Scenes from a service economy

When a company pushes a glitch-riddled product at consumers, it faces pressure to quickly call back the item and make good. As it should.

When a company sends forth an underachieving staff, it sandbags its own efforts.

You know good help is hard to find in America when you read about $4,000 signing bonuses for pancake-house managers.

But the weak-link factor looms large these days. It will be harder to fix than any sparking toaster.

Is business getting the word?

It may be less about the product than about those hired to answer phones or e-mail, run the front desk, or make deliveries - and then can't deliver the goods.

Over time, the kind of damage such workers can inflict - as embodiments of the brand - can be tough to live down.

There's simply too much consumer choice to make it worth wading through.

We all have stories about, say, a roofer who won't call back. A few of mine from recent weeks (not including that roofer, or a futon seller whose story is too complex):

*The representative from a top-three car-rental firm who wanted a state to go with "Boston." (Don't write to say there's a Boston, Ga.)

*The young clerk at a video-store chain who held up a line while subtracting 2 from 11 on paper - you know, "borrow the 1."

*The pizza-maker who lost my phoned-in order - leaving me to hang around while he made the pizzas - and then scowled like the Seinfeld "soup Nazi" before charging me full price.

As service lapses snowball, only a handful of winners may be spared from a broad, ongoing recall: a pulling of patronage.

(c) Copyright 1999. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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