social programmes lifted 30m people out of poverty in the mid-2000s, companies scrambled to meet demand for cars and appliances from a growing middle class. But most firms forgot to invest in customer service, says Vargas. Telecommunications companies are the worst offenders. A handful of them dominate the market for phone, cable TV and internet, and suffer few consequences from mistreating their customers. The culture is changing in other industries. Like everyone else, Brazilians are buying more consumer goods online, which makes it easier to research firms. Brazil’s recession in 2015 hastened this nascent customer-service revolution. But many household services remain pitiful.
In the end, a franchise called 24-hour Rental Husband came to our rescue. Fernando arrived, wearing a crisp polo shirt that showed off his tattoos, and carrying a clanging toolbox that calmed my nerves. He listened to the story of my defective fridge – 25 days and five jars of peanut butter – and then coaxed it to cool in less than 45 minutes. He also installed my washing machine and water filter, all for around $100. I nearly proposed.