This article comes to you courtesy of our first reader suggestion. I believe the apposite phrase is “shout out” to SJ of south Fort Worth for taking the time to get in touch with Truman Talks. Today we address customer service, and don’t spare the busboys.
I can still remember exactly where I was and what I was doing the first time I heard the Prince tune “When Doves Cry” over the radio. Spring of 1984, I had just entered the back of the house I grew up in, having well spent an hour practicing my soccer skills in the yard — keepy-uppies for the ages. This was the moment that I understood my connection to music was visceral and all-encompassing. There was music in everything. It was everything. At least then, in those moments, every realization is vital.
I feel the same way about customer service, I shit you not. As the vital stuff ebbs, to be replaced by the practical-cum-necessary-cum-comforting, great customer service is in everything. It is everything. I can still remember where I was the first time I received truly great customer service. Spring of 2002, on the patio of a restaurant on Congress Avenue, nary a half mile from the Capitol in Austin. I’d been served a Texas-sized salad within which I noticed the most vestigial and correspondingly cute furry caterpillar. I, embarrassed to an English fault, apologetically pointed out to the fuzzy friend lurking behind the escarole. Our server, instantly bereft, apologized in a way that seemed, well, genuine. As if my friend and I were sitting at her dinner table and she’d personally grown, harvested, prepared, and served the salad. The salad and a drink of my choosing would later fail to appear on my check. No fuss. Heartfelt apology. One Englishman on his first visit to Texas taken aback.
Context is important here. Customer service exists in England only insofar as customers are served by people paid to deliver a range of services. The default setting for anyone serving behind an English counter, or more precisely a counter in England, or at a restaurant table – hell, anyone in a public-facing job role – is that they serve you, the customer, at their pleasure. They are doing you a stone cold solid by actually showing up for work and getting paid, and you damn well better realize this is their domain. As an interloper, you need to tread carefully and cause the minimum of fuss. I got a bottle of wine comped once. Once. In the entirety of the decades I’ve been served as a customer in England. The casus belli was an hour-long wait between appetizers and entrées in a pizza joint.
Further context is, perhaps, the most important point in this whole response. People in England don’t tip*. Period. Well, almost. If you get exceptional English service in a restaurant (think: the level of enthusiasm and delivery of the average Subway sandwich mangler), a 10 percent tip might be proffered. Very occasionally, a lucky barkeep will receive those three magic words – “and your own.” This love-laden phrase gives the barkeep opportunity to take an alcoholic beverage of her choosing (frowned upon by almost all bar managers in England) or drop 50 pence (less than $1) in her dust-encrusted, cobweb-lidded tip jar.
Is this the difference? Are the customer-serving folk of merry old England simply a few regularly given tips away from morphing into the perma-smiling, nothing-is-too-much-trouble purveyors of happiness that we can bank on in Texas? I can stop you right there. Disabuse. No. No, they are not. Not in my lifetime. They are transgenerationally grumpy, their DNA wrought with misplaced notions of superiority. Put simply, the British are not cut out to serve customers. They are the customers. In Breaking Bad terms, they are the ones who knock.
Equally, we must consider whether our Texan customer service personnel perform only for tips, like – dare I say it? – a dancing Russian bear or strip-club teaseuse? I hope not. I choose to believe not, and in so doing, I feel little or no self-delusion. It’s cultural. The same indefatigable will to rise that enables politicians to regularly and straightfacedly declare America to be the city upon a hill propels the reliable joie de vivre of the underpaid, under-health insured though never underappreciated or under-tipped Texas customer servant to buckle up his name pin with pride before every shift.
More power to you: that, a $15 minimum wage, and universal healthcare.
* The following customer servants are never tipped: hairdressers/barbers; taxicab drivers; sandwich shop staff; garage workers; delivery folks, of any kind; lawn guys; pool guys; roof guys, paint guys; the guy who unblocks your drain; electricians; and on and on**.
** Or gals, for all the above***.
*** And trans.
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