Thursday, February 5, 2009

Pocket Review of Service in America

Friday, September 12, 2008 at 3:03pm
While part of me is MORTIFIED at being a 37 year old woman who slangs wine for a living a few hours a week, another part of me is proud to work for a company that still actually provides some customer service. If you buy a food item in a Trader Joe’s grocery store and do not like it, you can return it, (even if you ate most of it before you decided it wasn’t for you); and we will refund your money, or let you exchange it for something else. The wine store’s rules are a bit different, as New York State law governs EVERYTHING we do, but still, if a bottle we sell you is spoiled or corked, we exchange it, no questions asked, and no tude given. My co-workers and I try to make the shopping experience fun for the customers (and ourselves), and generally treat everyone like human beings, which is more than I can say for most flight attendants (And yes, I mean that to be grammatically ambiguous. Most [OK, some] flight attendants are NOT human beings, and most [OK, many] flight attendants rarely treat passengers as if THEY are human beings).
Case in point: on the second leg of a flight from L.A to Birmingham several years ago (I hate to name names, but it was Southwest), I left my seat, and started to walk towards the restroom. I was about five feet from the door of the necessary, when the pilot illuminated the fasten seatbelt sign due to turbulence. A flight attendant yelled at me, “Sit down, immediately!!! The captain has turned on the fasten seat belt sign. We have hit a rough spot! What are you doing???!!!,” as she rapidly buckled herself into one of the jump seats. I told her there was no need to yell, that I was (obviously) in need of the facilities; and since I was already there, wished to proceed (I don’t know what hijinx other people get up to in there, but for me, it is so damned tiny, I think it is probably safer than a regular seat). She berated me further, and insisted that I sit down in the seat closest to me.
After twenty minutes of supreme discomfort, during which time I resorted to mental tricks like alternate nostril breathing and thinking of the Sahara, this same flight attendant came by with the drinks tray (Southwest doesn’t have carts). She crouched down in the aisle, and in her best Southern accent said, “I hope you don’t think I was being ugly before, but we would rather you use the restroom in your seat than risk falling and getting hurt (read sue us).”
Now first of all, I had no idea we would be encountering turbulence when I set out for the can. Secondly, I think yelling is rarely necessary. And C, what?! Go in my seat?!?! What is this, a slumber party in first grade? She capped this little speech by telling me that it was STILL unsafe for me to get up, even though she was balancing a tray of hot coffee on one hand while saying so. I responded that as she didn’t personally know me, she had no way of discerning that I am not as litigious as the average American, but that as she had eyes, she SHOULD have been able to discern that I am an adult, and not a three year old, and addressed me as such.
And then I peed on her.
Basically, I think Paul Westerberg said it best:
“She don't wear no pants and she don't wear no tie
Always on the ball, she's always on strike
Struttin' up the aisle, big deal, you get to fly
You ain't nothin' but a waitress in the sky.”
Bottom line? They can’t stop you from leaving your seat. You don’t HAVE to do what they say (during taxi, there are set federal laws, but in the air, it’s anything goes), as they are merely there to ADVISE you on what is preferred/safest (Like if your server at Sizzler said, “Be careful with that knife – you might cut yourself”). However, I would certainly exercise caution when simultaneously exercising your free will (Post 9/11, there is a real “us vs. them” vibe between some flight attendants and passengers. I think the current administration, which I would classify as “fear-mongering” is largely responsible for this. The constant alerts – amber, orange, heliotrope - make everyone edgy, and the law, or at least the TSA enforcement of it, is extremely fluid. I mean, six months after 9/11, I was allowed to fly with knitting needles big enough to impale Vlad himself, but my small travel scissors [What am I gonna do? Cut the pilot’s cuticles?] were forbidden. And, as previously noted, heaven forefend I use the toilet instead of my seat to relieve myself).
It is not news that airlines give bad service - they are notorious for it. Still, I feel that there is a bad service pandemic. I don’t know what the cure is, but I’d give a lot to be treated like a human being. I’d give a lot to even be given the opportunity to TALK to a human being, instead of a digital recording.
Exhibit B: I am shipped a GIANT “black box” (no foolin’, it looks like it contains a dead body) for every event that I coordinate for one of my travel clients. As a result, I have to call DHL at each of these gigs to schedule a pick up for said box. Every single time, I tell the voicebot all of the details and when he gets to the last request for information (a yes or no question), he says, “I’m sorry I’m having trouble. Let me transfer you to a representative.” (This in spite of the fact that I am enunciating so fiercely my jaws ache, and speaking into the phone the way my mother talks to “foreigners”, by which I mean at the top of my freaking LUNGS). When a human comes on the line, I have to go through the entire process again. I have asked numerous times if there is a way to bypass this recording, and have always been told that there is not. If this worked, it would be fine with me (though I think technology has robbed us of many of the simple niceties such as politely interacting with other persons), but as it DOESN’T work, it drives me mad because it is so inefficient. I hate doing things twice.
I’d REALLY dig a return to “The customer is always right” era, but since that is not an option, how about just appreciating my business, instead of treating me like an inconvenience? How about NOT charging me a “convenience fee” when I did everything my damn self, and on line? (I mean, honestly – F you, Ticketbastard.) How about a “day” or “night” in a hotel being a full 24 hours instead of check in at 3PM, and check out at 11AM? How about speaking to me, the customer, during our exchange, instead of your co-worker (about how your man done pissed you off again)? How about having actual vents in the back of the cab, instead of a corrugated plastic tube duct-taped to the dashboard, and running under the front seat to the rear floorboard, so that only my left big toe enjoys a controlled temperature (I’m talking to you, Philadelphia)? I mean, I have good karma – I tip 20-25% always. What’s the prob, Rob?
I realize that I am from a different time. I got my first job at 14. I was “Santa’s Little Helper” and therefore, made to wear a white turtleneck sweater, red fur skirt with white trim, silly hat, white tights and white boots (after Labor Day – oh, the humanity). I “helped” a photographer by placing children on Santa’s lap and distracting them long enough to have their pictures “made,” as we say in the South.
This all took place in the cafeteria of our local Kmart, which was run by a stout, middle-aged woman named Myrt (short for Myrtle, I assume). She had platinum blonde hair styled like Sandra Dee, wore frosted green eyeshadow and giant glasses, smoked Virginia Slims, and had a rack like a bunk bed – truly right out of Central Casting. As manager of the cafeteria, she would make periodic announcements throughout the day: (in an authentic Appalachian accent) “Attention, Kmart shoppers. Come on back to our cafateery, where our lunch special today is country-fried steak, mashed taters, and turnip greens, all served with a glass of sweet tea, and a HOT rollllllllll and BUTter!”
In retrospect, it was kind of an inauspicious introduction to the workforce. Especially considering the fact that I was paid by the photo, if memory serves. Nothing like enduring the humiliation of being dressed like an elf, and then not making a dime for your efforts. (Myrt did pity me with free beverages and the occasional hot rolllllllllll and BUTter, though.)
I graduated from little helper to cashier after my mom coerced the personnel manager (who was a friend, as Mother was employed by the same Kmart for nearly 20 years, and throughout that time, referred to it as simply, “the store”) into overlooking the fact that I was two years too young to be hired by their establishment. I worked Friday evenings and Saturdays until my sophomore year, when I added shifts on Sundays and Monday nights as well. This allowed me to buy all of my own clothing and make-up, and take mother and me to the beach for vacation every year. Back then, being a cashier (even at a lowly establishment like Kmart) required the following:
1) The ability to count back change (which NO ONE but dinosaurs like me can do now)
2) The attitude that the customer is always right
3) The willingness to help customers with their packages (all the way to their cars, if necessary).
In exchange, we were paid in cash (all of my savings lived in a ceramic vase in my room), and treated respectfully ourselves.
Because Kmart was always fair, I was surprised to learn that my mother quit her job there not long before I moved to L.A. Her reasons are still unclear to me. However, I do recall the following phone conversation, which took place shortly before she gave her notice:
Me: “Hello?”
Mother: “Well, they found a human head in a bucket behind the store. It’s too decomposed to tell if it’s male or female, but it’s definitely a human head. One of the little boys from the street behind us was out there throwing the ball around with his brother, and found it. Well, I’ve gotta go. It’s Jeannette’s birthday, so we did a potluck today, and I wanna fix my plate before a thousand nasty hands get in it.”
Me: “But, how did-“
Mother: Dial tone
It was the early eighties before Kmart (at least in the Bible Belt) was even open on Sundays, and once they adjusted their schedule (to compete with Wal-Mart), they closed early – 6PM instead of 9PM. If I am not mistaken, it is still impossible to purchase alcohol in the Heart of Dixie from midnight Saturday until midnight Sunday- Lord’s Day, and what not.
Now, I am most definitely not what one would call “religious” (I think Lesbians, Thespians, and Equestrians are books of the Bible), but I do dig that whole “do unto others” rap. That makes sense to me, and that’s really all that good service is – thinking about somebody besides your goddamned self for a change. I also kind of miss the days when there was one day a week when no one had to work (Except church people, I guess. But they knew what they were getting into when they signed up).
I realize that my complaints are mostly directed at businesses that are necessarily of the 24-7 variety, but I guess I am wondering if there were only six days a week when we had to give service, if the quality of that service would be any better (kind of like the long-married couple who have “relations” once a week)? Or, if we took a siesta in the middle of the day like the wise and wonderful Europeans often do, would that impact our consideration quotient? I’m just speaking for me here, but I know I have often thought, “You need a nap,” about myself and others (though not as often as I have thought, “Some people just need to get laid”).
There are exceptions, of course. I finally got medallion status with Delta, and am upgrading willy nilly. Apparently, people in First Class are widely recognized to be adults who have balance, motor skills, and the ability to determine when they can no longer wait to whizz. I had only to smack my forehead Homer style, when I realized (after we had sat on the runway at JFK the requisite hour + waiting to take off), that the pilot was never going to turn the light off, as it is only 36 minutes in the air from New York to Boston, for the flight attendant to come to me, and say, ”Is everything OK, Miss Wood?” He even gave me a moist towelette as I skipped to the loo.
And, at the dreaded Days Inn in Hillsborough, New Jersey (which is actually a lovely township), when I ordered take out from a local Italian joint and the delivery guy forgot my beverage AND my dessert, he surprised me by returning with not one but two chocolate mousses to make up for it. When I thanked him profusely, he replied simply, “No Prahblem.” This almost helped me forget that the air conditioner in my room was louder than Paul Bunyan’s blender on margarita night (With the A/C off, it was stuffy, and I was nearly asphyxiated on the scent of brand new industrial carpeting. With it on, I never fell asleep.)
So, there are some folks that still like to soive out there, I guess. I just wish they were the rule, and not the exception. And, I totally did not have sex with that delivery guy, though I ate the hell out of those mousses.

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