April 24, 2010 in Opinion

For good service, ask a computer

Froma Harrop
 

More service is not necessarily good service. And bad service dressed as good service is even worse. Here are examples:

Restaurants. A waiter breaks into a lively conversation to ask, “How is the meal?” Being courteous people, we feel obliged to respond that everything is fine, only to have the robot-server walk away in our midsentence. So one gesture of fake concern leaves us both interrupted and disrespected.

It’s not good service to grab a plate while a dining partner is still eating. So common is this breach that many diners aren’t even aware of it.

“Can I clear that for you?” the waitron asks as he lunges for a plate on which the diner has set down her fork for 15 seconds. It can happen in five seconds, and often the plate isn’t even empty. The diner had merely sought to rest between bites.

There is an official way to indicate that one has finished: Set the fork and knife to lie parallel across the plate, with the knife’s cutting edge facing the diner. Many waiters don’t know this signal. Or they do but are told to rush things along to get the customers up from the table to install a new set of speed-eaters. The diner’s only defense is vigilance and defiance.

E-mail. Any business or government agency whose website offers a contact address for questions, complaints or comments should darn well have someone answering them. It’s amazing how many “contact us” links send correspondence down a black hole, never to be seen again. Wouldn’t customer relations be better served by removing the e-mail link rather than letting customers pour out their hearts only to be insulted by a nonreply?

Users of the e-mail route are often the most desirable customers. They are busy people who have jobs (and, by extension, money). They don’t have the time to wind around telephone answering trees, then sit on hold for 15 minutes for “the next available customer service agent.” I’ve noticed that the best-run companies answer both their phones and e-mail in a timely fashion.

Call centers. Being sent around continents for technical help, bill paying or other services is a given of our age. And I usually don’t mind dealing with the foreign accents that often entails.

However. The call center people working in East Whereverstan should speak an English comprehensible to a reasonably intelligent American. Often that is not the case. I usually try to work with the call center employees by asking them to repeat things. Sometimes they get angry with me, no doubt a reflection of the abuse they’ve taken from others before me demanding that an American come to the phone.

In an age where technology is complex, having to hack through an impenetrable accent only adds to the customer’s frustration level. My advice to companies offering service over the phone: Either demand a certain level of spoken-English proficiency from your foreign call centers, or pay a few more cents an hour to hire native (or very good) speakers of English.

Stores. How about telling some of the sales help that customers aren’t stupid and they have feelings. Many of us have experienced trying to get the attention of store clerks yukking it up with colleagues. When the workers finally pay attention, they do so with a pained expression. A related phenomenon is seeing retail workers give each other the eye in a shopper’s presence. Most unpleasant.

Computerized communication is unfailingly polite, but it cannot resolve every issue. Flowery promises of attentive service must be followed by the real thing. Better to not offer it than to pretend.

Froma Harrop is a columnist for the Providence Journal.

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