April 6, 2006

Is service dead?

To hear seniors tell it, there was actually a time when you could pull into a gas station and a guy would greet you, put gas in your car, clean your windshield, check your oil, check your tires and inflate them if necessary, likely share a little friendly chit-chat, and, believe it or not, not charge a thing for any of this but the gas.

I guess people also used to come to your house and fix things. If your refrigerator didn't work, they'd come fix it. Same for other stuff. People actually didn't drag something to the curb at the first sign of trouble and then run out to Sprawl-Mart or Best Buy to snap up another poorly made appliance.

And if your TV went haywire, you just took it to what they called a TV Repairman and he'd fix it at a price which made it well worth it.

There once was a time, long, long ago, when people could actually change their own oil and work on their own cars without a huge computer diagnostic complex. Teenagers would rebuild entire engines. When you opened the hood, you could actually make out the various parts of the motor. Now you're lucky if you can spot the battery. (One newer Chrysler Sebring I drove actually has it under the back seat.)

And way back, they say that doctors actually came to your house if you were sick in bed and needed their care. Imagine, a doctor coming to lowly commoner's homes.

Evidently, when you went to the grocery store, there were actually prices on the items you bought as well. And as odd as it seems, there were teen-aged clerks and bag boys and others who actually were pleasant and said thank you rather than a grunt or nothing at all and smiled at you instead of looking past you in a vacant, clueless stare. Service with a smile instead of indifferent service with a grunt from some kid with his nose pierced and ugly tattoos and his pants hanging off his ass. Just imagine.

Is service really dead and gone? Have the idiot proof processes which have systematically eliminated nearly all human judgment and interaction in order to squeeze every last penny out of efficiency made buying products and services a soulless and barren, unsatisfying experience?

Not long ago I was shocked. It took a long time to really comprehend what had happened.

To start at the beginning, I'd made an appointment to get my car's tires rotated. This in itself is a strange concept, as rotating the tires simply involves switching them front to back and it's kind of odd to have to make an appointment for such a simple task. Yet when I called the first place, they informed me that there was no time they could accomplish this that day. I'd have to make an appointment for the following day.

I goofed and forgot about the appointment and didn't get there until about 20 minutes late. Of course, again, there was no possible way to accomplish this perhaps 10 minute task. I had to make another appointment.

Since I was on that side of town, I drove past another place that does muffler and brake work. I decided to swing in and check with them. There wasn't a car in the place and they got me in right away. It looked like business was beyond slow. The mechanic was friendly and didn't bark at me when I walked out into the garage to explain a few things and take a look under the car myself.

He inspected my brakes, exhaust, checked my fluids, (well, not MY fluids, the car's) offered to change the oil, (didn't need it), and checked the tires. He answered my questions and switched the tires around.

He didn't try to push anything on me or give me the hard sell. (Just a week before, the place where I go for oil changes had tried to tell me my transmission fluid was a terrible color and it was obviously really shot and needed replacement. I'd just gotten the thing flushed and had new fluid put in less than a week before and it looked perfect. Jerks.)

I went to the front desk as the manager or owner, I'm not sure which, arrived at the shop. The mechanic told him what he'd done, and I began to dig in my pockets in preparation for finding out how much it would cost.

Then the manager said something like, "This one's on the house.", though I couldn't be sure. I was too stunned and thought I hadn't heard him right. I had to ask again. He said, "No charge", and started to walk away.

I was standing there sputtering with my hand still in my pocket. "Are you sure?" I asked. "Yeah, don't worry about it", he said.

Of course, this was probably routine not too long ago. All the guy did was switch the tires from front to back. But I'm so conditioned to being charged, and charged a lot, literally anytime someone takes so much as a step for my benefit, (*) that I was literally shocked. Especially since business was obviously slow and they probably hadn't taken in much that day.

Needless to say, the place has my good will and I'll go there whenever I can, and if you can patronize them, they're AAA Muffler and Brake located across the street from Village Inn on 53rd Street in Moline.

It's rather sad that occurrences like this are fairly rare, at least in my experience. It's not like they tuned up my car for nothing, but it stood out because it's so uncommon.

What I'd like to know is if you've had an experience like this where a local business or professional has really done something kind or provided service above and beyond the ordinary.

Who did a great job for a fair price? Who did more than you expected? Who made you feel good for doing business with them?

While we often hear when people or a business does poorly or rips people off, we all too rarely hear about them when they do things right. They deserve to be commended for that.

Do you have any stories that show that kindness and service, although hard to find, is still alive?

(*) I was once in the neighborhood and stopped by an attorney's office to drop off some money. I'd already paid him for his services, but this was an additional amount for something else which needed to be taken care of.

I walked in to his receptionist, explained why I was there, and began to search my pockets for the check. While I was talking with the receptionist, the attorney walked out of his office, noticed me, and walked perhaps 5 feet to the reception area. I told him why I was there, but then realized that I hadn't brought the check. I apologized and said I'd mail it the next day, and left.

The entire thing took perhaps three minutes, if that.

I later received a bill from this guy charging me a quarter hour of his rate, around $40, for his walking 5 ft down the hall and standing there for a couple minutes. I hadn't come to talk to him, didn't ask to talk to him, and DIDN'T talk to him, yet he had the nerve to bill me.

Talk about service. Gotta love guys like this. They give lawyers such a great rep.

If you'd like to take a stab at who this was, drop me an e-mail. Hint: He's in Moline.


At 4/06/2006 4:31 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

I can't get my dealership to fix my car. How do you make them take it out for a test drive farther than just down the street?
I'm afraid that service IS dead.
We should hold a memorial of some kind for those of us who remember when someone filled our tank, washed our windshields and all with a smile! When people were happy to help you in a store and they actually knew something about what they were selling.

At 4/06/2006 9:41 PM, Blogger UMRBlog said...

I happen to be a lawyer and we are such easy targets. Much like laboratory animals, we are necessary but generate no real connection with the other inhabitants of the earth. Plus we look like we are worried all the time or, take your pick, that our hemhorroids are kicking up. About a third of us have a substance abuse problem. We don't return phone calls or, when we do, it's after you've left for the mall.

So, in light of that, I don't want to guess who it was. It could be any of us. We're a target-rich environment.

FWIW, however, I'll offer an explanation of how good lawyers keep time records and how bills get created. Then I'll end with a question.

Good lawyers keep TIME records, not billing records. Good lawyers can tell you how much time they spent on administration, continuing education and pro bono each year. Most good lawyers use automated entry systems to keep time records. In some offices, some of this time in entered by support staff (that is a fading practice as more and more lawyers become computer-literate).

When it comes time for billing, staff creates a pre-bill or WIP for the lawyer to review. When the lawyer has made whatever changes he or she wishes, another computer function morphs the amended WIP into a final bill, which is then mailed or emailed.

Occasionally (I gag about once a year in my office) something that either shouldn't have been billed or should have been shown as a no charge item makes its way out of the office in final bill form.

Most good lawyers have their financial secretary review the face of their bills for errors, so these things are frequently caught and corrected. But sometimes they are not. On such occasions, I cannot express how glad I am to immediately and cheefully adjust such an error if it's brought to my attention. Thus, my question:
Did you call the billing error to your attorney's attention and, if so, did he cheerfully and immediately adjust the bill? To me, that would be the test of whether he's a jerk. If you did and he didn't, he probably is.

At 4/07/2006 10:03 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

I was at a restaurant and lid came off the sauce and splattered all over my daughters meal. I asked the waitress for a new plate and a stack of napkins to wipe the sauce off the food. She never came and never came. I finally went to the serving station and got a to go box and napkins myself. I put what I could of my daughters meal in the box for her to eat and cleaned up the rest of the mess. When we were done eating the waitress came to our table and asked if we still needed napkins and a plate. She had to be kidding didnt she? Bet she was expecting a good tip too. I felt like I should still tip her something but my husband was mad I did. He said I did her job for her.

At 4/07/2006 1:19 PM, Blogger maybesomeday said...

We lost all our service with the world economy and slave labor wages in third world countries sucking all the jobs out of our grasp in America. Corporations cut cut cut to keep the stockholders happy and service is sliced first.

That was the start of the slippery slope and we need to find a way on firm ground again somehow!

At 4/10/2006 12:40 AM, Blogger The Inside Dope said...

Apparently, service is dead, as no one ... no one, had so much as one story of receiving good service.


At 4/10/2006 9:22 AM, Blogger maybesomeday said...

Agreed Dope - plus the fact is that many attorneys have bad billing practices. Our family had a similar "bill error" a dozen years ago -- and the guy who was the attorney at the time - who grossly overbilled us -- is now a RI County Circuit judge.... go figure!


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