Monday, April 03, 2006

The unbearable triteness of greeting

In the last year or so, major retail places in my town (more exactly, the town I live outside of and visit only when absolutely necessary) have begun this big "friendliness" push. You cannot pass a store employee, not even the stockers and inventory people, without getting a cheery, "How are you today, sir?" or "Finding everything OK, ma'am?" It was fine with me when they just did their jobs. This chirruping doesn't add anything to my day. The checkers have all taken to addressing people by their names, taken from checks and credit cards: "Thanks for coming in today, Mr. Rumsfeld. We're so glad we could serve you." There is one grocery store checker I simply have to avoid because her effusiveness makes me feel like a cornered bear: "Well, now, Mr. Cardozo, I hope you're having just a totally awesome Tuesday!" How am I supposed to respond to that?

I had a great-uncle, a self-made manufacturing millionaire (back in the days when a million was a lot), who is said to have sat down in barber chairs grunting, "A shave, a haircut, and silence." I must take after him. Do these people's managers actually think we can't tell when we're being patronized?

The New Friendliness notwithstanding, the Old Bad Service seems to flourish still. In April the first halibut begin to be caught in our waters. A few days ago I was hankering for a halibut dinner. I went into one of our trendiest markets, an Oriental grocery that is known for the quality of its seafood. As I entered, a hand-lettered sign on the door proclaimed: "FRESH HALIBUT SPECIAL: $9.99/lb! Save $3!!"

I went to the fish counter at the rear of the store. Some of the display cases were stocked, but others were standing open, containing nothing but ice. It was 10:15 a.m. The store opens at 8:00. I stood around for a few minutes and finally a burly young man came out from the back, wiping his hands. He asked if he could help me. I said that I would like "some of that $9.99 halibut."

"That's over," he said. "Halibut is $12.99 today."

"You have a sign on the door saying $9.99," I pointed out.

"They should take that down. Halibut is $12.99 today."

I considered asking him how long his store had been suffering this plague of invisible sprites posting false advertising. Or whether his union rules forbade him to walk 100 feet to the front of the store and take down the misleading sign. But I was not up to a duel of wits with a fishmonger at that hour of the morning. "OK," I said. "Where's the $12.99 halibut?"

"I don't have it out yet," said Meinherr complacently. I waited, thinking perhaps the hour the holy fish would be exposed to public view would be vouchsafed unto me. After several seconds of silence, I realized my unworthiness and humbly asked when I might be able to see some.

"Maybe an hour. I don't know." He gestured at the displays. "I've got all these cases to do." More silence. Apparently the thought of offering to go get some halibut for an obviously motivated customer didn't cloud the eternal sunshine of Papageno's spotless mind.

I was now at the failsafe point. Either I had to make a federal case out of it, or I had to shrug and walk away. I walked away. I didn't really want to pay $12.99 for halibut. But I would have if he had made it easy. Perhaps the whole thing was a misunderstanding. Perhaps he wasn't really selling fish at all. Perhaps this was an art gallery and his display cases works in progress. Perhaps I was just a bum who wandered in off the street. That would explain a lot of other things in my life, too.

It isn't just retail places. I have gone to the same internist for 25 years. Regrettably, he and his partners sold their practice to a national health corporation some years back, and it promptly mushroomed into a much larger office with much poorer service. If it weren't for my trust in this particular doctor I would go elsewhere.

A few weeks ago I had to have some blood drawn. Because of my schedule I was there when they opened at 7:30. Several other people had the same idea. I happened to be the second person to sign in. We were all given some papers and directed to go to another waiting area down the hall and place our papers in a tiered rack on the wall. This we did. I happened to place my papers in the bottom tier.

I waited with eroding patience as the first two people called in were people who had signed in after me. Maybe they were different somehow. Maybe there was some medical reason their blood had to be drawn at precisely 7:40 and 7:54 a.m. But when the technician called the third person who had arrived after me, I objected.

The technician, a very beefy individual in a lab coat buttoned awry, found my papers. "But you're at the bottom," he said. I said that nobody had told me the position on the rack was significant. "I just start at the top," Blood Pudding said, gesturing widely and shaking his head, as if to say, "I am only a transportation specialist."

"Then someone should tell your patients that," I said tersely.

"Yeah, they should," he said impatiently, gesturing toward the front office. There it was again--the sinister they! Weakening our free enterprise system! Sowing dissension and distrust in our body politic! Sapping and impurifying our precious bodily fluids!

Don't managers get it? People can tell the difference between soft soap and the real thing. All the fake friendliness in the world doesn't do a fucking thing if your people don't take responsibility for their organization. It doesn't do a customer, a patient, a member of the public, the slightest bit of good to hear that his problem is somebody else's fault. The only thing that will help is the employee making the customer's problem his or her problem, right there on the spot. If you don't understand that, you shouldn't be managing anything but a push broom.

Posted by Fritz_Gerlich . To reply to this post, click HERE.