Steven Ivory

Steven Ivory

*The young lady at the CVS store had the misfortune of being the only employee behind a register   early that morning. Seven customers in line with no one to take up the slack appeared to make her anxious.

“You can check yourself out over there [at the automated scanner] if you like,”  she announced to us while ringing up a customer.  I later learned from an employee at a  supermarket that they’re supposed to suggest the scanners when the line reaches a certain point.  Anyway, nobody left the line.  About thirty seconds later:  “I SAID, y’all don’t have to wait for me; you can check yourself out.”

“Miss, if we all started using that scanner,”  a middle-aged man in line   remarked,  “you’d be out of a job.”  Somebody  giggled.

“I don’t care,” replied the checker, sliding a customer’s giant bottle of aqua-colored mouthwash across her scanner.  “You think I care about this job?  I won’t be here in ten years.  I don’t care.”

Unwittingly, the young lady summed up customer service today: a dearth of interest, care or understanding.

Next time you see headlines about a retail company in financial turmoil, follow the bread crumbs.  Somewhere among assorted issues of mismanagement and quality control,  there’ll probably be a record of  lousy  customer service.

Indeed, customer service  is  how the west was won.  Mom and pop businesses  and great goliaths of industry  alike have been built and/or broken, not  always by  the quality of product,  but  by their treatment of  the people buying it.

Depending on what you read, customer service in America today is  either better than  ever, or at an all time low.   My friends and I  routinely  share  trying experiences   in restaurants,  retail stores,   hospitals,  at City Hall,  the post office–anywhere you interact with those whose job it is to accommodate customers in a transaction or service.

And doing business by phone and online often only means the frustration is at your fingertips.  Sites conveniently omit telephone numbers so customers can’t call to complain.  On the phone,  computerized  voices suddenly become deaf to  requests they are programmed  to ignore (“…I said SUPERVISOR, damn it”).  You finally get a human on the line and they sound as if you’ve interrupted their card game. Welcome to the wonderful world of customer service.

It figures that good customer service would be taking a hit.  We currently live in a society where, generally speaking, nobody wants to put in the work.  On every level of life, it seems, we desire more for doing less.

For one thing, we’ve got machines that do what we used to do.  Thanks to emailing, texting and tweeting, coherent sentences are going the way of Fred Flintstone and succinct verbal communication an anomaly.  Parents say, “If I didn’t learn to text, I wouldn’t be able to communicate with my child.”  If I had a kid  who couldn’t bother to  allow me to hear their voice once in a while,  they wouldn’t eat at my house.

The other day, I mentioned to someone—a person old enough to remember when–that my twenty year-old car wasn’t equipped with GPS.  Gasp. “Then how do you get around?” She was serious.  I explained that I might call someone at my destination and get directions.  Or go online.   I might even, you know, look at a map.  Her silence on the phone  betrayed her  mystification.

However, it’s not technology that breeds our  indolence. That’s on us.  And everywhere, there are people declaring themselves something without doing what it takes to truly be that something.  Fancy yourself a writer? Simply start blogging. Rudimentary knowledge of grammar and punctuation be damned.

Rapper Lil’ Wayne considers himself a musician. Onstage, he mostly WEARS his guitar, like a fashion accessory.  When he does play, it is clear that he can’t.  He’s okay with that.  His fans don’t appear to mind, either.

After her failed 2008 bid for the vice-Presidency, Sarah Palin upped and quit mid term as governor of Alaska.  Just stopped coming. One reason: her new celebrity allowed her to make far more money  doing a  lot less.

Meanwhile, the TSA announced that passengers can again bring small knives aboard flights.  Knives don’t really pose a threat, says TSA Administrator John S. Pistole, and besides, it takes time to look for them in luggage, when screeners could be searching for bombs.  Statistically, baggage theft is up since the TSA was formed in  2001,  so I’d say they’re searching for other stuff, too.

What does any of the aforementioned  have to do with customer service?  Well, those situations require a certain   interest on the part of the people/persons doing the work.  I believe the TSA no longer looks for small knives because screeners have constantly complained about the “hassle” of searching for them, and Pistole doesn’t want the responsibility of managing  workers who don’t want to do the work.  So he let’s them slide—and thus, HE slides—at the expense of the public’s safety.

That’s the key to great customer service: it’s the EMPLOYEE who has to care.  It’s a personal pride thing.  Corporations can teach a worker company protocol on doing a job, but they can’t instill the willingness to actually do it with a measure of dignity and self worth.  Character.  That has to come from the individual.  And that is what is lacking in customer service.

Thankfully,  there is another side. There are people, plenty of them, operating on what can only be termed Another Level.  On the job they smile, actually try to help.  They do this with the invaluable understanding that the customer is NOT always right; that sometimes, the customer is an asshole.  But  that usually doesn’t faze   this particular employee for very long, for he and she know who THEY are and who they want to be.

They are people like the gentleman at my mid-city L.A neighborhood Rite Aid, who, no matter how short staffed he is, no matter how many times his pleasantries are met with a grunt or  less, has a kind demeanor for all.  I’ve seen this man on a bus stop.  Just one less reason to be jubilant at work, I suppose,  but that doesn’t stop him.

He always goes out of his way to be helpful and never seems stressed.  Even when his line is long, you see a person with a frown walk up to check out, and when they turn around, they are often smiling or even laughing—with him—at some remark he made.

Or the young woman checker at the specialty food store at Farmer’s Market.  Whenever I offer the perfunctory, “Hi ya doin,’” she always responds, “I’m EXCELLENT.”  Not just Okay. Not, Oh, I guess I’ll make it, not I don’t want to be here today. EXCELLENT.  She says this   without bravado or fakery, but as a matter of fact.  I believe she means it.

Then there’s the early 20-something guy in a Staples I frequent, forever in a good mood.  I watch him. He’s  at the register; he’s  directing a customer not to the most expensive brand, but to the best one for them.  He’s up on a ladder doing shit. He’s indefatigable, this guy, moving in a genuine and dynamic, loving spirit.  One day, I simply had to ask:  Are you in a cult?  Did you recently find God? What IS it with you?

He laughed and said he gets that a lot.  It’s just how he was raised, he said, to do the best he can at whatever he endeavors. He’s not always this way, he said, but  finds that he feels better about himself when he looks at the positive side of his existence: he’s alive.  Healthy.

The job doesn’t pay much, he said, but he’s here; why not do it well? The main thing, he said, no matter what, he tries to treat people the way he wants to be treated.   Not as a customer, but as a person.

I was wrong.  What I mistook as a great sense of service is actually a wonderful sense of SELF. You go somewhere to buy something, and you get an attitude like this man’s for free.  Forget the product—on a daily basis, these people restore my faith in humanity.  Now, that’s what I call service.

Steven Ivory, journalist and author of the essay collection Fool In Love  (Simon & Schuster),  has covered popular culture for magazines, newspapers, radio and TV for more than 30 years. Respond to him via [email protected].