SERVICE WITH A SNARL By Bob Burchill (Article)


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Bob Burchill

Is something going on?? Yesterday I visited a large Canadian retail store where I was approached, unsolicited, by a floor clerk who asked whether I required assistance, conducted me to the area of my interest, explained some intricacies of the sales offers in vigour, and volunteered to remain nearby in case I had further need of him. I was so shocked I nearly called the management.

In my experience, floor clerks are ordinarily almost impossible to find in Canadian stores. They seem to have developed an ability to detect customers-in-need at long range. When one swims into their ken they take immediate evasive action, disappearing through doors marked EMPLOYEES ONLY just when you think you have them bracketed. On those few occasions when you are able to collar one, they tend to snarl something about Aisle Four and skedaddle when your head is turned. This incident left me in a considerable quandary. Was I witnessing the outbreak of a rare strain of Mad Floor Clerk Disease; was I an unwitting Candid Camera subject; was the clerk of such early tenure that he had not yet taken on the culture of his organization; or was I seeing the beginning of a fundamental fracture in the great Canadian tradition of bad service?

While I cannot claim an extensive basis for my opinion, a lifetime of international wanderings convinces me that this tradition is a legacy of empire. The endemic English class system requires that its people spend large amounts of their waking hours in anxious determination of whether the person before them is of higher or lower caste, and therefore deserving of grovel or disdain. The task is daunting because it demands the rapid analysis of shards (school tie, accent, deportment, dress) but critical because of the consequences that flow from either a right or wrong decision. For anyone in a service role, however, the task is simple. The person requiring assistance is ipso facto inferior and therefore deserving of contempt. A British bank staff can bring you to tears faster than mustard gas. It is unclear to me why Britain maintains a standing army. A battalion of bank clerks loosed on an enemy would, I am sure, bring it to heel in no time flat. On the other hand, they would be unlikely to ornament parades, so perhaps Blighty knows what she is doing.

It is curious that this ugly manifestation of class consciousness should have been embraced so thoroughly by those derivative new world societies that are pleased ordinarily to consider themselves egalitarian. It remains, however, that particularly in the countries that were settled rather than merely dominated by the English, bad service practices seem to have been adopted unquestioningly along with language, legal system and a preference for poor food. Australians try to disguise it with a lot of mateyness and bonhomie, but quickly become aggressive at any suggestion that the customer's wishes should be taken into account. In former days, at least, South Africans gave particularly surly service and, on detecting a foreign accent, a dreary lecture on the immortal virtues of apartheid.

{mospagebreak} On the other hand, Americans seem to have shucked the imperial yoke early enough, or possibly to have diluted the pur laine Englishness of their stock sufficiently that they fulfill service roles cheerfully. I am told that this is not always so in the South, which just happens to have proportionately more uncorrupted English blood in the society than is the case elsewhere in the Republic. In the North, however, the service function is not despised and the treatment of customers is ordinarily a pleasure to experience. A useful field trip for Ottawans is to drive sixty miles south and compare the service environments of the Prescott and Ogdensberg post offices.

Bad service is not, of course, unique to the English and their derivatives. While the Iron Curtain stood, the Soviets, even without steroids, would have won any Bad Service Olympics hands down. To be fair, it is unlikely that their practitioners considered themselves in any way involved in a function of service as we would understand it. Elsewhere the situation is less clear. The Belgians and Dutch, great traders throughout history, seem to recognize that good service is an integral element of commercial success. The Germans tend to be a bit constrained, but it is difficult, given their diet, to know whether they are being haughty or merely suppressing wind. Contrary to popular opinion and many dire warnings, my experience with French commerce has always been positive. I once spent the better part of a day trying to provoke the storied Parisian hauteur in leading emporia of the city, but to no avail.

Asian traders are notoriously gracious, and doing business in the Middle East is usually a delight. The Latins bring a special joie de vivre to commerce and in some cases have found clever ways to blunt the sharper edges of exchange. Brazilians explain the situation of not having an item in stock with the phrase 'Tem Falta'. This translates essentially as 'We have an absence (of it)', thus changing an unhappy negative into a more encouraging positive.

Given the American attitude to service, I have watched the establishment of U.S. retail enterprises in Canada with special interest to see whether it is a transportable virtue. At this stage I would say the jury is still out. It is important to remember that, despite all the best will in the world, their interface with clients has to be accomplished largely through Canadian employees who are uncomfortable with service roles, a situation their corporate strategies may not have had, in other contexts, to contemplate.

I may be completely wrong. Our attitudes in this regard may be more informed by circumstances than by culture or genetics. Perhaps Canadians are simply not yet sufficiently removed from the frontier to have shed the more romantic concepts of primary self reliance, where the yeoman is beholden to no one and service tends to be thought of as an act associated with the maintenance of lactation cycles. Whatever the origins, however, it seems clear that we must improve the quality of Canadian service if we are to compete in the new world of global business. I suggest that this cause would be an appropriate study for a Parliamentary Committee. Think of the opportunities it would offer for travel, conjecture and pompous declaration.

Should my suggestion lead to action, and action to remedy, I would not scoff at a Senate appointment unless the attendance rules were to be tightened. There are limits to which even enlightened concepts of service can be taken.

Bob Burchill

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