Monday, July 30, 2012

Those Customer Service People

Next time we feel like griping at the cashier, complaining about long lines or waits, or perhaps wondering why our clerk or receptionist isn't smiling, let's think about something, okay?  I'm usually not one of those older people who says the world has changed so much (for the worse). I think of it more like a pendulum that swings one way, and back, and back again, in different areas of life.

Well, when my oldest kids were teenagers, I told them, "It's an employee's market."  And it had been that way, in my experience, pretty much since I was a teen...I mean at that job level - jobs that pay minimum wage or a few dollars above that; I don't speak for other types of jobs.  But now the pendulum has unfortunately swung back again. Here's some of how it's different.

When I was a teenager in the late sixties, it wasn't easy to get a job...or so we thought.  Hey, I had to go from store to store to store all day long before I found a job.  Yes, one day...or maybe it was two.  My first job was J.C. Penney in Vancouver, Washington, and they trained me the same day I walked in.  I think I probably starting working the next day. I worked part time. That meant that I worked 20 hours...every single week, regardless of how many people decided to go in to enjoy the air conditioning or to open their pocketbooks.  It also meant that I worked at that Penney's store...every single time I went to work...not a store in Portland or Woodland, or wherever.  And, on top of all that, I worked the same basic schedule every week.  If I had wanted to get another part-time job, I could have fit it into my schedule (except, of course, that my other part-time job was school).

A few years later, I worked as a medical transcriptionist at a doctor's office in San Fernando, California.   Every single person working in that office worked at that office...not at another office in Van Nuys or Mission Hills, only at that office, Monday through Friday.  Even the doctors worked only at that office...except for the one day a week that they visited patients in nursing homes.  And they didn't ask any of us to come along, either.

Fast forward thirty years (about ten years ago), and the picture had drastically changed.  I got a part time retail job.  But part time no longer meant 20 hours every week. At Christmas, it might mean 30 or more hours, whether you wanted to work 30 hours or not, whether you had lots of family activities to attend or not.  But in the spring it might mean 8 hours a week, and if you were counting on a 20 hour a week income, well, so, "that's life".

And then I worked in a doctor's office, and because I worked back-office, I was privileged to work the same hours every week in the same office every day.  But today, most doctors have several offices. I don't know how or why that happened, but it often means that receptionists and assistants report to one office one day and an office across town another...but across "town" might not be five or six miles. It might be across a city, maybe 15 or 20 miles or more from one office to another. Do you know what receptionists make?  The bureau of Labor Statistics says that in 2010 the median wage for a receptionist was $12.14. Not all of them make that much!...and some make more; but let's add that up, shall we?  For someone working full time, that's just shy of $2,000 a month, gross income.  Some of the people working are supporting themselves, not supplementing a family income. So, first they have to take taxes out of that. Then they take rent and food out of that, and in some cities, you already don't have a lot left.  But then - even if they live an easy walk or bus ride from the office - they have to have a reliable car to commute to another office or two...perhaps a forty mile round trip. That's maybe two gallons of gas, another $7.00 perhaps...every day that they have to wear and tear on the tires, and on the nerves, in heat, rain, snow, and rush hour traffic. 

Another change that has occurred is Saturday work.  Back in the day, if you worked at a doctor's office you had your weekends free.You could spend them with your family or, if you didn't make enough money, you could take a part-time job on the weekends. But many people are scared or unable to take off work to go to the doctor, so many doctors offer some Saturday services.  So now receptionists and assistants have to keep their Saturdays free so they can work every other weekend, or however their office works it out...and if they have children, arrange for their care.

Back to retail, one of my college-age children once got a part-time job at a department store (which shall remain nameless). The store offered him "guaranteed five hours a week" (oh my goodness, what kind of hours are those?). He needed more, but it was better than no job, so he took it with optimism and enthusiasm; after all, it was just a minimum, and besides, they told him he could sign up to pick up know, when people go on vacation or want a day off.  And then they set up his training session: for two weeks after they hired him. Not at the wage he was hired to work but at minimum wage. And then he had another training session two weeks after that. Still no actual work.  Two more weeks later he had a three hour training session at one of their department stores twenty miles from the one where he was hired.  What kind of guaranteed five hours is that?  I can only think they simply lie.

I've belabored my points (no pun intended), so what am I trying to suggest?  As consumers and as patients, what can we do?   If we're in a long line, we can try to wait patiently, instead of complaining to other customers about "how incompetent the cashiers are".  This is one of my pet peeves and when a fellow-customer says that to me, they get this question, "Have you ever done this job??!"  If we find a receptionist who doesn't smile, we can offer her one of ours and - bigger gift - if she doesn't smile back or is even irritable, we can just let it go.  I once knew a woman who worked through constant pain but never complained about it, smiled most of the time, and was very positive. One of the few times that her pain apparently came through in a bit of irritability (or on the other hand, maybe the patient was just having a bad day and didn't like the company policies), a patient reported her as impatient, and she lost her job.

I'm not saying to let people walk all over you. If you need something to be done, let them know what you need or want, and if it's something legitimate, hang in there. But let's hang in there calmly, patiently, and kindly.  You might just help someone get through another day.

Note that I wrote a follow-up post to this one, The Other Side of the Labor Coin.

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