Thoughts on Service

Carl From Chicago’s post on poor service reminded of my own service career during my extended college tenure. I learned that some problems in service have to do with customers. 

For example, Carl innocently observes: 

There are two dimensions for my coffee – “black” and “large”. I have learned through hard experience to wait until the clerk is ready to receive this complex and easily forgotten information; you’ll just have to repeat it five more times. 

The problem that a counter-jockey has with this order lies not its complexity but rather its ubiquity.

Memory doesn’t work like a scratch pad that you can just look at. Instead, memories key on the total context of the environment when the memory forms. This is true even of short term memories. Standing at a counter listening to hundreds of very similar orders in the same space with the same environmental cues causes the memories to overlap one another. After a while the brain cannot determine if the order it remembers came from the person currently standing in front of the counter-jockey or came from someone five days ago. 

People have come up with all kinds of techniques for overcoming this blurring together of orders. I developed a visual mnemonic system wherein I created a picture keyed off the customer’s clothing or appearance. Starbucks encodes the order in an arrangement of cups, spoons. sleeves etc so that the barrista do not have to remember every order. Electronic systems help but the sheer repetition can fog the memory enough to prevent accurate entry. I imagine at some point, we’ll go to a system wherein the customer inputs orders themselves directly into the computer. 

Another problem I ran into was something I called “the unexpected change problem.” Suppose you order comes to $9.87. You decided to give the cashier $0.12 so that they can give you a quarter back. The cashier stares at you like a deer caught in the headlights. I ran into this problem and once got spoken to sharply about my math skills after I had just spent my break plowing through differential calculus. This problem arises when the cashier has already mentally computed your change before you reach the cash register. The cashier knows that you will hand them a $10 or $20 bill and receive $0.13 in change. The calculation comes automatically in the rhythm of the workflow. An unusual request, even a simple one, breaks the flow and makes the cashier mentally reboot. 

Lastly, the superior service of mom&pop places also involves the customer. People seldom patronize such places when in a hurry. In the more personable and less rushed atmosphere, customers do not react as negatively to mistakes as they do at franchises and this in turn makes the servers less tense and error prone. 

Service jobs seem simple but it is the very simple, repetitive nature of the jobs that makes them so hard to do well. You’ve got to concentrate on the details of an interaction indistinguishable from hundreds of other similar interactions. You’re bored out your gourd but you still have to smile at everyone and pay attention. 

I think the best way to improve service would be to create a feedback system that would reward individual service workers for good performance. I thought about making up some business cards that would say something like, “The person to whom I gave this card provided exemplary service. Please reward them accordingly.” If not overused, such a system might allow managers to tell who and who is not good at service. 

Just a thought.

3 thoughts on “Thoughts on Service”

  1. Mike Rose’s book “The Mind at Work” is an interesting analysis of the conceptual skills involved in various kinds of work, including welding, carpentry, and waitressing.

  2. David Foster,

    The book sounds interesting. I have a special interest in cognition which is why I thought about how I thought while I was doing retail work. I did come to the realization that I could never wait tables. I could simply never remember the verbal orders and what order went with which customer. After only a few hours of such work everything would blur together.

  3. “I think the best way to improve service would be to create a feedback system that would reward individual service workers for good performance.”

    D’oh! Where I come from they call these “tips”.

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