Is Service a Four-Letter Word?

I can’t tell you how many times I’ve heard someone utter the phrase, “Customer service is dead.”  And it’s not only when I am the one uttering it!

So how do you know when service is bad?  I think the answer is like Supreme Court Justice Potter Stewart’s definition of pornography/obscenity in Jacobelis v. Ohio.  He wrote, “I shall not today attempt further to define the kinds of material I understand to be embraced within that shorthand description [“hard-core pornography”]; and perhaps I could never succeed in intelligibly doing so.  But I know it when I see it…”  [Emphasis added].

Two service interactions got me thinking about this today.  The first was at a farmers market stand.  I arrived at the stand at approximately the same instant another customer arrived.  I wanted to purchase one thing – a small bunch of Tuscan kale, which I promptly picked up.  The person working at the stand (let’s call him Herb) glanced over at me and began a personal conversation with the person who arrived at the same time I did (let’s call her Rita).  Herb and Rita continued talking about things unrelated to the stand for about 2 – 3 minutes, glancing over at me periodically.  I was quietly holding my bunch of Tuscan kale thinking to myself, “surely he is going to excuse himself to wait on me.”

Well, I was wrong.  After the initial 2 – 3 minutes of conversation, Rita started her shopping – or something you could call shopping.  She was indecisively asking about this and that with no real urgency or direction.  And rather than wait on me, Herb continued to indulge Rita’s indecision for at least a full five additional minutes, after which (and I’m not making this up) Rita had to tell him a story about something that happened to her in Kenya. So now, I am not only faced with bad service but also bad manners.

Now I’m sure you are asking why I waited.  Believe me, I asked myself the same thing several times!  The answer is simple.  I had only two things on my list – peaches and Tuscan kale – and I had already walked the entire market and this was the only stand that had Tuscan kale.

After the market, I went to lunch at a microbrewery and had the second service interaction.  The waitress introduced herself to me and my dining companions and we had some sociable chit chat.  She seemed friendly and efficient.  However, as the meal progressed her rating for efficiency dropped like a rock.  She was one of those servers who had to interrupt the conversation frequently to tell us she was going to clear our plates or tell us she was going to bring us more water, rather than simply serving without intrusion.  And during the meal one of my dining companions asked about a specific beer and whether it was available. Please keep in mind, we were at a microbrewery.  Not only did she not know if the beer was available, she replied, “I have my hands full (which she LITERALLY did) so you’ll have to look in that menu on the table.”

Some of you may be scratching your heads and asking, “what’s wrong with that?”  I am a firm believer that you can say anything you want to someone, but HOW you say it makes all the difference.  I would have been fine with her saying something like, “Let me just put these plates down so that I can give you my full attention.  I will be right back.”

While neither of my interactions was horrific, both were disappointing.  Having been a restaurant server in my college days and having worked retail as well; I know the challenges in both situations and hope I provided better service than I received today.

So what does this have to do with cooking, eating and entertaining?  Service – whether in a restaurant or when you’re entertaining in your home – can make or break a meal.  It can be the difference between someone leaving feeling like they’ve been pampered or leaving uttering obscenities!