Service with a shrug? Consider flip side of service crisis

It's the peak of the holiday shopping season, and commercialism is as rampant as canned music renditions of "Jingle Bells." Which is why I hesitate to admit that one of my favorite hardware stores is part of a vast national chain - a chain that doesn't need a promotional plug from a small-town journalist.

Still, when any business, large or small, delivers a fine product and tops it off with congenial service, well, it's something to write home about.

The routine at the hardware is pretty simple. I wander the aisles; an employee notices my bewilderment and asks if I need assistance. I'm escorted to the proper shelf, then left in peace to ponder my decision.

But it's the guy working the checkout counter on the evening shift who always makes my night. Looking me in the eye, he asks, "Hey, how's it goin'? How's your evening?" as if my answer will mean something to him. When I respond with, "Fine, thanks, how about yours?" he tells me he couldn't be better, that life is terrific.

It's an ordinary exchange of pleasantries, I know, yet the man behaves as if there's nothing he'd rather be doing at the moment than bagging my picture hooks and holiday lights.

When was the last time you patronized a business and left feeling delighted with the service as well as the product? How many times have you been greeted with a smile and an upbeat attitude?

Or are you typically ignored while standing at a counter, waiting for a salesperson to shuffle over or at least acknowledge your presence?

If you think the "service" you're getting is generally worse than it used to be, you're hardly alone in your frustration. A 1997 Gallup Poll showed that while 53 percent of all respondents gave high marks to the quality of US products, a mere 36 percent gave similar ratings to the quality of service. Just over 30 percent felt quality of service has been in decline, and employee attitude was the most often cited reason.

And consider this: The US Bureau of Labor Statistics forecasts that by the year 2005, "service-producing jobs will account for the majority of all future job growth," with service workers expected to add 4.6 million jobs.

So unless something changes, we'll be scowling through another century of crabby cashiers, cranky fast-food workers, bored waiters, and overworked day-care providers.

Matthew Gilbert, author of a thought-provoking new book, "Take This Job and Love It" (Daybreak Books), suggests part of the problem is that American service workers "continue to be stigmatized as poor and undereducated, thus demeaning their contribution to the economic, social, and spiritual fabric."

Most service jobs are viewed as means to an end, rarely as honorable careers.

If we keep measuring our worth on the competitive scale of material success - big paychecks, prestigious degrees, expensive cars, and designer clothing - we'll continue to belittle work that doesn't earn these rewards.

And it follows that if we treat or regard service workers as "inferior" humans, we shouldn't be so surprised to get less than what we're paying for.

Yet there is dignity in all work, and all work can have spiritual as well as material value, Gilbert believes.

"Work is, in fact, remarkably undervalued as a source of inspiration," he writes. "This is no less true for the street sweeper and the shoeshine man than it is for those in any other profession."

But inspiration doesn't come easily - especially during the holiday season, when checkout lines are longer and fuses are shorter.

The workers whose job descriptions include daily confrontations with abrasive customers, greasy hamburgers, or howling kids could surely use a helping of our compassion.

After all, the road to cordial relations never was a one-way street. We're ultimately here to serve each other. An overall shift in attitude could vastly improve the quality of the basic products and services that support our economy and our way of life.

* Cynthia G. La Ferle is a journalist based in Royal Oak, Mich.

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