Thursday, May 22, 2008

XXL customer service post

Last night, I hung out with my buddy J for about the 5,000th time (no joke...yes, we're keeping track). We weren't too tipsy but at the end of the night, we realized we were right around the corner from an awesome burrito joint which we frequent. So hey, why not go in and get lunch for the next day - their burritos are so good that it's completely acceptable to buy one in advance, fridge it, and eat it the next day after it thaws.

I called my better half & it turns out she wanted a meatless burrito. Looking back I should have ordered it as meatless, but I ended up ordering a chicken burrito "without the chicken". I also explained twice to the burrito-dude that I just wanted rice, beans, guac, salsa, and no chicken in the burrito. The girl behind the register starts to laugh; apparently my words either weren't clear enough or she was just havin' a laugh at the stupid gringo who didn't know how the hell to order a meatless burrito (suffice it to say English was not the first language of these employees). So she's having a laugh and I'm thinking back to when I worked at my father's shop (wait, I still do...).

My grandfather was an Italian immigrant who had to fight to get here. He really wanted to leave Italy at the time (1957; long story) and ended up being rejected by the American embassy in Naples three times before they let him and his family come to the country. He had to have a job waiting for him, a sponsor, and he had to speak some words of English before they approved his trip over. I don't care what anyone says about how Italians or Irish may have been exploited for labor; they still had much more strict standards of citizenship, and that's always a good thing. As such, I have a feeling he appreciated his citizenship a bit more than, oh, I dunno, someone who probably has a green card and Masshealth for no other reason than she showed up, but I digress.

From a young age I'd work at my father's shop every weekend, helping out, doing whatever I could to keep busy. I'd also wait on customers. If I was chewing something or laughing at all when a customer was in the store and had to be waited on by me, I'd get an ear full by either my grandfather or father, because it's simply not professional or polite to be eating while waiting on someone, and certainly not laughing, even if it's an inside joke that the customer has nothing to do with. When you're not even ten years old, you don't know these things, but I quickly learned.

I realized standing in line at this burrito joint, that as much as we laud our "service economy" and we believe we're doing such a great service to these poor, poor immigrants who must be running from drug lords and other bad men like in some Bruce Willis action movie, there's very little customer service going on in most restaurants & shops these days. Part of it is certainly due to an increasingly high language barrier whenever you go out to even a nicer restaurant, and part of it is due to the fact that standards have slipped to disgustingly low levels - people expect to be put on hold and they expect to be treated like garbage; when they're not, they're pleasantly surprised (I know I am). The lack of customer service is particularly true for the smaller shops; at least larger chains have customer service guidelines in place, the violation of which can result in a chewing out from one's manager. My father's shop is a bit more old-school; if he has done something wrong by a customer, he immediately fixes it if it's his fault, and sometimes even if it's not. He values his customer base more than just about any other business I've ever been involved with, but apparently, many more small businesses operated this way until recently.

One might ask, what happened? Why do we have an increasingly lower standard of customer service in our society, and why do we feel that no one will treat us right unless we go high up the chain and squawk enough so that someone will do something to make us stop bitching? The differences in immigration waves certainly play a role, but it's only a piece of the puzzle. Part of the reason is culture; with no shared cultural values in our society and a mish-mash of people from different cultures (along with political correctness), there's no real expectations of any kind on anyone anymore. As a result, standards of everything from education to the Wal-Mart dude ringing up your bedsheets decrease drastically.

Another reason is a general frustration with large businesses which is partly the result of poor training and not enough resources dedicated to customer service. I remember at one point I had lost my bank card. I called my bank and hey, at least I spoke to someone in North Carolina and not India. The individual asked me which bank card I had lost; I said I only had one, and she said I had two open. Turns out they failed to kill a bank card I had cut up a year prior after I told them to, meaning someone who might have had that previous number could have continued using it. After I had reported my recent card missing, they hadn't put in the system that it needed to be replaced (what the hell was the person I was speaking to when I originally reported it missing doing that day??). This ended with a screaming match between myself & this employee's manager as he said he had to assess a fee to rush out the new card even though it should have been sent out days prior. The next day, I called up and talked to someone else, and the fee was immediately waived - they didn't even ask what happened, they just waived the fee. Why did I have to go through the initial stress of presenting my case like a trial lawyer to some idiot five states away, when someone lower on the food chain at my bank was able to wipe the slate clean? These are the kinds of questions we ask ourselves and mull instead of customer service departments doing their job correctly the first time so we can think about more important matters.

Unfortunately there's no end in sight; many of society's issues are interrelated and no one is interested in solving them. Tough decisions are something you won't see any political figure advocating, as it means less money and consumer goods/entertainment in the short term for the betterment of the human race in the long term. The best solution, as advocates, are local societies with shared cultural values instead of a large federal government trying to manage the needs and desires of 320 million people. And yes, I'm using a bad customer service experience as a vehicle for social decay and cultural emptiness - it's magic!

Edit 6/6/08: OK this was a bit tongue-in-cheek...wait, no it wasn't. It was just me overreacting, as is normal. Thanks to J for helping keep my perspective - he rightfully made mad fun of me when he saw this post. Later in the evening I ordered a "Super Burrito with no meat"...and I was pleased with the service. J rules.

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