Sunday, November 9, 2008

Press 1 for English

Before they gave up and just started hiring zombies, department stores had high standards for people who worked there. Like the Scarecrow from Oz, you needed a brain, you had to speak clearly, intelligently, and understand the basic business maxim that without customers, there was no business. I'm not talking only of high-end stores like Saks Fifth Avenue or Fortunoff's; they still maintain these standards. I'm talking about middle-class stores like Macy's, A&S and Martins in downtown Brooklyn, and even lower-end stores like May's and Kleins in Union Square. Their help knew the merchandise, were generally courteous, and, here's a radical concept, actually helped shoppers.

It's not the same today. The kids they hire are at a serious handicap; they graduated from New York City schools. When you consider also how little exercise they get, it's not uncommon for their weight to exceed their SAT score. This is not "cranky old guy looking back through rose-colored glasses here", but rather a frightening fact. I would go so far as to say a modern college degree, with today's watered down standards, is actually worth less educationally than a diploma from a good high school in 1955. The business community spends millions remediating entry level employees who can't do simple arithmetic. Speaking and writing acceptable English is so far above most graduating students, that a few years back, some misguided educators tried to sweep the problem under the rug by shoving "Ebonics" (basically, black street slang) down our throats. Lucky for all, saner heads prevailed.

The next obstacle to becoming a decent employee is appearance. I stopped at Burger King recently to buy a dangerously unhealthy breakfast. The manager had set up shop at a rear table and was interviewing young people for jobs. One kid was wearing a heavy metal t-shirt and cut-off jeans, another a doo-rag with his pants falling off his behind.... you get the picture. People just don't care how they look. For my first job interview as a low-level bank clerk, I dressed like Gregory Peck in "The Man in the Grey Flannel Suit." "Dress for success" is not just just a marketing slogan.

Besides how you look and sound , there are some fundamentals a good employee needs to follow. 1) Show up on time: Sounds easy but the lateness record among new employees is atrocious. Get your lazy ass out of bed ten minutes earlier. 2) Keep busy. Standing around picking your nose is not helping your career. If you run out of work, ask for more, or find something constructive to do. 3) Find out what your boss wants and make it your personal mission to get it done. If you have an idea for improving operations, speak up. Don't worry that your co-workers might think you're a brown nose. If that's their attitude, they'll soon be flipping burgers. 4) Respect your co-workers. Workplace rules on sexual harassment, using foul language, violence, etc., must be wiggle room here. If you think otherwise, you'll be out the door so fast you'll think there are roller skates on your ass.

Poor customer service is not entirely the fault of bad employees; corporate management has done a good job of cutting back on everything (except their obscene bonuses) and as a result, service has suffered. Tighter hiring standards, better training, and fair compensation for good performance would all help. Viewing the business through the customers' eyes is absolutely critical. Every CEO should call his/her company's telephone service number once a month. Maybe if they had to endure that "Press 1 for English" scenario, and the endless menus callers must wade through to get a live human being, that crap would stop.

When you finally do get a customer service representative, it turns out they are sitting in a gigantic call center in India somewhere taking calls for ten different companies. They know very little about the products they are "repping" for, but that doesn't matter; even if they did, their accents are so deplorable that you can't understand a word they're saying. After your third "excuse me" they bring out the attitude, which adds a charming element to the conversation. My advice to CEOs: hire people who know your products and who don't sound like a Pink Floyd record played backwards.

In spite of all the abuse I've taken from idiot clerks and phone agents, I still go into every transaction with the expectation that "this one will be better". I guess I'm the idiot. It's kind of like waking up anticipating Christmas morning only to find out that somebody has declared it "Broccoli With Every Meal Day" instead.


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