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Sunday, September 6, 2009

Service, Please

By Silvia Uribe

Here in Santa Barbara, and everywhere else, good customer service is difficult to find. At risk of sounding really ancient, which I am not, I remember the days I was growing up in Mexico, when I traveled with my parents. Good service was offered everywhere. What ever happened to those days? Shopping days with my mother, which included the rarity of having lunch at a restaurant, come immediately to mind.

I remember that when we went into a department store we were able to find someone to help us, or better yet, they found us. These employees always seemed to know and were able to suggest what would suit us well, according to our figure, age, and pocket. They knew about fabrics, and the best way to care for them. Employees also helped us find all pieces to create the perfect outfit, including the indispensable accessories.

You can find all of the above today, mostly in expensive stores or boutiques, but in those days, most stores offered a high level of service. Chain stores today, however, argue that they don't have money to pay better-trained employees. But think about it, in those days, store employees didn't make a lot of money either. The difference is that they had to adjust to the standards of service that their employers set, and not the other way around. It was in the best interest of businesses to offer services that would translate into a lot more spending on the clients' part.

These days, when we go to a department store, we're lucky if we find an employee to answer our questions. Sometimes, we have to look around for a while, and walk half of the store to find someone. When we discover one, they usually don't know where the merchandise is located, what size fits, what the fabric composition is, and much less have any willingness or energy to go look for what we may need. Oh, and their fashion advice is something to fear; hence, the little spending.

The same thing can be said about the restaurant industry. In the past, those who waited tables knew their menu up and down, including the ingredients each dish contained -- at least the main ones -- and they were able to give suggestions. Not only that, but they were trained how to set a table correctly, and by correctly, I don't mean what the etiquette books say, I mean with plates, silverware, and a glass of water at the very least. They knew to take our complete order and to talk to us in full sentences. Moreover, when taking our order they would stand next to us, so we could hear each other. When they brought our food, they were usually mindful of not crossing in front of customers, placing the food and beverages carefully on the table to prevent spills.

When we go out to similarly affordable restaurants today, it is a complete adventure, but not necessarily for the exotic flavors that we'll enjoy. It is more because good service is not guaranteed, and our waiter or waitress might not know how to do their job. When we want something, we need to catch the eye, in any way or form, of our ever-distracted server, and this may take a long time. Once they finally notice us and come to see what we need, they sometimes stand far away, forcing us to yell. If they come back for any sort of clarification and find us talking to our friends, they might tap us on the shoulder to make their presence known.

When the food comes, at times it is not what we ordered, or it is cold, and in order to set the food down, they don't mind passing it across the table, and among people. Sometimes they give us the plate to put in front of ourselves. Spills on the plates, or on the table are today almost an everyday occurrence.

And what to say about the employees' physical appearance? Maybe because Santa Barbara is such a laid back beach town, but some of these characters seem to not be very alert, as if they had just jump out of bed, without having enough time to shower, or at least fix their hair. What's that?

I wonder why customer service fell in such a steep decline and why business owners don't seem to care. Why they don't have a high standard of service as a policy is beyond my comprehension. Good customer service always brings new and old clients in, and increases the bottom line. We learn this in Business 101.

My point is that productivity and customer service are the tools that will dig the private sector, and the public too, out of the ditch in which we find ourselves. I'm sure we can step it up a notch.

Silvia Uribe is a freelance writer with a Latina perspective.

Cross-posted at

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