Saturday, July 24, 2004

Column 7: Service With A Smile

The ideas in this column are Danielle's. Like my Column 6, it is a cultural critique - she has noticed some trends in American culture from working in retail (at B&N bookstores). It's difficult for me to capture completely, but I'll give it a shot. Dani, tell me if I've got something wrong. Here goes:

Anyone who lives within the advertising range of CiCi's Pizza has heard the radio ad. A woman is welcomed to a fast-food restaurant by a clerk. Immediately she sets upon him; seems she expected the poor kid to open the door for her family (never mind the fact that in the ad, the young man is obviously behind the counter). What's more, she expects him to drop everything that he's doing at the time to take her order. She appears to blame the clerk for the fact that the food is taking forever, expects him to offer her two-year-old a high chair without her asking for one, and is disappointed when he says that he is on his break.

Rest assured, I will never eat at a CiCi's Pizza again.

I'm not cynical enough to believe that CiCi's is trying to send the message that the staff is at the center of fast-food's problems, or even part of them. The chain tries to make the point that fast-food is, by nature, a less pleasant experience than their restaurant. Their major unforgivable failing is this: they forget that the guy behind the counter is a living, breathing, sentient human being.

It's not an uncommon error. Those who have worked in retail all have stories of people treating them as if they were superhuman automatons, expecting them to be everywhere, do everything, and take their absurd and often condescending complaints with an understanding smile. People in clothing stores try on clothes and leave them wherever they feel like leaving them, not even bothering to clean up after themselves. Danielle has told me numerous times that she has had to replace stacks of magazines that people read and leave by their seat. The customer just tells himself, with a presumptuous air, "it'll be taken care of." My friend and former roommate Ben wrote a humor piece about how our fellow Vanderbilt students expected "magical services." The point, of course, is that people don't realize that other humans, ones just like themselves, are doing the brunt work.

If the flippant way in which customers often treat service employees sounds familiar, it's because you've seen it before. It appears in the novels of Dickens and the plays of Shakespeare. P.G. Wodehouse made fun of it brilliantly over a century ago. It is the way the stereotypical rich person would treat their servants - gruffly, uncaringly, as if they were invisible.

In America, people of all classes are encouraged to aspire upwards, that no matter how much money you have, it's better to have more. We are a nation of people who want to be rich. As a result, some middle-class Americans let their aspirations for money spill over into the way they conduct their interpersonal relations - in other words, they want to be rich, and they want to have servants.

Service employees fill this desire of the middle class to have servants. When a customer walks into a store nowadays, their working assumption is that the employee is their personal servant, and so corporate bosses make sure their employees act that way. The result is such inane philosophies like "the customer is always right," "never say no to a customer," and "service with a smile." No employee can even suggest to the most obnoxious customer that they are being rude or inconsiderate lest they risk dismissal. Essentially, the market - a reflection of the desires of the people, according to Adam Smith - has created a group of servants in response to the middle class' desires.

It is important for all consumers - and we're all consumers - to realize that retail workers are forced to act like the customers' servants. Retail workers are in no way servants, and do not deserve to be treated that way. When we are customers, we need to understand the following: No, the customer is not always right. No, it's not disrespectful when an employee doesn't smile. Yes, employees are - gasp - actual human beings. And yes, that means that everyone must treat the employee assisting them with the cordiality and respect that they deserve.


Jeff said...

To get to Ben's article, go to the Slant website , click on Archives, then click on the January 30, 2002 issue. "Magical Services at Vanderbilt?" is under the "News and Features" heading.

Mike said...

Or you can just go straight to it here. I was reminded while reading this post of people who leave shopping carts sitting in parking lots. I think laziness plays a significant role in this phenomenon.

Mal said...

Ok, seriously, check out my post for today er yesterday rather on my journal.

i hate retail. Customers not only think that you're subserviant to them but that you also have the iq of a grapefruit.

I will say i've never heard the "Never say no to a customer" policy. In fact we do it all the time at kohls. actually we rarely adhere to the customer is always right policy. most of the time they're wrong ;)


Anonymous said...

I can't say I agree with you, Jeff. For every helpful employee who has to deal with a demanding, insatiable customer, there's an innocent customer who can't get what they want from a lazy, scowling employee.

As the owner of a store, your objective is to convince people to spend as much as they can, and return again in the future to do the same. Mandating that your employees present an amicable facade is in keeping with that goal.

Obviously, the customer is not always right. If a customer came in and said the Earth was flat, it wouldn't make it so. But setting a blanket policy of obeying the customer in all but the most extreme cases is better (for the customer and store owner, at least) than the alternative: leaving that decision up to an employee whose motives may not be in the financial interest of the store. In other words, the irritation to an employee of having to deal with a shite customer is (ostensibly) offset by their salary. But the irritation to a customer for having a bad experience translates into irreparable damage to the reputation and success of the store.

Of course, store management should be pragmatic about whether an employee tried, to the best of their abilities, to help the customer but was unable to do so. Which is why I think that at least the lowest layer of management, to whom the staff reports, should always be directly promoted from the staff itself... it's the only way to get people who truly understand and sympathize with what it's like to be in a service role.

Now, in the situations where an unreasonably customercentric management dismisses an employee who was doing their best, I have to say that thems the breaks. The employee can get another service job if they so desire, hopefully at a more reasonable employer. Meanwhile, the original employer is losing enough money to turnover and low morale as to make them less competitive, and therefore the natural evolutionary forces of the market will weed out their poor management style.

- Pierce

Jeff said...

Pierce - I can't say I've run into many lazy, scowling employees in my years as a consumer. Since managers recognize that a friendly staff is what keeps people coming back (people want willing servants, not reluctant ones), the truly bad apples tend to get weeded out quickly. Especially now that demand for retail jobs is skyrocketing due to our shifting economy.

I would agree with you that the inconvenience of the employee is offset by the salary if service employees were paid reasonably. As it is, $7.50/hr isn't exactly a survivable wage. Add to that the fact that the employee is getting yelled at, insulted, and disrespected almost daily by ridiculous customers - I don't think the wages offset that. (The issue of raising wages, of course, initiates a whole new series of economic/social arguments that are for a different column.)

I do concede, however, that the servant culture is here and, like it or not, it ain't going away anytime soon. All I argue for is that we recognize that it's not good form to disrespect your servants, just as you would not want to have them disrespect you. As we express disdain for the lazy, scowling employee, perhaps we should also express disdain for the lazy, scowling customer.

Anonymous said...

Jeff: the "bad apples getting weeded out" is exactly what I advocate, except that I think I give the store management more of the onus of defining a "bad apple" than you would. The reason is that (in a "good" capitalist society) the stores that can't define their goals appropriately should suffer financially, and more employee-friendly stores should take over.

Don't get me wrong... I'm not defending rude customers or rude staff. Actually, I think rude customers are worse; I can easily understand being in a bad mood because of a cruddy retail job and taking it out on a customer, whereas I can't understand getting pissed at someone who is trying to help you get something you want.

Oh, and in practice I agree with you about retail job wages... they're nowhere near what they should be for what employees have to put up with. But I see that as an opportunity for retail employee labor organization, or for stores that recognize the increased revenue they get by having happy, well-paid employees. Kind of the reason I get a warm fuzzy feeling from shopping at Costco instead of Wal-Mart, or eating at In-N-Out Burger versus McDonalds (if only they'd expand the chain to the East coast!!!).

- Pierce

Mal said...

ok, i know it's kind of late for this but i have to post it. Background: i've worked retail for 4 years now. More than that really. Very few employees i've met have been lazy or inconsiderate to the customer. We're usually more than happy to help because that's our *JOB* that's what we're *PAID* to do.

Lately customers have gotten WORSE. I've never been threatened, yelled at, bitched at, sworn at more than i have in the past 3 months. Top that off with store managers and corporate officers working every single employee to death in order to drive out the people who work the hardest and have been there the longest. Retail is HELL.

Today a customer threatened to pound my face in because i wouldn't give her a discount.
Today one of my associates ran to my service desk CRYING because a man had cursed her.
I had a woman yell and scream at not one, not two, not three, but FOUR of my associates at the EXACT SAME TIME.

I could go on but i'm EXTREMELY tired.

We're not paid enough. They start us out at 6.50 without experience. 7 to 7.25 with experience. i now make more than most people in the store, which is pretty pathetic. i'm slightly over living wage. I also do the jobs of about 4 different people in one day and i work, generally, 8 to 10 hour shifts, sometimes longer. because of my job i hate my life. HATE IT. Because of my job i HATE PEOPLE. HATE THEM. They shit in our fitting rooms. They shit on the floor. They fuck in the fitting rooms. They piss on merchandise. They set fire to merchandise. They vomit where ever they please. They have their period on our clothes. they take toilet paper to the fitting rooms and deficate on merchandise.

granted there are a few good customers, but unless you work retail, really work it on the associate level, you'll never see that the retail associate perspective of customers is extremely negative.