Civility & Customer Service in the 21st Century
A few mornings ago, I took a friend’s vehicle in to a car-dealer service department for a safety recall service. It was a software update, quickly applied. (Thank you Toyota.) When I picked it up, I asked the service technician if they had an extra car mat or two they could give us. (My friend likes to keep her car clean, especially on the inside.)
The tech told me “sure” and returned in less than a minute with half a dozen mats and a smile. I thanked him, to which he replied he was “glad to help,” then complimented me for not having cursed at him or been nasty. I assured him I tried not to do that, as a rule, and he left reiterating his appreciation for my being a courteous customer.
The conversation struck me as odd and the more thought I about it, the odder it seemed. I’m not naïve about life in retail/customer service. I’ve trained Showroom Managers, Sales Consultants and Customer Service Representatives and I’ve been a District Manager responsible for customer service. So I’ve been on the business end of enough customers to know how nasty they can be.
That said, in all my years as an observant consumer, I can’t recall being critiqued by a service provider on the courtesy I extended him/her. Was I gratified to be categorized as “one of the nice ones?” Sure. But driving home, I couldn’t help wondering what the man’s comment said about our society as a whole. I was all over the road on this one. My kinder/gentler side concluded the tech’s remark was a terrible commentary on the state of social courtesy, just as the skeptic in me came to my rescue to assure me I was reading too much into the experience.
Courtesy & 21st Century Social Karma
But after a little more thought, I realized we couldn’t get off that easily. The man’s attitude…and his need to comment on mine…came from somewhere. I concluded his attitude had be rooted in experiences at once unfavorable & frequent enough to:
- Metastasize into a negative view of customers in general, and;
- Move him to comment when someone behaved better than expected.
I’m an optimistic/idealistic kind of guy. One who has spent 20+ years as a Marine officer probably has to be. So it bothers me when evidence pops up suggesting our collective behavior falls woefully short of what “should be.” For both practical and philosophical reasons, we have to do better. As Clay Conover, the protagonist of my contemporary novel “West of Tomorrow” observes:
“Our habitual treatment of people who have no choice but to put up with our worst behavior speaks volumes about us.”
Clay’s observation in this passage refers to individual behavior, but is no less applicable to society as a whole or an era in that society’s history. I suspect the generalized nastiness of our time is (at least in part) a spin-off of multiple contextual realities with which we all contend. Among them are:
- A hyper-stimulated, frenetic pace of life. It frays & flays the nerves even when we’re not aware of it. It results in chronic impatience, borne of the ceaseless pressure to perform.
- Less and less “down-time.” Everyone needs down-time, but the continued pressure noted above obliges us to convince ourselves we’re the exception(s). This phenomenon further “shorten’s our fuse” while encouraging us to see the worst in ourselves when we fail to live up to our own unrealistic expectations of ourselves.
- Exponential growth in the rate of change & complexity leading to confusion, disorientation & alienation plays a part. This leads us either to lose perspective & conclude we are indeed less competent than everyone else or to push ourselves harder toward success by each “failure.”
But on reflection, these look to me like symptoms to me, rather than causes. They help explain behavior but not what brought us here. Which leads to the question, “so okay…what did bring us here?”
West of Tomorrow & Our Social Identity
Much is made today, of how America isn’t what it used to be. Egalitarian progressives, Libertarian and Neo-Conservatives often observe this, though each point to different causative factors. As a young man, I lived through the self-conscious, tortured activism of the late 60s & 70s. By the time Ronald Reagan ushered in the conservative backlash on a recipe of vague generalities & repartee, I was a field grade officer with strong interests in both domestic and international geopolitics. I watched as the economic and legal scales tilted inexorably toward the already advantaged & kept waiting for the inevitable swing backward toward the center.
I’m still waiting. Somewhere along the way, we seem to have lionized the wealthy, not for their virtue, but for their wealth alone. Meanwhile, increasingly less thought is given to the working and middle classes. They are increasingly treated as drones doing the work no one else will…society’s interchangeable parts to be discarded at corporate America’s convenience, in the name of fractional increases in marginal profits.
A comment by one of my CEO’s during my last years as a Corporate Trainer is illustrative of the contempt in which labor is held. The CEO and I were reviewing the secret shopping reports from one of our districts. After a particularly bad one, he observed:
“Ten dollars an hour doesn’t get you much on the labor market these days.”
Interested in keeping my job, I refrained from observing the obvious, to wit: ten dollars doesn’t get them much, either. But his words, I realize now, were indicative of an attitude at the root of the discourtesy of our time.
Business management is now comfortable despising the efforts of its workers while taking little to no ownership for rectifying their hypothetical shortcomings. It’s cheaper to cut them loose. Conservative politicians feel they can (or perhaps must) characterize almost half the country as being “dependent on government” & “unwilling to take personal responsibility and care for their lives;”
Meanwhile the Supreme Court cloaks corporations with the status of people, while government’s regulatory arm is willing to absolve them of egregious, often criminal excess because they’re “too big t o fail.” Mustn’t upset the moneyed interests who will finance the next campaign…
Stewardship…Somewhere West of Tomorrow
Our sustainable tomorrow faces challenges highly resistant to simple, monolithic solutions. In the second decade of the 21st Century, we need a social model reaffirming Stewardship at all levels. This Stewardship recognizes the fact most military leaders have long known, to wit: all organizations ride to victory or defeat on the efforts of intelligent, committed subordinates…subordinates valued intrinsically, as well as for the outcome of their efforts.
This is a Stewardship reaffirming the stabilizing influence of government, legitimized by its responsiveness to the interests of all its citizens…not simply those who can afford a megaphone loud enough to be heard. This is a model resulting not only in good government, but the lifting up of individuals. This in turn promotes civility borne of genuine regard.
There is not separating the current gracelessness of our age from the exploitative nature of our society. When civility and courtesy become habits, respect follows naturally. When civility and courtesy are considered optional, respect evaporates in the heat of angry, mutual recrimination. Look at our political discourse & disagree with me if you can. Until we come to grips as a society with this truth, the discourtesy epidemic in modern society will remain an eloquent testimony to an order seriously out of touch with itself.