SMOKE: Service With A Sneer

Originally published: 18 June 2003

We love to bitch about poor service in South Africa, mainly because it's a phenomenon all of us encounter most of the time.

But sometimes I wonder about it from the perspective of the person delivering the service, and while I cannot condone poor service, I also can't abide people who complain for complaint's sake.

Before we get to that, however, I wanted to share this reasonably amusing yet enlightening snippet I found.

The Kelleher family of Corona, California went out for dinner at a Sizzlers restaurant. The wife - Darlene (40) - told the waiter she wanted vegetables with her meal, to which he replied that they only had potatoes.

She said she couldn't eat potatoes, so he brought back a small salad, which the husband - Wayne (37) - claimed was practically thrown at her. The waiter apparently told her to get her own salad dressing, and a little while later Wayne complained to the manager about the attitude of the waiter.

The family left, went home, got into bed, and were awakened by the doorbell ringing at 1am. They went outside to find their house and mailbox covered with smashed eggs and maple syrup, while their garden was covered in toilet paper, duct tape and plastic wrap.

They called the police, who arrested four loiterers who were hanging around nearby - the waiter, his girlfriend and his two younger brothers. They will be investigated on charges of vandalism.

Now - I don't have the full facts here, but the story could have gone either way:

1. The Kellehers were extremely polite in their dealings with the waiter - despite his apparent poor service - and were justified in contacting the management. They were simply victims of yet another waiter gone bad, and from what I hear this is likely, considering the poor waitering standards in the US.

2. The Kellehers were fat, loud, rude pigs, who deserved every bit of their comeuppance for treating a waiter like a sub-human piece of shit. In which case - what a pity the waiter was caught.

Both very possible scenarios.

The reason I shared this story was to kick-start my view from both sides. I have been both a consumer as well as a "customer service agent", so I believe I have a pretty balanced perspective. Let's deal with poor service first.

There is an Engen garage up the road from me, which has one of those all-night convenience stores, and I frequently have to go there when things run out in the wee hours.

The Pigs behind the counter are in a class of their own - if they are having a good ol' chinwag - no matter how trivial the issue - forget about getting served by them.

You stand at the counter like an idiot, waiting for Zenobia to finish describing to Fatima how to remove her corns, and when she's finished every last gory detail she turns to you as though you are the biggest pain in the world, and it really kills her to have to help you, but what can she do?

No hallo, no goodbye, no smile, no acknowledgement - just a bland stare, as though my interrupting her corn story has seriously messed with her day.

She hasn't even finished ringing up the goods before she's launching into a vivid description of how Auntie Shamilah caught her left tit in the tumble-dryer, and she never even glances my way as I pack my own goods and leave.

Heaven help me if she hasn't yet given me the opportunity to ask for smokes - that means interrupting her after she's rung up the total, and it's quite fascinating to watch.

She'll be at the point where Uncle Moses has gone next door to borrow a coat hanger from Mrs Davids, and having rung up the order is sitting with her palm outstretched, waiting for the money.

It slowly dawns on her that I am not putting the money in her hand, and eventually she looks at me impatiently for the reason. When I then ask for smokes (it's the first break I've had to do so) she gives me a withering glare as if to say: "Christ - you could have asked for them before I rang your order up, you insignificant Pig."

It's absolutely ludicrous. I can get very, very rude in situations like that, and I do. Don't keep me waiting at a counter - I've spent too many of the best years of my life behind various counters.

The scary thing is that you can simply transplant that attitude into most levels of service in this country, and you'll have your reason why people bitch about service so much.

But I've also been on the other end of the counter, and some people can behave like absolute brats when they feel they have a right to.

There are a couple of things that kill me - one of them is people who can't eat at a restaurant without returning the food at least once.

I've known many people like this - they are simply unable to eat a meal without complaining about something, from the food being too cold to the meat not being tender enough to the size of the portion - it doesn't matter how well the food is prepared. If they eat out, they complain.

What gets me even more is their attitude: "I am a paying customer, and as such demand full value for my money."

A sound enough theory, except when all you ever do is complain. If you have to complain about every meal you eat out, then why eat out? The problem obviously lies with you.

If it's Mum's cooking you're after, then go visit Mum - you can't expect a restaurant to make every meal exactly the way you like it.

It's why we have choice - you go to the restaurant which serves food the way you like it, and don't go to the ones that don't. But if you're going to have a problem no matter where you eat, then rather just stay at home and cook it yourself.

I also can't tolerate people who get clever with waitrons - what - you think they haven't heard your crap jokes before? You think you're the first to make some snide little comment, designed to amuse those around you and put down the person serving you?

Do that and you deserve all the toilet paper in your front yard that you get.

We definitely need to jack up our service in this country, but at the same time consumers need to realise that the person serving them is usually not doing so because they always dreamed of doing just that.

It's not an excuse for poor service - if you get that then by all means complain - but don't exacerbate the shit experience of being a person in a service position, just because you feel righteous.

If they're trying, then cut them some slack. If they're not - cut them down like the Pigs that they are.

It's the least you can do.

All Smoked Out,
Luke Tagg
Spending time online does bad things to a person, but I'm OK.

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Copyright © Luke Tagg. All rights reserved. A few lefts as well.

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