Soup in Your Lap

Why can't you get good service?


Sometimes it seems that things just don't work the way they used to. This is not an illusion, not a result of historical forgetfulness. This time the "seat of the pants" perception has a factual basis. And the perceived problem is an inevitable consequence of some recent basic changes in the societal makeup.

Most of us grew up on the idea that American industry specializes in quality products, American machinery is better than any other, American factory help does its thing with more care, and so on. Whether this is true is another matter; whether it was ever true is still another. It is a fact, however, that despite some very visible failures most machines we buy work pretty well. A store seldom sells a seriously defective article. A few well-advertised "horror stories" do not prove otherwise—indeed, the very fact that they are news supports the premise.

So why do we feel that we have more and more complaints? So-called experts in behavior tend to dismiss all such as "anecdotal." That bit calls for an explanatory digression.

If you complain about something, whether it is the way the mail service has not been delivering your letters in reasonable time or whatever, the "defensive response" is: "Give us specifics. We can't correct mere generalities." So you give them specifics—on a certain date at a certain time a certain employee did or did not do thus and so. "Okay. Fine. We shall see that that employee does not make that error again on that date. Next complaint?" When that nonresponse runs out of mileage, the defensive response is: "Your complaint is an isolated case. It is anecdotal. Give us trends. Give us something we can do something about, for we are too busy to concern ourselves with mere incidents." And so it goes. But all this gives us a clue to the nature of the problem.

The traditional factory could and did and still does hire a corps of inspectors to stand between the goof-offs on the factory floor and the customers. Their function is to stop misassembled machines and defective parts from getting out the door. The customers never see the employees who make the gadgets.

But a service business is another matter. If a careless assembler installs a widget backwards, the inspector rejects the machine. But if a careless waiter spills soup on you, where is the inspector? Obviously, there can be none in a service trade, where the actual operation must be conducted in the presence of the ultimate customer, and the customer must deal directly with the employee who does whatever the business is selling. In factory parlance, that employee is an "operative."

It does not follow that the service trades have a higher incidence of goof-offs. There simply is no inspectorate between them and the customers. Moreover, that absence leads to more problems than those arising from careless workers. Because service-trade "front line" employees deal directly with the customers, any who are resentful and frustrated, who feel hostility toward whoever makes their livelihood possible, can work off their frustrations directly on the customer. The factory hand who sabotages to vent such feelings cannot easily reach the customers if the inspector does his job. As we buy more services and fewer goods, we buy more often where there are no quality control inspectors.

Ironically, the consequences circle back to the service-trade employees. The waiter or the secretary who thinks, "Let him get his own coffee," can take direct action. But the boss who has to get his own coffee may just hire no secretary, especially as technology offers alternatives; and the patron snarled at too often stops going to labor-intensive restaurants. Both actions result in fewer jobs, but the people involved do not make the connection.


The inspector problem is only half of the story, however. The other half has to do with the limited supply of competent managerial talent.

A huge factory with thousands of employees may find a few managers who (a) can manage and (b) will do so for salary. The number of such people is a very small fraction of one percent of a work force. The first problem is to find them. The next is to induce them to use their talents in someone else's business. When a factory has thousands of employees, a handful of managers may be found among them.

Now try it with a service business—an airline, for instance. Its thousands of employees are scattered widely in small groups. There are just not enough adequate managers available to assign one, much less one per shift, to each outpost. So the local tentacle is in the charge of someone who lacks ability or willingness to manage, or it is in the charge of no one. And when no one is steering the boat, that fact is painfully evident to the harassed customer. "No one's in charge here" has become a common complaint.

A small factory can cope in a different way from a large one. The talent shortage relates to two criteria—(a) talent and (b) willingness to work in someone else's business. The manager of a small business is working for himself, and removing criterion (b) brings the most capable people into the pool, for it is they who most often want to steer their own boats. This brings us to another "new" phenomenon—the franchiser. Each generation of business management learns all over again, as if it were a new discovery, that the brightest talents want to work for themselves. Hence, McDonald's et al.

A manager competent to oversee a 40-person operation can run it for himself or for someone else—he can buy a franchise or work for an airline. But the airline can't put him in business for himself at the local station. The airline may offer high pay, but it will still not appeal to the competent manager who wants to run his own business. The greater the talent, the more likely the aspiration and the more realistic the hopes, and the greater the airline's loss.

So the airline settles for what it can get. For instance, seniority promotions in which a baggage-buster gets to be station manager, by right, union clout, or lack of anyone else. Or the employee lacking in confidence takes the "secure" managerial job—a selection adversely biased from the start, since confidence is a vital ingredient of managerial talent.

No portentious conclusion follows from all this. It is food for thought, for reasonable reflection on one of the phenomena of our time. It is evident that the perceived "collapse of standards" is partly real but is not attributable to any disintegration of moral fiber or other cataclysmic development—it is simply an outgrowth of changes in the makeup of what we buy.

Several improvements are possible, and some are in progress. For instance, in New York City it proved impractical to staff the telephone information lines within the constraints of the local labor market and political interference with hiring, so if you dial 411 it is answered in a small upstate town. If the help there gets unsupervisable, the company has wires going elsewhere.

Nationwide reservation systems—in some trades, a point of first contact—spend money on wire tolls to bring the operation to a single place where available supervisory talent can be used more effectively. Successful banks, increasingly, organize to eliminate personal contact—it is a fact that "he has no name; his name is Citibank." The customers may be treated like mere numbers, but they are not hassled by surly employees.

It's certainly true that things don't work the way they used to. But it looks like we're discovering how to get them to work as well as they used to.

John Kneiling is an engineer by education and among the jobs he has done lists: dishwasher, porter, laborer, surveyor, college teacher, draftsman, salesman, engineering consultant, designer, steel mill worker, proprietor, and writer.