Customer service seems to be a declining art. I don't pretend to know all the causes - people seem angry all the time, and they take it out on their customers; the carrots and sticks available to managers no longer suffice to induce good service; there's a sense of entitlement that is at odds with a substantial work ethic; some customers can be jerks, and salespeople have had enough and are fighting back - but I've seen it often enough to think that I haven't just seen a few people on bad days.
The other night provided a good example: I was in Sears, looking for filters for a fan. Problem one: the shelves were not well-stocked or well-labeled. I finally settled on a box that had no price associated with it, figuring that I would see at the counter what the computer thought the price might be. The young lady behind the counter was eating a hamburger, and put it down long enough to ring up my transaction. Holding aside the sanitary consequences to her of handling cash and then putting her hands on her food, I was clearly interrupting her important business of eating with my silly desire to purchase a product from her employer.
My local Safeway provides other examples weekly. The older staff (and by older I mean people in their 30s and 40s, not Roosevelt-era holdovers still manning the butcher's counter in their 90s) are knowledgeable, courteous, and friendly toward regular customers. (A little too friendly, at times, as I'm not keen on hearing a running commentary on my purchases. "Oh, another one of those itches again?") (Okay, that was made up. But I did have a checker comment on a piece of meat I was buying that she thought was outrageously expensive.) They know all the codes for the produce, even the weird kinds of fruit and rarely-purchased herbs. They know how to bag groceries. In contrast, the younger people, in their late teens and 20s, appear uninterested in being at work - an attitude I often have, but choose not to share with the public at large - are aloof, have no idea what some of the produce is (one couldn't identify Brussels sprouts, not exactly an obscure vegetable), and think that it's perfectly fine to put heavy items on top of eggs in the shopping bag.
One last example involves a trip to Staples. In the checkout lane, as I was waiting for my items to be rung up, the cashier said to her friend, "I really wish I didn't have to be here." Same here, lady, but I'm not insulting you by saying it to your face.
Dealing with the public is hard. I've been fortunate in not having to make a living that way. I have meetings with people outside my agency a half-dozen times a year, and it's often a strain to be polite in what is usually an aversarial relationship. I have sympathy for people who work in retail jobs, so I don't ask much of them. Furthermore, it's true that I can come up with examples of good customer service from young people (and of bad service from older people). But the fact that those examples stick out suggests that they're the exception rather than the rule, and that's a shame.
It seems to me that part of the problem stems from a collective view from the employees that their parents oversold a vision of their future. They were raised in nice houses by people with decent jobs, and instead they've come to the labor force at a time of great uncertainty and lowered expectations. Such a reversal of fortune would make anyone upset.
Another part of the problem is that the trend away from thrift toward instant gratification has resulted in people viewing a job as a way to occupy eight hours before the next social event. My grandparents were young adults during the Depression, a decade that surely shaped their attitudes toward work and saving. My parents became adults during more prosperous times but were close enough to the prior generation to learn some of the same lessons. My generation, in contrast, has spent freely, borrowing money whenever possible, to finance a lifestyle beyond that which is wise or, at times, sustainable. (I suspect that this stems in part from the unfortunate fact that U.S. productivity growth slowed between the 50s and the 70s and has never really regained its higher level. It's become harder for people to achieve much upward mobility when, at the same time, television reinforces the view that conspicuous consumption is a desirable goal.) People in their 20s have grown up under that attitude, and it has created a mindset - again, not universally - that every night is a good one to go out and have a good time. Technology, which allows people to remain connected to their social group even at work, has only added to this problem: whereas helping customers was once a way to make a dull day go faster, customers are now interfering with the ability to talk or text to one's friends.
I find interesting the fact that, despite all of the above, some retailers manage to find employees who are hard-working and enthusiastic and to train those employees to provide good customer service. High-end retailers are good at this, possibly because they can afford to pay more (and likely pay sales commissions or bonuses to reward effective customer service), and so my local pen store (Fahrney's) always has a helpful staff, as does every Apple store I've been in (now those are some enthusiastic nerds!). But other, less tony places seem to attract helpful staff, too: for example, several of the local Au Bon Pain locations, or my local Borders before its untimely demise. I don't know what magic the managers of those stores have, but they consistently hire and train employees that provide good customer experiences, so I'm convinced some magic is involved.
Traditional retail stores and chains have lost a considerable amount of business to online retailers over the past decade, and a great deal of ink has been spilled trying to understand why. Lower prices are of course a large part of the explanation. Part of it, though, is that shopping isn't fun any longer, and if it's a chore we may as well skip the store and buy from the comfort of the couch whenever possible. The folks at Sears may want to think about that.