Fred Cole recently asked why employees will regularly skip work yet complain about their pay. A pattern I've been noticing in the last few years is unprofessionalism in the service sector--grocery stores, warehouse stores, post office. Maybe it's been going on since the Mom and Pop era, but if I'm right about noticing a deterioration lately, I have a theory about why. I'll get to that later. Meanwhile, I hear some things so consistently, I am starting to think these exchanges are built into their training. Here are examples of what I am constantly hearing when I am doing my errands:
1.) The countdown. The cashier or bagger helping me carry groceries out says "How are you?" and when I respond with "Fine, how are you?" he/she replies, "Good--I have only thirty minutes left." Or, "Fine. But I have seven hours left on this shift." I feel like such a valued customer when I get to hear how the employee can't wait to leave once he/she gets through the motions of serving me and a few others. There's not much to say after that. It's a conversation killer.
2.) The big break. The break is the next-best thing to finishing the shift, so employees are very open about discussing the logistics of breaks in front of customers. No, it's not like it should be a big secret, but I think employees should be a little more discreet in discussing it to avoid seeming like they are eager to flee the customer. I hear all the time, loudly, things like, "Hey, can you cover for me so I can take my break?" "I'm going on break, okay?" "I haven't had my break yet."
3.) Personnel affairs. Customers don't enjoy audible conversations about how difficult the boss is. It doesn't make them interested and sympathetic; it makes them uncomfortable. Once I was at a warehouse store, and behind me, this conversation started: "So what do you think of the new manager?" Yikes. Get me outta here. I also hear what sound like loaded exchanges broadcasted at unnecessarily high decibles from the freezer room or some depths of the grocery store. "Are you coming in Monday?" "No. I already talked to him about that." "Why not? Why haven't you been coming in?" Once I asked for help from a manager at a department store because the price tags were obscuring information about the product; she turned around a rebuked an employee right in front of me.
4.) The ignore. There are two types of ignores. One is easy to avoid and fortunately rare. It happens when you are being served and the cashier is in deep conversation with another cashier or the bagger. This starts to seem rude. The other happens when you're waiting at the deli counter or somewhere where you need extra service and the employees may feel too busy to stop and acknowledge you. Sometimes, though, it can be very exasperating to stand there for several minutes unacknowledged and I want to stomp off in a huff. I am sure employees are trained to acknowledge customers.
5.) The party. I've been noticing this one a lot lately. I know it's satisfying to have companionship and conversations at a difficult job, but does it have to be so loud, so obvious and constant? Behind the counter at fast food restaurants, or back and forth between guys stocking at a chain store, employees love to carry on conversations. The fast food employees can get really raucous and distracting. To me, workers' socializing telegraphs a lack of both concern for the customer and business-like dedication to the job. Sure, find time to talk while stocking shelves or cutting meat, but tone it down a little, make it less obvious, try to taper off when customers are around.
I think that our culture has fostered a belief that if one is not making as big a salary as a professional, or is not in the upper middle class, than he or she is "the working poor" or otherwise trapped by circumstances into having to take undesirable work. Barbara Ehrenreich's Nickel and Dimed, a fascinating read that leaves us with no alternative but Communism, may have really fed this cultural sympathy. So employees are not seeing themselves as serving the public, nor do they seem thankful for their jobs, which could be much worse, considering history and third-world countries. And some of them might be making good pay, too, through the unions. But instead of being professional at whatever they do, store and restaurant employees are capitalizing on public sentiment and feeling free to behave in ways that do not reflect well on the company.
I believe better training could make a difference. There are some companies whose employees are smiling, happy, and yes--professional. There was an Oscar's restaurant in California whose servers and cashiers were glowing. The food was wonderful, but the employees enhanced the experience. Workers at In-N-Out Burger, too, are pleasant to be around. Other companies should adopt those training models. They work.
A professional back room stocker at a store can become a professional manager, or district manager, or CEO. Or they can leave the store and be a professional teacher or dentist. Do we believe that any more?