Further Thoughts on Service

On Service:  I tend to agree with the comments about red state/blue state divisions, though clearly it is often a matter of rural/urban and mompop/corporate.  Engagement takes energy and minimal intelligence, but most of all it takes an attitude.  Tailoring service to customers is generally best done by widely distributed responsibility and encouragement of innovation.  Shannon’s observations are good. Establishing a relationship requires some time – a large turnover of either customers or workers means that the relationship can’t grow.  Knowing customers, we soon expect that customer to add the extra change that keeps his pockets cleared – though such an exchange was surprising the first time it happened.  After a while, a customer knows what the business can do and a business knows what the customer is likely to like.  In the old days, clerks at stores would put aside certain dresses they knew their customers would like; clerks would step into the dressing room and discuss exactly how a bra should fit.  But the temporary nature of workers, the shifting clientele – all these make such interactions impossible. 

Most of my workers were students (some had Ph.D.’s and I had more people with Ivy League degrees working for me than did the English Department at that time).  I paid pretty close to minimum wage.  But while intelligence and wit characterized my workers and made going to work fun, it was really more attitude than IQ that pleased our customers.  Knowing them, their needs, and offering services that fit requires imagination and a willingness to take initiative and responsibility – these may reflect intelligence but aren’t necessarily a part of it nor do they only appear with it.  Most importantly, some continuity on both sides of the counter encourages a better fit.  Good service requires virtue, as well.

Service work requires:  Humility, pride in a job well done, doing for others as you would have them do for you, taking the ego out of the exchange, a sense of humor, prioritizing time management and efficiency, valuing productivity. Independence, imagination, wit, willingness to take responsibility – these are important.  A society that celebrates these is a pleasant one.  While this requires the personal touch, the sense that neither acts as if the other is in opposition nor a robot is important.  Apathy is exhausting but so is ego involvement.  If the focus is on a good product that meets a customer’s needs, both customer and provider are set on a pragmatic and mutually satisfying course. 

After reading Carl from Chicago’s post, I went out to pick up some reheeled shoes.  The man asked my name (of course I had been given a stub which of course I’d lost – and he didn’t ask for it, let alone look irritated).  Then, as he was searching for my shoes, he started telling me about this nice woman he’d known with the same last name who had run the lunch counter at the bowling alley down the street. A couple of months ago, I made a doctor’s appointment; the woman at the desk looked at my name and went into another long memory of what, I think, was the same woman – who had run the kind of mompop store supplanted by 7/11s.  The first man was probably over 60 and Hispanic, the woman may have been Hispanic but was, I believe, under 40.  The woman they remembered had died, I believe, as much as twenty years ago.  (She was related to my husband, but the relationship is distant.)  They had a good role model in this woman (these are not the only times her name has come up in such a way), but they also were, themselves, role models.  They were engaged.  They made my days more pleasant as that woman, apparently, had consistently made theirs.  That is why many people have a strong sense of place – it isn’t just land or architecture or even ethnicity, it is simply knowing the people around you. 

Hyde Park in 1968 was a lousy place in many ways.  But what bothered me the most was walking down the street and finding no one met my glance.  If they did, they seemed to think I was really really interested in them.  Someone described it as the “fishhook” syndrome – as if they all had fishhooks in their head and were being dragged along.  It seemed weird, but descriptive.  Still, I found little oases of businesses – a used book store run by an old guy who’d talk to me about the books and so I returned at least once a week, a restaurant that treated a woman alone politely – where service was a person engaged with his work and his customers.

And actually, the post office here, which is incredibly busy (during some years it was one of the few that was actually making a profit which gives you an idea of its volume), has developed self-service areas that seem to me quite user friendly.  You are all complaining about American service, but my limited (and my family’s much more extensive) experience with the old statist countries (and if you want to hear nightmare stories about the mail service, talk to my son-in-law about Russia’s post offices) is that they were much, much worse.  One of Havel’s first speeches encouraged the Czechs to start being nice; it would be a while before the economy was where it should be but it only took the repainting of ugly signs and polite friendliness to customers to change the tone.  (I suspect that says a good deal about the pre-Velvet Revolution tone.)

 Back to attitude:  We haven’t exactly been encouraging the virtues that underlie good service and the place these have been least encouraged are (surprise) a value system that is materialistic and statist. 

For a long time I’ve been irritated by those who insult those who do this work (while believing, I suspect, they speak for the downtrodden workers of the world).  I can remember a Phil Donahue show thirty years ago, in which he was raving about the poor wages for African Americans in the ghetto.  One of the members of the audience volunteered that he worked at a fast food place; he said it with some pride.  Donahue asked him his salary and began to argue that that was not a salary that could support a family.  The boy’s (he seemed under 20) face fell.  He was being told that what he was doing wasn’t worth doing, that he was being cheated, that there was no way up.  But anyone who knows such jobs and such businesses knows that a good worker sees such a position as temporary – while they are going to school, while they are getting experience for another job, or while they are gaining the skills that will help them move into management within that corporation.  We give and get bad service because of attitudes like that in Nickel and Dimed, which has little sympathy for the employer and much for the erratic employee (while, in  the end, being far too naval-gazing to consider the customer).  This was recommended by a leftist relative.  Of course, the book that a libertarian friend recommended was Scratch Beginnings: Me, $25, and the Search for the American Dream.  You takes your choice – but one perspective is likely to make you happier.   And when a local politician took aside one of my workers (who shared the politician’s ethnicity), telling her she thought she could do better, I was a bit irritated – but not as much as was my employee.  Of course, I knew that that particular political type had also not paid for her campaign flyers when she lost the last election and that her family checks bounced at a rather unfortunate rate.  Needless to say, I found her attitudes wanting in several ways – but all of a piece with her condescension toward work itself.

I found running a service business exhausting; I was burned out after thirteen years.  I also found it rewarding.  Having worked my way through college doing Kelly Girl & Manpower jobs, having run such a business for thirteen years, having encouraged my children to work at fast food jobs for the experience in human nature and time management they give, I don’t assume that the people who are waiting on me are stupid.  I do expect them to be pleasant, competent and efficient.

Proletarian literature is often about the angry worker.  But literature also gives us examples of how such work can be fulfilling.  I was glad I’d read “A Clean, Well Lighted Place” before I started the business – it was in the back of my mind often.  It can certainly be read as an existential story – but a secondary and powerful reading is of the importance of service.  A similar view of the relations between people is in Mary Wilkins Freeman’s “The Revolt of Mother.”

    Nobility of character manifests itself at loop-holes when it is not provided with large doors. Sarah Penn’s showed itself today in flaky dishes of pastry. So she made the pies faithfully, while across the table she could see, when she glanced up from her work, the sight that rankled in her patient and steadfast soul — the digging of the cellar of the new barn in the place where Adoniram forty years ago had promised her their new house should stand.

 This woman won her point – she was not a door mat – but she also did her share of the work that day and did it without a pout or a shout.  Neither in our private or our public relations are we better off by scoring “points” against others.  Treating customers and treating service personnel with respect may seem mundane – but it is out of such mundane moments that character is built.  Of course, the kind of worker who is prompt to say that a requested service is not in their job description or a customer who sees all relationships with businesses as “gotchas” so they can get more service or more product for the same money cause problems.  But maturity, a sense of proportion, a sense of humor help us.  Others – either customers or workers – can make your day unpleasant, but you can safely assume their days are seldom pleasant.  If costs are low, you may get bad service.  You can’t expect the same service at Sam’s as you do at Niemann Marcus.  But, you know, it is still more attitude than money.  And most of the people I run into at Wal-Mart and at McDonald’s are actually pretty pleasant – those businesses didn’t become the successes they are by insulting their customers. 



A service industry that doesn’t care as much as it might about the customer, linked (as usual) from Instapundit:  “Schools are Not Social Service Centers” on Pajamas Media.

Where every customer is a VIP – Miranda Lambert (lyrics).

2 thoughts on “Further Thoughts on Service”

  1. Treating other people with respect, or, dare I say, love, is key to most social interactions… including service.

    I work as an educator at a museum. It pays somewhere between jack and diddly, or about a fifth what my wife makes (with the same education.) Some of my coworkers approach their work as simply a paycheck — they’re given a task to do, so they try to accomplish it according to some minimum standard. Others approach their work as an opportunity to bless others — given the same task, they try to accomplish it in the best way possible, and make sure the customer and their coworkers benefit from it. I much prefer working with the latter than the former.

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