Customer Service…Or Not

Some time ago, I travelled into the city to a government building for what I believed to be a simple transaction, taking some paperwork to obtain a license. I’d already done all the initial preparation on-line, navigating my way through a frustrating website, trying to be sure I’d dotted every i and crossed every t.  I’d even fulfilled the requirement for fingerprinting and a background check which seemed rather ridiculous, since as a former government employee, I’d been fingerprinted and checked twice before; my information had to be on file somewhere.  But, so be it. I did it all once again.

Before starting out, I carefully divested myself of my usual weaponry (pocket knife, pepper spray, nail file, “keycat”, even my miniature flashlight that I knew from bitter experience would be confiscated due to its batteries). Having dealt with streets under construction and city center traffic and non-existent parking, after arriving downtown, I walked several blocks to finally arrive at my destination. I went through the charade of security, submitting my purse for scanning – twice — and then being asked to remove what they thought were tweezers (my reading glasses.  Deadly weapons, those).  After being questioned as to why I had so many sets of keys – uh, let’s see, my house, my daughter’s house, my father’s house, the home of one friend and the apartment of another — I was finally allowed into the building.  Thus it was that, already in a state of irritation, I wandered about looking desperately for a directory before finally, quite by accident, stumbling upon an information desk that was, of course, nowhere near the security entrance.

I waited patiently for the woman at the information desk to complete a phone call, and then asked for directions to the department I needed. I arrived there a few minutes later. Stepping inside, I waited for the desk clerk to look up and say something basic, such as, “May I help you?”  When not a word was forthcoming, I simply smiled, said hi, and began to explain my errand.

Checkmate. “They shouldn’t have sent you in here.  That unit is closed on Tuesdays,” she said.

I’m sure my face was a picture of consternation. “But…but it didn’t say that anywhere on the website,” I stuttered, dismayed.  She shrugged.  “They’re closed on Tuesdays.”

I shook my head and picked up my paperwork to leave and sighed,  “They really need to put that on the website.  They really do.”  But before I could even turn to leave, the clerk leaned forward belligerently and snapped at me, “Well, you can just march right down the hall there and tell them that!.”

I was flabbergasted. I’m sure I stood there staring at her for a full thirty seconds before I said quietly, “I’m quite sure my opinion wouldn’t matter to them any more than it does to you, ma’am.”  I turned and walked out the door.

Now, no doubt that young woman was weary of dealing every Tuesday with customers made unhappy by a situation beyond her control, a problem created solely due a failure of the IT department to properly update a website. But her insolence clearly illustrated a problem about what passes for customer service in modern society: that is, that poor service and outright rudeness are acceptable behavior.  The customer, once touted as “always right” is now never right and deserves not even a modicum of courtesy; the customer is merely an irritation to be swatted aside like an errant housefly.

In a government career that spanned 37 years, I spent much of my time dealing with complaints and trying to assist welfare recipients. (I even learned to call them clients, although in my viewpoint a client was someone who was paying for a service, not receiving payments and services for free.)  During those years, I was the target of many a customer’s frustration as they tried to navigate an unwieldly system with contradictory rules and overworked caseworkers. I dealt with men who mouthed obscenities and women who broke down in tears.  I was called filthy names and threatened.  I was shouted at and endured racist remarks.  Yet never once was I as rude to a those members of the public as that receptionist was to me.

There is simply no excuse for the mistreatment of customers by those entrusted with work on their behalf. Until and unless their own behavior makes it impossible to do so, one deals courteously with consumers who have just come smack up against a wall not of their own creation.

Had that receptionist sighed and said, “I know, I get that all the time, and I keep telling them, but no one will listen to me,” all my sympathies would have shifted on her behalf. I would have commiserated, understanding what she was up against.

Instead, when I returned a few days later, I asked for her name, and her supervisor’s name—both of which, shockingly,  she refused to provide me. Still, I went over her head and attempted the useless process of reporting the problems I’d encountered with the rude young woman.

That no one even bothered to respond to my report, I’ve thought many times since, just made the situation even sadder, since the effort to restore some measure of civility and courtesy to everyday interactions needs to begin somewhere. But it seems that, short of a viral video showing someone being dragged brutally down an aisle, no one truly even cares.

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