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One man's beef - Where's the service?

September 30, 2000

One man's beef - Where's the service?



By DICK FLEMING


We stood looking silently at one another, locked in an uncomfortable gaze. I sensed each of us was waiting for the other to speak. It felt awkward, and I worried that her anticipation seemed less eager than my own.

Finally, I decided to make the first move. I swallowed hard, and popped the question.

"Are you ready to wait on me now?"

Such is the heartbreaking state of affairs with customer service in a job market where pretty much everybody who wants to work does, but too many workers give the impression of being mired in cheerless tasks.

At the fast food restaurant, a harried shift manager treats you as an inconvenience. The fellow at the supermarket deli acts as though a request for luncheon meat is an imposition. The movie theater employee seems put off when you trudge out to the lobby to politely point out that it's 10 minutes into the film and the house lights are still on. The customer service representative at your neighborhood super store scowls as she wordlessly awaits your approach.

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Odd, that.

I've discovered that at many places in town you are greeted with silent, sullen indifference. No "hello," no "who's next?" not even a "what do you want?" Just blank stares.

With a booming retail industry in Washington County and high hopes for further tourism development, there's too much at stake to shrug off the poor state of customer service as a sign of the times.

Ben Hart, who heads the local Convention and Visitors Bureau, knows he has his work cut out for him. The decline in the quality of service, he says, crosses geographical and generational boundaries. It's compounded by a job market in which if someone tires of one job, there's a place down the street with a position in desperate need of filling.

Reversing the trend, Hart says, may take a long time. One approach under consideration is customer service training for mid-level managers, who are likely to be somewhat more stable in their jobs than many of the cashiers and clerks they supervise.

Training programs won't hurt, but the roots of the problem run deep. What we are seeing is further evidence of a society where civility seems to be in an irreversible decline.

Fortunately, there are still people around like Victor James Newby.

I met Newby in the Food Court at Prime Outlets, where he was flipping burgers at Flamers. I was struck by his friendliness, and the fact that after only a couple of visits he remembered my face and that I liked my cheeseburgers plain.

I asked Newby, who grew up in Hagerstown and graduated from South High, what motivated him.

His mother, he said, gave him a good upbringing. She taught him to be friendly and polite. It shows. He likes people, and he likes his job. It helps, he said, that he's got a good boss who asks his advice and listens to what he has to say.

It's as simple and as complicated as that.

You can't fake what Victor Newby has; it's in his nature. And while you can't change people's poorer nature, a little friendliness can be contagious.

Maybe it's up to us on this side of the service counter to take the initiative and offer a little encouragement by showing our appreciation for those four simple words we once took for granted and now too often long to hear:

"May I help you?"

It just could be the start of a beautiful friendship.

Dick Fleming is weekend editor at The Herald-Mail.

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