March 25, 2004
Bob Welch: It's a matter of wanting to matter
By Bob Welch
Columnist, The Register-Guard
When I wrote recently about bad service, then ran responses from those who work behind the counters, I made a mistake: I thought the two columns were about lack of speed and unfriendliness and talking to one's girlfriend when you should be helping a customer.
After further review, I've realized that that's shortsighted.
What this issue is really about is respect.
It's about how we regard - or disregard - one another as human beings.
It's about corporate food chains in which the folks pumping your gas or checking you out at the store feel as if they're insignificant minnows.
It's about fear. Of working in dead-end jobs without benefits. Of bosses whose eyes have become a video surveillance camera. Of "customers" who might be reaching into their pocket for more than money or keys.
It's about how cold we've grown toward one another, how dehumanized we feel, how hungry we are to have significance. To matter.
I know, I know. You're thinking: He concluded this after some extra-long wait for Cornuts? Get a life, pal.
No, I concluded this by reading between the lines of more than 100 e-mails, most from those who serve others and some from those who are served. In some cases, the lines themselves said it all.
"You are not a customer," wrote one convenience-store worker. "You're just a face. You are one more face in an endless line of faces. Having spent more than a decade managing a convenience store, I feel more than qualified to explain to you why you don't count (and) your opinion is meaningless."
If you can get behind the guy's anger, you can learn something here.
"Working behind the counter of a convenience store makes you a target. Anyone at anytime can come into your store and say or do anything. It can be an underaged person working for the OLCC trying to catch you in a liquor sting. It can be a shoplifter, a robber or someone who just wants to make sure that someone else has a bad day, too."
This issue, I've realized, is about perceptions - for example, the perception that if I'm a customer, I must be better than the person who's waiting on me.
It's about subtle prejudices. About upper classes and lower classes.
"We are not here because we like you," wrote a restaurant worker. "We are here because we have to be. We wish we could be eating mahi-mahi in a restaurant where the waiter is rude to us. Instead, if we get to go out once a month to Taco Bell, we consider it a big deal."
The root problem in all this isn't a lack of service; it's a lack of significance, sometimes felt by customers, who want to matter, and sometimes by the folks behind the counter, who want to matter, too.
"There is a good reason you are ignored," wrote the convenience-store worker.
"If I ignore you, you can't hurt me. If I ignore you, you might go away. If I ignore you, you won't realize that I have no idea what I'm doing. I have no idea because I've had no training. I have no training because I have very little value to my employer. My employer knows that there are plenty of others willing to stand here for eight hours selling beef sticks and beer for minimum wage."
So, from my vantage point, a three-way dynamic emerges from all this - and I'm generalizing here: customers are angry at clerks who are angry at employers who are obsessed with bottom lines.
"We, as a society, have forgotten the `Golden Rule,' " one e-mailer wrote.
Or expect it only of others - and not ourselves.
The answer isn't simple. But I'm convinced that it begins with this: Each of us - whether customer, clerk or employer - seeing one another as more than just a face in an endless line of faces.
Bob Welch can be reached at 338-2354 or at firstname.lastname@example.org.