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Service with a Smirk

Please hold, Ma'am, we've got you right where we want you.

by Rita Ayers
September 6, 2006

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Service with a Smirk
From way back in the dark recesses of my mind, I have a vivid recollection of pulling up to a "fillin' station" while standing in the middle of the front car seat next to my mom, the driver. My head didn't even touch the roof, so I must have been only three or four years old. 
A young fellow wearing a starched and pressed white button-up shirt, navy blue pants with a sharp crease down the front of each leg, and a cap with the company logo on the brim approached the window and waited for Mom to look at him. No need to roll down the window – it was already down, as the car had the 2-40 air conditioning system (roll down 2 windows and go 40 mph, for those of you in cooler climes) in place. When she turned his direction, he smiled and asked, "Fill 'er up, Ma'am?" When she responded "Yes, please," he gave a little salute with a nod of his head and set to work.
While he was pumping the gas in Dad's pride and joy – a '57 Chevy – he washed the windshield, checked the oil and the tires, and whistled a little tune as if he was having the time of his life. We drove off without Mom ever having to get out of the car, muss her hair, or wipe droplets of gas off on her shirtwaist dress. I think she gave him $2.50.
We filled up two heavy brown paper bags with groceries at Sunflower, which another energetic young man bagged, carried out to the car, and placed in the back seat. I enjoyed this little excursion, because I usually got to pick out something for myself. Still, I was a little jealous of my friend Beverly, whose Mom just telephoned the grocery store and had them bring what she wanted to the house. When I was at Beverly's, we could just call Cole & Huggins and they would bring us a Coca-Cola. I thought it was free at the time; I suppose the family had a running tab of some sort.
Years later, in high school and college economics classes, I learned that the two established methods of making money were by providing goods and/or services. We've all heard many times, "They don't make 'em like they used to," referring to the decreasing quality of the goods made today. Personally, I am far more pleased with most of the goods I purchase than I am with the services I receive.
Along these lines, I have a very long list of laments of late. 
I had a little procedure done to my knee and couldn't go upstairs for two weeks. Downstairs wasn't looking so great either, and my husband's birthday was approaching. For a surprise, I hired a maid service to come in and give the place a thorough cleaning. The price was based on the size of the home, period, and I felt it was exorbitant. The smooth-talking sales lady convinced me that I would love their 22-step process that would make my house shine. Among other promises, they were going to clean the ceramic floors in the kitchen and bathrooms on their hands and knees! 
I was still reluctant to spend so much, but I felt it would be worth it for the birthday surprise. I gave them my credit card number and authorized a maximum charge. They arrived on time and I showed them around, then dashed out to buy birthday gifts. When I returned three hours later, I was stunned to find that they had left a note and said they ran out of time and couldn't get to the upstairs. Out of time? A time limit had never been discussed at all. Additionally, the work that had been completed was shoddy at best. The kitchen countertop was covered with a fine film of dust from where they had wiped off the light fixtures. They didn't move small appliances like toasters or can openers to wipe under them. They vacuumed around the ottoman instead of moving it aside. The bathroom floor wasn't mopped at all, much less scrubbed on hands and knees. In short, aside from being able to see vacuum cleaner marks in the middle of the living room carpet, I couldn't tell the four maids had even been in my home. To add insult to injury, they over-charged my credit card $67!
Which brings me to my next service annoyance. I have had the same credit card for eighteen years, but they have recently been bought out by an even larger bank. When I disputed the charge for the maid company using their online form, I got a response that said, "We will contact you for the details." Two weeks later, I got an official letter stating that they had tried to contact me (Oh really? I have caller ID on every phone I have and you most emphatically did not try to contact me) and that my case had to be resolved without my input. I had taken numerous digital pictures of the poor workmanship involved, but never even got to submit them. A call to the credit card company also got me nowhere. The "service manager" carefully explained that neither the oral agreement I had made on the phone with the sales lady, nor the written estimate I signed when the maids first arrived, were binding. Huh??? 
It seems that efforts to rectify service issues these days are relegated to individuals who sit in an office all day and follow scripted responses based on the initial customer input. A new laptop I purchased blew up after only nine months while it was still under warranty. They chose not to replace my hard drive because I couldn't provide the serial number. Why couldn't I provide it? It had burned off the bottom of the unit from the overheating problem that caused the hard drive to explode. Why hadn't I registered my serial number with Toshiba when I purchased it? I did, I did. I always do. I'm a computer teacher and registering everything is second nature to me. They couldn't find me in their database, so I'm left holding a dead laptop.
Our cable stops working. The cable guy arrives quickly enough and runs a new line, leaving it stretched across our front lawn. He leaves and never comes back. We finally bury it ourselves so we can mow again without having to lift it up for each pass of the mower.
We call a well company to install a well. The promised date is July 5th. We're still waiting.
I buy a new cell phone which is promoted as having a $100 cash rebate. While filling out the paperwork at home, I see that the rebate is only $50. I call the store I bought it from and can never get a human on the phone. They have pre-programmed "answers" to every question – or you can go online for additional help! I finally give up, fill in the paperwork, and am rewarded in three months – with a gift card to the same store that expires in two weeks.
After telling this story to my brother, he comments, "Ah, I miss Ma Bell." I remember when the telephone was literally connected to the house. The phone company owned it and came to your house to install it. Generally, there were two in each house – one on the wall in the kitchen and the other by the parents' bed on the nightstand. We were a bit renegade in this regard. Our kitchen phone was on the countertop and the second one was on the wall in the hall. The spiral cord could be stretched all the way in my room for a modicum of privacy. I never had one blip of static, even after the cord became frayed from my shutting the door on it and stretching it as far as possible to the back corner of my room. Never once did I say, "Can you hear me now?" Most amazing of all, we had those same two phones in that house for fifteen years! My grandmother had the same one – just one, a rotary dial black job suitable for a Bogart film - for over thirty years. Now, the average life of a house phone is significantly less; the cordless variety eventually refuses to hold a charge and we don't want to be tethered to the wall any longer.
I think I'll save my biggest service gripe of all (the wonderful insurance industry) for a column all by itself, because it really deserves it. I probably need to think of something a bit cheerier for my next installment in two weeks before I scare all my regular readers away!

Comments (2)

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Margie from DHS writes:
September 7, 2006
I have a couple of years on Rita and can also remember when 'service with a smile' existed. You know, we keep hearing the service industry is the major growing work force in our country. When will the workers understand quality work is expected? Even deserved?

Keith from Silverhill, AL writes:
September 25, 2006
Your examples have hit the proverbial nail on the head, Rita! Service doesn't mean what it should - and what it used to mean. My pet peeve is fast food workers who appear to make an effort to seem unconcerned, flippant, or rude. Your maid story is a nightmare!

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