Recently there was an article in the Lifestyle section of the WSJ delineating the traits of successful salespeople at an upscale department store. These star sales assistants kept impeccable records of their clients needs and preferences and these clients, when interviewed, admitted that over time their shopping experience had morphed into counseling sessions and time spent with a good friend who understood them. Another article, sharing front page space, recounted the perfect work attendance of a doorman at the Hyatt Regency in Tampa who has never called in sick in twenty-six years. In a similar vein, the doorman had developed a relationship with repeat hotel guests, remembering their faces and significant events in their lives. In short, these workers turned an uninspiring, possibly under-appreciated job into something meaningful and long lasting.
Being attentive to a customer's needs would seem obvious in a service industry, but unfortunately, that kind of personal attention is becoming more and more rare. Last week I set out to spruce up my spring wardrobe and stepped into a well-known chain store at an upscale mall near my home. I walked the store, arms laden, looking desperately for a sales attendant to unlock a fitting room for me. What do they keep locked up in there, anyway? Finally, a sales associate observed my distress, offered to start a room for me, but didn't offer to help unload my overburdened arms or arrange the clothing on the racks inside. When I did finally end up at the checkout, I wasn't even greeted. You can bet when the computer spit out a little survey for me to fill out online about my shopping experience, rather than chucking it like I normally do, I clung to it like a life preserver and filled it out with a vengeance.
I attend writing classes each week in the city and there is a doorman who sits at the entrance running roughshod over every person who dares to enter the building. At any time of day there will be a queue of people scrambling through bags and back pockets searching for forms of ID. I smile at him every week and there is absolutely no flicker of acknowledgemnt that he has ever seen me before. One time I decided to hold a bit of an experiment. I fished out my ID, forced eye contact, then doubled-back to get a coffee and came back just to test him to see if he would actually try to remember me. He waved me in--Triumph! The next week I started sailing past him with a silent head nod and I was once again treated to an oblique stare as if he were laying eyes on me for the first time. It was unbelievable.
As New Yorkers, we sit on the train, fastiduously avoiding eye contact while we listen to our iPods, check our Facebook friends' statuses, and answer text messages. Mom and Pop stores have gone the way of the Zepellin (the what?--check wikipedia). We have insulated ourselves in our technology to such a degree that even shopping at a mega store, like Barnes and Noble and brushing past a fellow shopper is too much contact, it's much easier to click on Amazon and have it tell us, if you like this... then you might like that...rather than engage a clerk at a brick and mortar establishment.
We have allowed technology to de-personalize a lot of our simple experiences. We hide behind our emails where subtle innuendo can land as heavily as an elephant's foot, and use them to send messages better delivered on the phone, or heaven forbid in person.
We are missing what that doorman in Tampa and the salesperson at Nordstrom's have--simple pride in a job well done, in whatever it is we are doing and most importantly, in ourselves. I believe lack of quality face time with one another has contributed to this laziness. We don't have to see real disappointment flicker across a co-worker's face when we tell them their idea wasn't good enough for the project, we can always attach an emoticon to our message so the recipient will know how we feel.
Don't get me wrong--mind-boggling strides have occurred through technology, and most of us can't live without it, myself included. Let's just not mistake it for the last word in progress.