Service With A Smile? Good Luck

Musings On The Self-Serve Economy

Eric Griego
6 min read
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On a recent drive through Mexico, we stopped at a gas station, and a guy actually pumped our gas. It was downright scary. Like a time warp.

Call me old-fashioned, but I can’t help but long for the days when businesses provided good customer service. You know, someone refilled your coffee cup, helped you find the shaving cream aisle, had a human answer the phone.

The latest corporate scam in the global economy isn’t golden parachutes for corporate executives or outsourcing customer service to India. The so-called “do-it-yourself” revolution is possibly the single largest wholesale shift of costs from producer to consumer in American history. I believe it is also a conspiracy to make us all grumpier.

What’s more irritating than having to plough your way through one of those annoying automated phone systems designed to keep you on ice for several minutes? How about having to check yourself in at the airport or check yourself out at the grocery store? This do-it-yourself trend in corporate America isn’t about saving money anymore. It’s becoming the norm, and I don’t like it so much.

I don’t want to sound like some crusty old Luddite. I will admit I am relatively technologically challenged. Up until recently, I thought an iPod was something you put a camera on for wedding photos. I’m willing to do some things online, like travel planning or paying my mortgage. But do we all really have to do everything ourselves?

It’s not just about going online for services, banking or travel. The more frustrating experiences come when we go out to shop or eat. You want someone to act like they care? That’s an extra five bucks. Get your order right the first time? Add an extra 10 percent. Want a waiter to bring your stuff all the way to your table? How passé.

Let’s face it, service people are becoming obsolete. Why pay some college kid to pacify customers when you can bamboozle them into doing more themselves?

Whatever happened to the edgy waitress at your favorite diner who brought your food out quickly and made sure your coffee or water was always refilled? She’s probably the recorded voice of an automated voicemail system. Not the 1-900 kind, either. Those are real people, I hear.

Part of what we used to pay for when we went out to eat or to the bank was having someone cater to us a bit. If you want that kind of service at a restaurant today, you better be prepared to pay 50 bucks for dinner, not counting the tip.

As a former waiter, I know what a tough job it is. Nowadays, most chain restaurants and retail stores schedule fewer waiters per shift, making pleasing customers difficult. Meanwhile, corporate efficiency consultants devise new and improved ways to make the customer do more. Get your own soda. More water? The cooler is right over there. Shopping cart? I think I saw one in the parking lot.

This growing trend of impersonal, minimal customer service is being fueled by the growth of chain stores, big boxes and the McDonaldization of the American economy. Fast, cheap, mass-produced. Want it your way? Do it yourself.

Maybe the reason people seek out independently owned local business is about more than buying locally. It might be the fact that most local businesses still have this quaint idea that part of a business transaction should be making your customer happy.

Of course, not all small businesses do that. There are a few restaurants and stores where the food, location or merchandise, rather than the service, are what we pay for. But no matter how great the soup is, or how nice the patio is, if you’re treated like a pimply kid at prom, you may not want to go back.

According to some economists, the self-serve economy has helped keep inflation in check by fueling productivity growth, which has been consistently positive in the U.S. over the past decade. Many economists attribute this to the fact that increased automation has allowed companies to squeeze more out of every worker. While some argue this is due to the Internet revolution and technology making everyone more productive, I think there is something else going on. Americans are more often doing everything themselves. Sadly, measuring average irritability is more difficult for economists.

Where will it end? What’s next? Save 10 percent if you press your own trousers? Save five bucks if you help change the oil? Draw your own blood?

The reality is that good service has become a luxury reserved for those with the time and money to pay for it. But even some pricey establishments are getting away with downsizing their customer service staff. It really isn’t just about saving us money anymore. We’re becoming schmucks.

If you estimated the amount of time you spend doing things yourself, like plugging through automated phone systems, doing banking online, etc., and multiply that by what you are paid per hour at work, then you might get an idea of how much you are subsidizing corporate America.

Some say the self-serve revolution is to the service industry what mass production was to manufacturing. The problem is this homogenized, impersonal, self-serve economy cuts out the human face of market interaction. Most of what we do in our daily lives involves some sort of economic transaction. We buy stuff. We pay bills. We work. We complain.

So what is the point of all this whining? The growing isolation of the new do-it-yourself, go-it-alone marketplace has made us all less connected, less comfortable, grumpier.

While the marketplace was never really designed to promote community, it should at least provide a comfortable place for people to interact. Given how much of our time and energy we spend producing and consuming, we need to get something more than cheap goods and services from faceless employees.

A “hello” from a live person might be a great start.

The opinions expressed are solely those of tha author. E-mail

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