Off-Topic: On Service

Let’s go off-topic for a few hundred words.

Someone, and I honestly cannot remember who, recently said that Syracuse’s economy is rapidly becoming one where people make a living by serving cheeseburgers to one another. I don’t have any data to back me up, but let’s say that 20 to 25 percent of the jobs in this area are in the retail or food-service industries (just under 20 percent are education- or health-related while another fifth are government jobs; retail isn’t specifically listed as an industry by the New York State Department of Labor). This means that a quarter of the local population spends its time selling food, t-shirts, or sneakers to the other 75 percent.

That’s looking directly past real estate agents, car dealers and other professional salespeople, all of whom provide service to someone in order to remain gainfully employed. It does not count the professional firms who bid on jobs, selling their services to a willing buyer. Hell, even The Wife is in the service industry. Yes, she is a teacher, but the Common Core, standardized testing, prescriptive lessons and educational snake oil merchants have put the exclamation point on the argument that Americans that schools are glorified day care and teachers are nothing more than crowd control (Thanks Obama!).

So, where am I going with this? Like it or not, we’re a service economy. We all want what we want and we don’t want to pay a lot for it. It’s why we don’t manufacture things in America anymore. It’s why we throw things out rather than fix them. It’s why Wal-Mart is the largest retailer in the nation. We all have our moral high ground about Wal-Mart, but at the end of the day, we will sacrifice it to save 15 cents on a bottle of Windex. We live in a world where we serve one another. And we do it badly. I’m not just talking about the high school dropout who works at Dunkin Donuts and messed up my order this morning, either.

Today, I made my weekly grocery shopping trip. I won’t say where, but regular readers of Al Dente should not have trouble guessing. I was looking for the ripest lemon in the bin, when I glanced up to the grocery store version of a 12-car pileup: a manager chewing out an employee on the sales floor.

I was close enough to pick up 80 percent or so of the conversation. The employee, a nice gentleman who usually spends his shift sauteing vegetables at a little cooking station, had apparently left his work area multiple times that day to help people find things.

Now, he wasn’t slinging dope behind the store. He wasn’t groping anyone. He didn’t do anything to compromise the health or wellbeing of any customers. He walked away from his space, after turning off the cooking appliances, to help people find produce. I know this because I heard him attempt to defend his actions. The manager in question didn’t care, and continued to dress him down. I doubt anyone else saw this but me. Most people tunnel vision while shopping, but I was child-free so I watched and listened. I listened as she said things like “I don’t want to see you leave this station again” and “Three times today I’ve walked by and you weren’t here.” She went as far as to threaten disciplinary action if he left the booth again.

The produce section is probably the most trafficked area in this store. It is positioned at the entrance and this person’s perch is 15-20 paces from the front door. The department changes its configuration regularly based on what’s in season, so tomatillos might be in one space one week, and another spot a few days later. Since there never seems to be anyone in this department to ask for help, he gets the questions. And, because this company drills servce into its employees’ heads, he helps the customer.

Never mind that there is no one else from the produce department to ask. Never mind that the produce department looks like Toys R Us after Black Friday and without anyone around to stock the shelves. This manager decided to shit on a subordinate in full view of customers and other staff because he was helping others.

There is plenty of research showing that if you treat your staff like garbage, your staff will produce garbage. Worse than all of that, stores like this are very concerned with their reputations. This chain (and others) considers itself the best in its field, but bouts of unprofessional behavior by a manager damage both the store and its perceived excellence. After all, this company identified this person as “management material,” gave her a portable phone and told her that she could wear “street clothes” and not the standard-issue uniform. The made her a manager and empowered her to act like the stereotypical asshole retail manager. She didn’t let them down.

As any marketing or communications professional will tell you, companies do not own their brand. The frontline staff member has more impact on a brand’s reach than any middle manager, CEO, charitable contribution or sports sponsorship combined. Especially in a retail or food service enterprise, an attentive waiter or staff person does more to enhance a brand than the vice president or director charged with “brand management.” Because we are an economy that spends its time serving cheeseburgers to one another, customer service is first and foremost. To see a manager ridicule and threaten a staff member in a public setting is unnerving and unprofessional. That the staff member was in trouble for providing service to customers undermines the brand.

It takes some shine off the apple.

It makes me question why I continue to be a customer.

After all, I can always get a cheeseburger somewhere else.


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