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Guest Editorial

Service businesses must go back to serving

BY DANIEL KLINE

The marketing industry has become so sophisticated that it has convinced America that paying more for less actually benefits us. We live in a self-help world with full-service prices and the more we get taken advantage of the happier we seem.

As businesses do less and less for their customers while charging more and more for that privilege, the American consumer has shown a remarkable inability to understand when he's being duped. We gladly accept the idea that giant box stores with untrained or non-existent sales help are more convenient and that service industry businesses not providing any service actually benefits us.

We line up to lug our own packages, bag our own groceries and pour our own coffee, never once questioning why stores no longer do these things for us. We call customer help numbers that keep us waiting for hours while we press an endless series of buttons before being disconnected. Self-service has replaced customer service and the consumer has gladly accepted the added burden.

The concept of actually helping people has become so foreign to some members of the service industry that many companies actually make their unwillingness to help customers part of their sales pitch. This has never been more evident than in the restaurant industry where eateries seem to find new ways to make doing less seem like a positive thing.

In many establishments customers now pack their own doggy bags, butter their own bagels and pour their own drinks. We're told that this is more convenient for us, which would be true were these things presented as a choice rather than as the only option.

Nearly every high-end coffee chain has used some variation of the phrase "fixing it the way you like it" to justify that they won't actually put milk and sugar into your drink. In the coffee industry it actually seems that the more you pay for your beverage, the less help the store provides.

The low-end donut chains, which charge under $2 for a medium coffee will fix your beverage however you like it. Whether you want the traditional milk and sugar or a ridiculous order such as "half decaf with one Equal and five creams," they make it for you.

Higher end places, which charge nearly $4 for a medium and won't let you actually call the middle size by that name, offer little stations with an array of condiments. Basically, you're paying $2 more to have the fancier place not help you. It's like giving your housekeeper a raise for letting you vacuum your own rugs.

Even supermarkets have begun doing less for customers with many stores making you bag your own groceries and some having customers actually scan their own purchases. These supposedly convenient contraptions actually eliminate the person at the cash register who used to ring in your groceries.

This would be fine if the extra work resulted in some sort of savings, but the financial benefit goes to the store, not the customer. You run your items over a scanner, bag the goods and put your credit card through the machine. Previously, people got paid minimum wage for those jobs, but now you do it for no discount, ostensibly because it's somehow convenient.

Sure, some places still consider service important, but too many businesses have sacrificed helping the customer in favor of the bottom line. Maybe it's old fashioned, but when I buy breakfast I don't want it to have some assembly required. I'll pay more for a meal where my bagel comes buttered and I don't have to pump my own coffee out of a trough where it has been sitting for an indeterminate length of time.

Businesses can call something convenient, but if that convenience makes the customer do more work, than consumers should at least be a little bit skeptical. If you provide less service than I'm happy to offer less payment. But, if a store does less and charges a premium price I'll happily take my business elsewhere.

Daniel B. Kline is a freelance writer based in Connecticut. He can be reached at dan@notastep.com or at his blog, www.thingseveryguy.com

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