Tuesday, March 10, 2009

The Cost of Being "Nice"

Bottles of KahlĂșa photographed with a Canon Po...Image via Wikipedia

No sooner do I put up a post declaring that nothing has caught my eye or ear to rant about lately than, sure enough, Stupidity pops its ugly head out of its hole and yells "Hey Bryan...over here!"

Pennsylvania's Liquor Control Board announced that this month it will begin a campaign to train the state's 4000+ State Store employees in the art of common courtesy. Basically, how to be nice to customers.

For those of you who live in states that do not have the bizarre and outdated alcohol laws that we have here in good ol' PA, the State Store is the only place where you can purchase wine and liquor. Let me stress: the ONLY place. It is, in essence, a government-imposed monopoly. Apparently, state-wide, the feeling of those people who work behind the registers at these State Stores is "Why should I have to act humanly towards these people? It's not like they can take their business elsewhere!"

As a part of what the LCB's chief executive Joe Conti calls "...the renaissance of the Liquor Control Board," an effort needs to be made to correct this perceived behavior. Hence, a training program focusing on how to pleasantly greet a customer, perhaps help with the customer's purchase, and how to thank the customer and invite him back after the transaction is complete.

You know: manners. The stuff your parents should have taught you when you were a child.

Now, I have no problem whatsoever with the idea of teaching those in any service-oriented job the importance of being polite and helpful to the customer. It seems, sadly, that basic customer service is swiftly going the way of the dinosaur; customer service that goes above and beyond to help with a purchase or answer questions is rarer still. More than one pundit has declared recently that those businesses which begin practicing stronger customer service are the ones most likely to survive and perhaps thrive in this tough economic world.

I should also point out that, in my dealings with State Store employees over the years, I have never run into a clerk who was less than pleasant. Where these rudely grunting oafs of employees who need to be retrained are I don't know. If we're going to teach anyone how to better treat the customer, it should be the nation's grocery store checkout folks. "Lesson one: Don't chomp your gum while scanning my produce. Lesson two: I'm right in front of you. Don't yell over my head to the next checkout person about how hard you partied last night..."

But, for whatever reason, the State feels this is necessary. OK. So how hard can this be? Maybe a day-long seminar with a morning lesson and afternoon role-playing, run on location by each store's manager?

No. To do this, the state of Pennsylvania feels it necessary to hire an outside consulting firm, the Pittsburgh-based Solutions 21, to spend the next year (!) facilitating this training at a cost of over $170,000 dollars.

Let me repeat that: A full year at more than $170,000 to teach people to say "Hello," "May I help you?" and "Thank you, please stop by again!" with a smile on their face.

And it gets better: The president of Solutions 21, the consulting company hired at this unreal rate to perform this virtually unnecessary training? Married to the LCB's Pittsburgh area regional manager. Of course, they see "no conflict of interest" in this arrangement.

Let me make this offer to Governor Rendell: I'll save the state thousands of dollars right now. I don't even ask for reimbursement at all - it's this simple: print out the announcement I've written below and pass it out to all state store employees.

Attention all PA State Store Employees - new procedures in effect immediately!

1. When a customer enters the store, smile and say "Hello!"

2. If the customer appears to be struggling with his choice of beverage, offer to help by smiling and saying "May I help you find something?"

3. If a customer asks a question, smile and answer it to the best of your ability.

4. After concluding the transaction with the customer, smile and say "Thank you for your business. Please stop by again!"

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  1. I don't object to the State Store managers being taught how to run a retail establishment effectively.

    In fact, I'd like to suggest that the same training be applied to ALL government office managers.

    For instance, according to the Humane Society, there are 75 million dogs in the US, one for every 4 people. At that rate, how many do you suppose there would be in Lancaster County? Consider that it's more likely someone lives in a house in a rural county, rather than an apartment that doesn't allow pets.

    Well, for the 470,658 people (2000 census) in Lancaster County, I figure there should be 120,000 dogs, maybe as many as 150,000 dogs, considering the fact that this is a center for dog breeders.

    In fact, the county Treasurer sells 40,000 dog licenses. You used to be able to buy dog licenses at most pet stores, but that's no longer available at most stores, and there's no list online of stores that DO sell the licenses.

    You can pay parking tickets online, or pay your city water bill with a credit card, but the county treasurer doesn't allow you to do that, either.

    Nope, you have to take time off work, drive to downtown Lancaster, pay to park, then go inside the building, figure out where the office is, and stand in line to give your money to rude clerks.

    The vote is in: 40,000 people are willing to put up with all that, and 80,000 people are willing to risk getting caught, because it's just too much of a hassle to comply with the law.

    There are 636 state stores. That $170,000 works out to $267 per store. That's less than the profit on *one* fifth of the cheapest rotgut liquor per week. No, there's no other liquor store across the street competing for sales - but customers can't consume liquor at home if they have an empty liquor cabinet. And isn't that where we want people drinking, rather than getting loaded at some bar and killing someone on the drive home?

    On the other hand, at $6 each, 80,000 unlicensed dogs cost this county $500,000 every year. I don't know about you, Bryan, but if I was running for County Treasurer, I'd sure feature that $500,000 figure in advertising, accusing the existing County Treasurer of waste and malfeasance.

    As the old Fram Oil Filter ads used to say, "you can pay me now, or you can pay me later". If it works, that $170,000 is a REALLY smart use of tax dollars, the kind of thing we need to see more of, not less.

  2. I understand your point, but I'm not sold. C'mon, how can you possibly justify it costing ANYTHING to teach an employee to say "Hello" "May I help you" and "Thank you come again?" They may couch there goals in flashy semantics about a "renaissance" and "let's run this more like a business", but this is what it boils down to.

    We're not talking about dogs who need to be licensed, we're talking about human beings who need to express common courtesy - again, something that their parents should have instilled in them as a matter of course in their childhood. This isn't some rare and exotic skill that needs to be practiced for hours a day to master.

    And, bottom line, it is in my experience utterly unnecessary in the first place. As I said, I've received far worse customer service at the local grocery than I ever have at a state-run liquor store.

    How is $170,000 a "smart use of tax dollars" when it is spent for this? And how can anyone justify it taking a FULL YEAR to accomplish?

    And while they claim no conflict, it seems awfully cozy that the president of this consulting firm is married to the Pittsburgh-area regional manager of the LCB. That sure stinks of a polecat in the henhouse, and the henhouse just got awfully expensive.

    But, for the sake of argument, let's say it is all on the up-and-up and that marriage is just coincidence. And let's accept your argument that at $267 per store it ain't so bad.

    "Hello, may I help you", and "thank you come back again" is ten words. $26.70 a word. Show me where I can get a writing gig for $26.70 per word and I'll write about anything you please anytime you ask!

    No, I'm sorry, this is not a prudent use of tax dollars, not when it can so clearly and easily be done for so much less, if it has to be done at all.

    When I took my first job at McDonald's as a wet-behind-the-ears kid, those ten words were among the first things we were taught. Hell, if we DIDN'T provide that bare minimum of courtesy, we were out on our ear without a job. I betcha people would learn real fast if that were the way of things today, and it sure wouldn't cost $170,000 and take a year to do it!

  3. can send some people to this class too? I mean since they're having the class, we may as well get the most for their money and pack the room!