Self Service is an Oxymoron

My mother was so appalled by the first drive through take away we detoured into, that she insisted on getting out of the car at the ordering microphone and walking up to the startled young girl in the window to apologise.   

Look, I am so sorry, she said to the bewildered teenager, I feel dreadful about this. She thought it was the height of rudeness to call out a food order and expect to collect it at a window. I couldn’t hear what the girl said in response. I was busy hiding under the dashboard at the time.

I am older now, than she was at that time, and I can understand the increasing horror. The diminishment in personal service standards and manners is insidious, and it seems to only head in one direction. We sleepwalk toward it all, failing to protest at every drop in customer contact and service. Many of us do not notice the lie when we are told these reductions are something we all wanted. ‘Our customers prefer….” Really. Which ones? Where was that survey?

Employees will cheerfully explain a new ‘Don’t Expect Me to Help You’ process, as they also sleepwalk themselves toward redundancy or a twilight career in a dismal call centre.   

I don’t know how many people are coping in this world in which there is a growing demand that we will download the app or scan everything ourselves or copy a link and figure it out. At Lifeline, we talk about social isolation as a common denominator for many calls. I think it starts to happen when people give up trying to manage life outside their front door.    

This week I took an overseas parcel to the post office. The previous owner has just sold the place, and I am sorry to see him go. He was happy and he was helpful.

I had filled out the correct customs form and it was ready to post, but I was handed a slip of paper by a new employee with a scanner code and a link.

You do this on-line yourself now, she said, smiling, as if this was some good news for me. Otherwise, we’d have to fill in the details on-line for you.  

“Goodness”, I should have said. “Fancy expecting postal counter staff to fill in some postage details. The nerve!” But I didn’t say this because (a) it is passive-aggressive and (b) I rarely bite back at front line staff – they are not to blame for the change, and (c) I can never think that quickly when confronted by the absurd.      

Our local post office is happy to sell me jewelry and children’s books. It will sell me greeting cards and tacky pointless gifts, but what they will not do in future, I must learn, is process some information when I post a parcel overseas. I’ll do it for you this time, she said, impatiently. It took her one minute.     

Sometimes, expectations are clearly and honestly set out. IKEA never promised to build its furniture for us.  Amazon never offered us a shop window and a friendly human being to give us advice.  Fast food places might give us a plastic seat and a table, but they were never equipped to clean up after us or hand out china plates.    

But I think we do expect something from banks, airlines, hotels, and other places, to which we pay out good money for some service.

I recall hearing the exciting news on a Qantas flight that we could now watch movies on our own devices. Wow! Thanks! So, no screen provided at the airline’s expense then. And that saves the airline how much in providing the machinery for in-fight entertainment?

Recent trips to restaurants have had me downloading menus. This is a Covid innovation that I do not want to see remaining when the pandemic is gone. I love to read a menu. It is part of the experience and I get sick of looking at my phone.  

On hotel beds I have found cards telling me that, because you care about the environment, your bed will not be changed unless you ask. How’s that for emotional blackmail?  And I have had the same with bath towels. We’re leaving you one towel, because we know you care.

In fact, I don’t really care to help them reduce their laundry and labour costs, because that’s what this is about.  If they were passing the savings on to their hourly paid cleaning staff, I would think about it.   

We have been groomed to accept all these cuts in service for some time. We have been re-educated to do our own banking, fill our own cars with petrol, check in our own luggage, print our own tickets, check out our groceries, and bag them up. In fact, we have been guilted into bringing our own bags. When something goes wrong, we have been trained to call numbers and stay on hold, because, we believe, our call is important.  

And when I do get good service, I am almost in tears of gratitude. This just happened to me, at a bank of all places, and it was the same one that had recently yanked our local branch away without notice.  I had to bite the bullet and go into a branch and ask for help. I could not solve the issue on-line and I had tried. The cheerful young guy had various Customer Service awards on his desk. That was no surprise, but in my youth, I doubt his helpful behaviour would have been exceptional.    

I am as much to blame, because I just shrug and accept all this, and I come home and complain to my other half. But I would like to see us all fight back a bit and say, politely or assertively, do you think you could help me with this?”

It would be great if we could ask for help without the fear of feeling stupid or a bit lost.

And I would love to see a return to some training that was not entirely focused on re-educating the customer to go away and leave the business alone.  

1 thought on “Self Service is an Oxymoron”

  1. Great article Cheryl. Couldn’t agree more. I must say the service I’m now getting from the tradespeople who visit my house is excellent BUT only because I’ve ditched those that can’t do the job (or won’t admit they can’t), don’t have the courtesy to show up on time or ring if they are running late etc. As customers we need to ‘vote with your feet’ if we can. The challenge is that we all ‘can’, but the time and energy involved sometimes makes us reluctant to do so or the company has a monopoly. Not that Australia Post has a monopoly, but it is a little time consuming, and probably more expensive, to find someone else

    There is an excellent scene in the last episode of the British mini series ‘Years and Years’ that talks about exactly this. Watch the series if you can

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