Wednesday, March 16, 2005

Service Jobs? Excuse Me?

We’ve left the agrarian economy back with horseshoes and people who actually milked cows with their hands, squirting it into buckets; passed off the industrial economy into the pathos of closed plants and moved with great fanfare into the service economy. Like all such passings, we still produce the world’s biggest agricultural product in terms of bushels of this and that and still kick out a blue-gazillion small, greasy parts that assemble into large, greasy machines. But, by all generally accepted logic, this is the age of service.


Maybe I missed it.  Perhaps it passed me by while I was trying to contact my bank.


My bank delights in telling me how important my call is to their entire organization and that I will be helped by absolutely the next available operator. This, after finally getting to an actual human being by listening to options, and numbers to punch to access those options, or at least the hold recording that belongs to those options.  Unsure if there might be a more appropriate option yet to come, I have run through the entire list and am now on the rerun.  All of this from Europe to Atlanta at six bucks a minute.


To anyone other than a sixth-grade dropout, it’s painfully obvious that my bank has downsized its staff to the skinniest possibility.  If they truly valued me as a customer, they'd staff up to serve me properly rather than hide behind empty rhetoric and endless messages hawking their additional services. By the time I finally hear from absolutely-the-next available operator I’m not in absolutely-the-best available mood.  I have no idea how the under-staffed deal with being under-valued, under-loved and under-paid on a day-in, day-out basis. They are the breaking wave of a new frontier (to mix a metaphor) these toilers in the barren fields of service industries. These are folks who  took the advice, made the move and positioned themselves on the cutting edge. Sounds a bit like sitting on a razor.


The most obvious thing about the service economy into which we are committed is that it is a misnomer, a subterfuge for cut costs and degraded experience.  Airlines are part of what is more and more broadly called services and they’ve been degrading the flying experience almost as fast as filing for bankruptcy.  Anyone checking in will find four reservation agents for short lines at first and business class, while two handle the economy class herded like cattle to slaughter. Service simply doesn’t exist for that bewildered majority and now even their meals, pillows and soft drinks are gone. 


Not all that long ago, one pulled into a gas station to find an honest-to-god attendant on duty, uniformed and (usually) smiling. As often as not he owned the joint. He filled the tank with an appropriate amount of gas, checked the oil and washer solvent, had a cursory look at various belts, washed the windows on all four sides and asked if tires might be checked. He made a good living at it, but that was when you actually got good service instead of an economy named for it.


Few people service anything these days.  Appliances and automobiles are no longer serviceable in the sense that you actually have them repaired.  They are replaced in part or in total, but rarely serviced. 


I’m not all that sure that bulls even service cows these days. But more and more and in every segment of this much-heralded service industry, we are made to feel like the cow.