In today's customer service, incivility is the rule, not the exception

August 10, 2004|By Daniel Buccino

CUSTOMER SERVICE increasingly differentiates businesses in today's competitive consumer environment. Civility in the workplace improves the quality of work life for employees, and the better the quality of work life, the better the quality and quantity of work.

Relationship etiquette suggests that you get what you give: Give politeness and you're more likely to receive it. We stay civil not because others always are, but because we are.

Yet I've seen a backlash to the expectations of exceptional customer service in more signs of what businesses won't do for their customers.

Of course, no business answers its phones anymore. Voice mail has made a live presence obsolete and exacerbated customer frustration in the endless feedback loops of voice mail jail. Just as Amazon.com has created a new business model in the retailing of everything, some entrepreneur will satisfy many customers by actually answering the phones.

We've become so accustomed to the rules of no service that we barely notice them anymore: No substitutions. No changes. No parking. No returns. No coupons. No passes. No toasting, buttering or any preparation one hour before closing. Closed.

Service providers are entitled to lower expectations by trying to establish some ground rules, but I recently encountered a list of "what we can't do for you" that was so extensive that it seemed accompanied by a warning to retain counsel before being seated.

Audio and video surveillance 24/7. (It is comforting to know the Patriot Act is in full effect at our local eatery.)

Eighteen percent gratuity for parties of five or more. (Why not 20 percent? What if the service is crummy? Why not just charge more and pay the staff more?)

Police and fire discounts to people in uniform when seated at the bar. (We wouldn't want our men and women in uniform to mingle with the undercover clientele in the main dining room.)

No split checks. Only one check per table, and only one payment method per check. (If I installed a new computer system that allowed less functionality and flexibility in apportioning cost, I'd return it.)

A $5 minimum per person at peak times, and a $3 split-plate charge per person. (So if I wanted to split a $6 burger with my buddy, it could cost us $17. Maybe he should order his own.)

Two people minimum seating at peak times. (I knew I didn't like to eat by myself anyway. I'll just go home hungry. But what are the peak times, just in case?)

Small children in safety seats for safety. (Why do you think they call them safety seats? And how small? Just don't let them run around and cause a commotion.)

No public restrooms or telephone. (Once you're paying, you're not public anymore. But at least keep the restrooms clean and stocked if you really respect your customers as much as you insist we respect you.)

Please wait to be seated -- even at the bar. (Just reading the rules enforces a wait.)

On specials nights, please vacate tables within 90 minutes to allow other customers to enjoy themselves. (So now it's my fault I may want to enjoy myself.)

Smile. Thank you for sharing with us and helping us serve you better. (Oh, this was all my idea anyway so I could get better service. This is consistent with most corporate doublespeak such as, "For your comfort and convenience," which really means it's going to be uncomfortable and inconvenient.)

We reserve the right to refuse service to anyone. (Especially those who don't follow the rules.)

It is a sad commentary on rampant incivility that we must be subjected to such inhospitability. Because many don't know how to act in public anymore, proprietors feel they must establish ground rules to protect themselves and their staff from the incivility of their guests. Instead of reciprocity of respect and welcome, the new rules and rationalizations for no service in fact reinforce the behaviors they are designed to prevent.

When every encounter is expected to be an annoyance, customers enact what's expected of them, if they're not smart enough to take their business elsewhere. Most of us would rather pay a few dollars more to eat or shop at an establishment that at least pretends to welcome us and tells us first what it aspires to do rather than what it won't.

Daniel Buccino is a clinical social worker on the faculties of the Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine and the University of Maryland School of Social Work.

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