For more than 30 years, I looked at the filing of income tax returns as part of Holy Week penitence, from filling out the forms (which seem to be getting more and more unfriendly with each new version) to the crowds and queues at Bureau of Internal Revenue (BIR) offices.
Because I’ve always had multiple sources of income (e.g., teaching and writing for the Inquirer), I have to fill up a complicated form to calculate how much more I have to pay, and then file the returns with the extra payment.
Filing the returns became slightly easier when the BIR began to allow banks to accept the returns. Lines were shorter than at BIR offices, but the problem was finding accredited banks in your geographical area. These tended to be government banks, which meant dealing with unfriendly, even rude staff. I remember dealing with a Philippine National Bank branch where everyone, from the guard to the teller, seemed to have trained in the same school for bad manners and wrong conduct.
Despair, and hope
Last year I found myself in Ortigas going from one bank to another, all unable to take BIR returns. It was like doing the Stations of the Cross. Then I saw the UCPB, and remembered I had tried it a few years back. It was better than the PNB branch I just described but only slightly.
I was desperate. I braced myself for another unfriendly guard, but this one cheerfully said yes, they did accept BIR payments and please come in. I could hear angels singing hallelujah in my head but the miracles didn’t end there: The guard gave me a queue number, then guided me to a counter and picked out the right deposit slip for me to fill up.
I realized there were no lines; people were seated instead on simple but comfortable upholstered furniture, reading newspapers. The place looked like a hotel lobby, but no irritating “muzak,” meaning, background music. I didn’t wait too long before my number was called out and the teller was courteous, and efficient.
I was so elated I asked to see the branch manager, Tere Tiouyco, to thank her, and I wrote up my experience in a column.
This year I went back to the same branch, and got the same courtesies, and efficiency. I arrived at about 8:45 a.m. The guard gave me a queue number—53, and I gulped, asking the guard if there were 52 others who had come ahead. He laughed; no, they ended the previous working day with number 48, so I was only the fifth in the queue. I thought giving queue numbers even before the bank officially opens is a very good policy.
This time in addition to the tellers, there was another staff assigned to help both tellers with the processing and advising clients. The teller who handled my returns scanned through the papers, and very deftly caught one error, which I quickly corrected.
I had groaned seeing the person ahead of me with a thick pile of returns, but the waiting period wasn’t that long and I got everything done in 15 minutes.
Again I looked up the branch manager, who was still Tere, to thank her. I had intentionally waited until after I had filed the returns before seeing her, to make sure I’d be treated as a regular customer, which, at least in this UCPB branch, still meant being a special customer.
Which takes me to the LRT/MRT, with scenes straight out of Dante’s Inferno. Several months back I wrote about how the LRT and MRT had deteriorated through the years, and seemed beyond redemption. I’ve taken more rides since then and I’ve seen very little improvement. People mumble and grumble, sometimes hollering out and cursing, but generally, we Filipinos seem to accept bad service. “Gobyerno kasi” is the standard rationalization, which I hear too about the Philippine General Hospital (PGH) and many other government agencies. . . and banks.
But the UCPB Ortigas branch reminds us that whether government or private, agencies can develop that culture of service and, more importantly, sustain changes. There is, of course, a world of a difference between a bank and the LRT/MRT, but when you think about it, taking a trip on the mass transit should actually be more pleasant than filing taxes, but it isn’t in the Philippines and it’s because the LRT/MRT management just can’t seem to pick up on common courtesies that go a long way.
First, people need to know what’s going on. At the UCPB, the guards help from step one, which is getting the right form. More signs would help. Getting into an LRT/MRT station is like a trip into the Twilight Zone. You’re not sure if you’re getting into the right platform because there are no signs at the stairways. Queue numbers would be useless, of course, but it would help to have electronic signs telling commuters that another train is coming in five minutes.
Other countries actually give the time of the next arrival, but remember we’re in the Twilight Zone: the clocks in these stations never seem to be working or, in one station, I found two clocks with two different times.
Second, people need to be offered help. . . by people who know what they’re doing. I felt at ease with the UCPB staff, the way they checked the documents all the way up to stapling them. At LRT and MRT stations, you don’t even know whom to ask. They’re understaffed, but you also find people just loitering and chatting. LRT and MRT should explore taking in students who need OJT (on the job training) to handle customer assistance. Yes, I’ve seen OJT students messing up offices, but if they’re oriented properly, to include graciousness, they could make LRT/MRT trips easier.
There is a third point which I picked up not from UCPB but from the Bank of the Philippine Islands, which, being private, has more resources. I’m referring to BPI’s computers where clients can punch in information for a transaction, and then get a queue number. No more forms to fill out and when you get to the teller, the transaction is much faster.
For the LRT/MRT, we have long queues for tickets because we don’t have machines from which you can buy tickets, for single or multiple trips. Also, the value-loaded prepaid cards have expiration dates.
Once I brought an old card for the Hong Kong mass transit which I didn’t use for three years. I checked first with one of the counters and they said all they needed to do was to reactivate the card, the value was still intact.
Electronic or manual, human tellers or ATM machines, the bottom line is still a service ethos that transforms the tedious—paying credit card debts and income taxes, commuting, getting permits—into almost pleasant tasks. Might we possibly see the day when people can say “gobyerno kasi” as a compliment?