In our narcissistic culture, the customer is always wrong

February 9th, 2011
Email This Post  Print This Post  

My “Open Range” column from the February 2011 issue of Alberta Venture magazine

The decline of service

Hey, Katie, how’s it goin’?” the young snowboarder queuing up in the ski area cafeteria asked the cashier. “Pretty good – but really stressed!” she answered breathlessly. I’d been through the brief lineup a couple of times – breakfast, lunch and now an après-ski snack before hitting the road. The mountain was operating at maybe one-quarter capacity and the guests were in first-day-of-the-season good cheer. Stress? What might happen to the young cashier with four times the traffic, running out of french fries midway through the lunch rush, underage punks trying to wheedle beers, harassed parents with yelling kids, when much of the after-ski crowd is on their sixth round of shooters?

There’s something seriously wrong with our service sector in Canada. “Service culture” is almost an oxymoron. There’s a growing attitude among service employees that they’re entitled to fun on the job, free of demands for exertion or thought outside the confines of their one task. The customer’s role is to line up meekly, endure delays without complaint and silently hand over their chip card. If anything isn’t working quite right, it’s the customer’s fault. Any questions? Don’t ask the staff – go away and Google it. We Canadians love to laugh at the relatively uncultured ways of American service staff, especially their ignorance of other countries. But ours aren’t far behind.

I think a large part stems from the decline of our educational system. Kids are taught that they’re the centre of their own self-constructed universe, where they’re always the hero, the sun around whom others orbit with the singular goal of making them feel good. The boomers’ psychotic over-parenting completes the infantilizing of “children” through their mid-20s. Adult life – including work – is foreseen as an endless upward spiral of self-esteem and self-actualizing experiences. When such a naïf enters the service sector, no wonder they feel the customer exists to make them happy. Those customers have a way of rudely deflating the bubble – creating all that “stress.” For all their coolness and 13-going-on-30 worldliness, today’s young service employees seem alarmingly fragile.

There’s the admittedly dehumanizing environment in many large corporations. Machines have not only replaced service employees at the utilities, for example, but even at the retail level each party interfaces more and more with technology than one another. I’ve noticed a clear age divide in attitude and ability to perform services. Younger staff, for all their familiarity with gadgets, are virtually devoid of general knowledge and have little ability to think while conversing – to actually “interact.” They’re as one with the electronics, but alienated from warm-blooded humans with their unpredictable ways.

One way they cope with the frightening randomness is to treat all but the most rudimentary inquiries as mysterious gibbering akin to a space alien or dementia sufferer. This happened to me twice within five minutes at a big-box retailer recently. I was in search of a stout plastic grain shovel to deal with that big mid-November blizzard. The racks held all kinds of flimsy plastic snow shovels, plus aluminium grain shovels.

So I asked a staffer. He guffawed with a disbelieving grin: “Plastic grain shovels? Those are seasonal. Come back in April.” I turned around, looked up and saw an entire wall full of rakes and spades, which somehow counted as year-round stock. Moments later I asked another staffer about where to find one of those big, square lantern batteries, thinking this non-standard configuration might be in the camping section. She gaped. “Lantern? Battery?” And wandered off.

It only gets worse when youthful indifference meets the advance of progress. For all our whiz-bang technology, the private sector has become nearly as procedurally obsessed as government. Front-line staff appear in turn irritated, baffled, paralyzed or terrified at deviation from routine. Financial companies making their unsolicited late-evening marketing calls warn that a conversation “may be” recorded or monitored. When I ask, “Well, is it or isn’t it?” the company “consultant” freezes up in a near-panic. My wife’s dental office keeps calling our house weekdays to remind her of appointments. I’ve asked them repeatedly to call her at the office. The other day I finally started yelling – very un-Canadian. But mindlessly repeating routines without regard to the customer’s response isn’t “service.”

Merge procedural obsession with today’s smothering safety cult and the results can be toxic – for the customer. Not long ago the absurd interactions of occupational health and traffic safety nearly wiped out rural mail delivery. At ski areas, the “liftees” tending the older chairlifts refuse to actually slow down the chairs for fear of throwing out their backs – so thousands of paying patrons end up with black and blue calves. In B.C., “safety”rules now make it illegal for gas stations to allow you to fill your tank and then pay for the gas. Every motorist is presumed a criminal.

Bad service at a fast food joint or retail outlet might seem trivial, but it’s a window on a civilization so tyrannized by technology and weighed down by rules it’s losing the ability to cope with the natural give and take of life. What might happen in a true cataclysm – you know, enormous physical damage, mass casualties, power and communications systems down for days? Would firefighters allow entire cities to burn while waiting in vain for the power company to show up and tell them all the electrical lines had been disconnected? The metaphor “Byzantine” encapsulates a culture of infinite and incomprehensible rules, elaborate ceremony, impenetrable political structure and utter inertia – incapable of taking action. We’re close to living the 21st century version.

Blogmarks BlogLines Digg Facebook Google Google Reader Magnolia Yahoo! MyWeb Newsgator reddit SlashDot StumbleUpon Technorati
By George Koch