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Service With a Scowl : Whoever Said the Customer Is Always Right Got Things All Wrong

<i> Lee Green's last story for this magazine was "A Moving Experience." </i>

MY FIRST MISTAKE was returning to a Ventura printing shop where twice before I had found the service somewhat abrasive. My second mistake was asking the owner, a fellow in inky bib overalls with “Chuck” sewn on the front, why his charge for photocopy enlargements was three times the going rate. “If you don’t like the prices,” he suggested acidly after a venomous preamble on elementary business accounting, “buy the shop and set your own prices.”

Buy the shop? I wanted to burn the shop.

“There was a time,” a radio commercial for American Savings intones wistfully, “when people went out of their way to give great service, . . . when common courtesy and caring were the rule.” There was a time when dinosaurs roamed the Earth, too, but who would ever know it? Today’s consumers are treated better than felons but not as well as house plants.

Contemplating a New England bicycle tour, I recently telephoned a major airline to find out how much it would cost to fly round-trip from Los Angeles to Burlington, Vt., in early October. Upon learning that my precise travel dates weren’t yet firm, the reservations agent became surly. “People form their travel plans around an event or an occasion, so they have specific dates in mind,” she snipped condescendingly, as though suffering the village idiot. “You don’t know why you’re traveling?” Eventually, I wrested a fare from her, but not before getting cuffed around a bit more. I hung up willing to crawl to Vermont in a garter belt before I’d pay that airline to take me there.

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If retail- and service-industry rudeness is rampant, we can lay much of the blame on the anonymity of big-city life. So says social psychologist Jerald Jellison of the University of Southern California, who studies inappropriate behavior. In today’s absurdly impersonal urban milieu, he explains, “there is less surveillance by the people around you, less social control.” Retail rudeness abounds in large part because customers don’t censure it. In other words, more of us have to be willing to crawl to Vermont in garter belts. Break out the kneepads.

It’s obvious to me that many retailers operate on the theory that they never have to see the same customer twice. They can afford to blow you off because if you don’t cross their threshold tomorrow, somebody else will. An appliance-store salesman showed my friend Ruben a television that supposedly was on sale. “I saw the same set at Adray’s for 50 bucks less,” Ruben commented.

“If you wanna give your money to those guys,” the salesman shouted, “get the hell out of our store!”

I related that story to my mother, long a model of decorum as a saleswoman at one of Beverly Hills’ finest shops. “How would you handle a customer who said he’d seen a better price at a discount store?” I asked. My sweet, tolerant mother thought for a moment, then replied, “Well, I’d like to tell him to get the hell out of the store.” If this country ever fights another civil war, it will be retailers versus consumers.

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Curiously, airports have become breeding grounds for boorish behavior. I think it has something to do with the metal detectors. My friend John, upon complaining, justifiably, that his family’s seat assignments had been bungled, was told by an insolent airline clerk, “You’re lucky to be on the plane at all.” Another friend, Al, flew to New York and rented a car at the airport. When the rental company’s computer refused to print out an itinerary, leaving Al without directions in a city foreign to him, the clerk simply shrugged and said: “The machine won’t work. To hell with it. Good luck.”

I suppose there are plenty of people who deserve to be treated like vermin, customers who shop the way John McEnroe plays tennis. But--and you’ll have to trust me on this--I’m not one of them. I’m a polite guy. I exhibited exemplary self-restraint, for instance, when I made my fourth trip to an electronics store to return the third in a succession of defective telephones I had gotten there. The store manager remembered me from a few days earlier, when I had unsuccessfully jousted with him over a cash refund for defective phone No. 2, getting instead defective phone No. 3. “I bet you’re glad to see me again,” I said without malice, trying to put the best possible face on the situation. “Not really,” he said coldly. He produced an invoice pad and angrily began scribbling a refund receipt. “I’m just gonna get you outta here,” he snarled. “I don’t need this.”

It’s not easy to be courteous in the face of abuse, but I try. As I mentioned, I’m a polite fellow. But Jellison says we all think we’re polite. Drawing on his expertise, he told me, “I bet your behavior varies as a function of the situation, Lee--that there are some times when you’re rude.”

Me? Rude? What a lamebrain thing to suggest. Obviously, this guy Jellison doesn’t know what the hell he’s talking about. Stuff it, Jellison. And if you don’t like this article, buy the newspaper and write your own article.


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