Service, or lack of it!

I read today of a protest by disabled users of Southern Rail against the inadequacy of staff to allow them to board the train without prior booking.

It reminded me of last time I travelled by rail a couple of years ago in the UK. There were no staff!  There were no porters in Swansea or Reading, both large stations.  No assistance of any kind for love nor money.  Passengers helped me to manhandle my suitcase on and off the train, but in Reading there was a footbridge to negotiate, quite impossible!  I waited, expecting to see some type of employee hove to on the horizon, nothing.  I waited until the train was gone, nothing, absolute desolation!  So I stood and shouted Help! loudly. Finally someone came, I explained my predicament, Oh, says he, I’m not a porter, well says I, I am going to stand here and shout and scream until someone helps to get me off this platform. He capitulated, and, mirabile dictu a staff only lift was found.  I gave him 10 pounds at the taxi rank, he was aghast, I can’t take that!  Why not? He did!  I did ask him why there were no porters, he looked at me like I was fresh out of the ARK and said there had been none for years, I did admit to not having been on a train for thirty years!

The same thing at Heathrow, there are no porters.  I cannot lug suitcases on and off the carousels any more or get them, even on a trolley, to the bus station which is half way to Wales anyway! I have had to go to the office and demand they find a porter, which they do, most reluctantly.  They then demur at walking the trolley right through to the bus station until I start fingering a twenty.  That gets them going positively pleasantly!

Same in supermarkets, not enough tills open, no baggers, no car service and even the temerity to suggest one should check your own shopping out, over my dead body! When you consider the bloody prices it is disgusting! I have been known to demand they open more tills in both Sainsbury and Tesco, again, they do it most reluctantly. Especially when one harangues other poor souls waiting in a loud and carrying voice, generally to their amusement!

Why on earth do people put up with it?  They should protest and abandon their shopping instantly, these places would soon change their policies.  They would be bankrupt within a week in the USA, nobody would put up with it!  considering how many unemployed, gimmigrants and general work shy there are on the public teat I really cannot understand why they are not organised to do these things and other public duties such as litter picking.  (Just love the chain gangs in Mississippi, best roads out!)  Plenty of Skycaps in every airport too.

I would like to know whether other countries have these deficits that you live in now.  Are they like the USA which has a total service function or like the UK where their seems to be no help available at all.  How does the Uk compare when you go back to visit?

Some of you might point out that one should travel more lightly, but when you are away for two months and have several things to go to, you cannot live out of a carry on! I need my full allowance and 50lbs is far to much for an old fart like me to drag about without help!

Author: christinaosborne

Landed on one side safely.

30 thoughts on “Service, or lack of it!”

  1. Christina, I’m afraid you’d like to live in a world that moved on about 40 years ago!

    Here’s the thing (as they say Stateside)! People do not wish to be servants. My own grandmother preferred to work in a hat factory rather than go into service. That was over 120 years ago. Since then the class system which supported cheap, not to say degrading labour to keep those who could afford it, has collapsed, except to exploit those who have no choice. So today in countries like DK you will not find any kind of forelock-pulling porter or the like. Why? Because people who can’t manage their own bags fall into a single category: unable to drive a trolley and therefore disabled. Disabled travellers can register as such with the authority involved or struggle!

    You’ll hate this reply but it happens to be the truth!

  2. Most of supermarket jobs here are part time and often filled by students from college, neither they or their customers see it as degrading. Americans tend to tip, so wait staff, porters and service people generally are very well paid when one adds up their total take. Certainly no lack of takers for the jobs so they obviously are doing reasonably well out of it. A good barkeep can make more than 40,000/year. Plus very few handouts here, people are used to having to work, the whole ethic is alive and well, sitting sucking off the state is not an option for most. Then many states have work fare. Not too many free rides.
    How very strange to see low paid work as degrading, I always worked in restaurants and bars when I was young from the age of 14. You learn a lot , keep amused and get paid for it! Better than monging in front of a TV.
    No wonder old people seem to have a terrible time of it in Europe. The UK papers are full of the die now carry on and the care homes seem to be torture chambers intent on sucking the last drop of finance before starving them to death.
    Wait till you are past helping yourself!
    A very strange attitude j.

  3. Janus: Redcaps (porters to you ) at US airports are free agents and do not work for the Airlines. They don’t do much forelock pulling (nor is it in their job description as far as I can determine). I am reliably informed the more efficient ones make over $100,000 per year, well North of the staring salary for a graduate engineer. It’s not a job requiring much in the way of qualifications , lift bag, put bag on cart, follow client to car, load bag, hold out hand for reward (normally $10 per bag).
    I don’t see anything demeaning about honest toil and neither do many others for which it is their daily experience, things may be different in Denmark.

  4. Exactly so LW, why in God’s name cannot someone organise similar in the UK for the airports and the train stations? Doesn’t seem much to ask ! Maybe it is the European/UK habit of refusing to tip? Or giving such meagre gratuities quite so grudgingly. Don’t understand it, must have lived here too long!

  5. jazz, they are there but mainly to get people into the airport. A great paucity at the carousels though. which is why I have to go to the office to get them to send some down to help out.

  6. We’re talking about a society (here) where tipping is unknown. Why? Because people are paid for their work. If you find dignity in tipping , it’s your world, not mine.

  7. I really wouldn’t even think of such self important self referral! It is generally known that people who are on minimum wage could do with a bit more and people give it willingly without a second thought, 15% standard , more if good, possibly less if bad. Too much social angst there by half!

  8. Janus: In Japan tipping is considered an insult as it implies that the person relies on charity to survive. Much like Denmark, Sweden and Norway staff are properly paid. Unlike Denmark, Sweden and Norway Japan has high customer care standards.

    CO: In Germany it is even worse. If you can’t manage on your own, you’re well out of luck. Let’s not even get started with trains in this country. Most train stations no longer even have staff. Of course, larger transit centres like Trier, Koblenz, Hamburg, etc. have regular offices but anything smaller — work it out on your own. There’s a ticketing machine. If you are in a wheel chair or use crutches, good luck! On many trains there aren’t even guards. If you’re lucky, the train driver might be able to help — maybe. If you can’t get her/his attention you’ll have to try to manage the gap on your own or with the help of passengers. There is no guarantee that many will be very co-operative. If one is stuck with an older train — and that happens — it might be impossible to board without assistance. When I was a baby my mum needed assistance in getting the pram into the train. The eejit guard cleared the driver to depart before the pram was in and the door was closed. Naturally, It rolled out and I fell head-first onto the platform. I split my head open and had to spend six months in hospital.

  9. God almighty Christopher, how awful! No wonder your mama stayed in the USA when she got here after a happening like that! I know you don’t like the place but assume your mother feels somewhat differently?

  10. CO: She moved back and forth a few times, but she’s now permanently ensconced in the USA with no desire to ever move back. She’s not exactly enamoured with the place, but she has her career, house and social network there now. There’s really no reason for her to move back to Hunland. I have little desire to stay in the country, either.

  11. Fundamentally, the best way for any society to help the have-nots is to give them jobs with realistic wages. Encouraging the zero-hours, your-choice services which survive on tips is a cop-out, a cynical acceptance of the devil-take-the-hindmost culture.

  12. CO, “How very strange to see low paid work as degrading”.
    In the UK, it’s very much of a class thing. Britain’s ‘working classes’ (there is irony for you) are unbelievably chippy about the work they will and won’t do. Mostly they won’t. They do not seem to have the gumption to understand that work will set you free.

  13. I think you must be right sipu. I just fail to understand that they can’t see that any job is getting in the door, acquiring new skills, getting promotion, retraining, all are just normal steps of progress onto bigger and better things whatever the intellectual level of the participants. Hard physical work never killed anyone. To have chippy and snippy attitudes never got anyone anywhere! One may well think that chippy snippy attitudes are only the prerogative of those at ease sucking on the public teat collecting something for nothing! Generally breeding feral rubbish to collect more!
    Personally I do not approve of welfare, workfare yes, welfare no. (except for the severely disabled) No free rides on other people’s pocketbooks. Jobs should be made for them somehow. God knows, most countries have so much that needs to be done it isn’t true. Look at the new Deal here by Roosevelt, built an incredible amount of infrastructure and kept people from starving. Most of those roads and bridges are still there today.
    To remove the work ethic from a country leaves it at risk from subjugation by other cultures or militaristic vultures. A perilous situation that most of Europe seems to be heading towards at an increasing pace.
    Meanwhile there still aren’t any porters……………….

  14. LW: It’s been a fair few years since I last did any longish-distance traveling and so I don’t know whether airports still have Skycaps. If not, then the absence of a curbside check-in facility (where one can pull over, check one’s bags with a Skycap and then go to park normally and stroll unencumbered to the gates) is to be deplored. To me, the term “Redcaps” had to do more with major railway stations. The last time I saw a Redcap was even longer ago at Penn Station in NYC. Guano, I’m getting old!

    CT: One must, of course, always be aware of local attitudes and customs, as in Japan. We, the “Ugly Americans,” need to learn and remember that not everyplace is like the tip-happy USA. I myself find that the question for me, at least in my home country, is not whether to tip but rather how much to tip (more for exceptional service). Even here, though, not everyone especially wants to be tipped. More than once, I’ve had people who’d done me a special service refuse a gratuity and have had to force it on them, pointing out how very special their service was in today’s climate and how much it meant to me. Others simply do not expect a tip and seem embarrassed when one is offered.

    As I see it, the prerequisites for decent customer service are: (1) Availability of staff who are able and willing to interact constructively with the public, (2) Management willingness to hire and deploy such extra staff as may be needed to provide proper service, (3) Training of staff as necessary to provide proper service and (4) Management understanding that machines are no substitute for real live hoomin beans, nor necessarily all that much cheaper.

    A supermarket where I used to live installed two self-checkout machines and detailed one of the regular (human) cashiers to steer people to them. I’m afraid I gave the poor lady quite a lecture on how her own job was, in effect, likely to be taken away from her and given to some faceless programmer in India or wherever.

    I’m appalled at the situation you describe in Germany and don’t look forward to the day when the railroads decide that they can also dispense with train drivers, switchmen and mechanics. (Oops, should I have bowed to the PC brigade by saying, “switchpersons?” Or does that carry too much the air of gender confusion?)

    Some of the “big box” stores are especially bad about paring staff to the bone, leaving those customers who don’t already know where things are in the store to wander about in frustration, searching for help. Their cashiers are always friendly and helpful and quite willing to call someone out of their hiding place to fetch the not-located item to the till. But who wants to go through all that, standing and waiting while enduring the glares and grumbles of those further back in the queue? One (a store we don’t like for other reasons) at least retains “greeters,” generally senior citizens, who are posted at the doors and ask arriving Customers whether they can help them locate anything. (And yes, the “greeters” are smart enough, experienced enough and well enough trained that they really do know where things are and, in the rare cases they don’t, are quick to grab a house phone and have someone check the inventory records for location.)

    I’m convinced that business here is won or lost on the front lines, where, like it or not, companies rely upon having friendly, helpful and courteous human beings in place. I’ve yet to encounter a supermarket cashier, bank teller or whomever that wasn’t a pleasure to deal with. Management, however, is rather less interested in those who actually bring money in the door. All my insurance is consolidated with one major carrier, with whom I routinely deal through a local independent agent. The few occasions on which I felt compelled to contact (awed gasp) Headquarters directly proved – how shall I say this? – rather less than rewarding for me. Numerous times I’ve told my friendly local agent that, were it not for the fact that Headquarters do have a certain talent for recruiting seriously good local agents, they’d be belly up within a year.

    I cannot escape the conclusion that Management are too busy collecting their outlandish bonuses to concern themselves with mere Customers.

    It saddens me to say that such reliance upon the front lines is not the case in Britain. The prevailing concept of “service” seems to have been borrowed from a farmer. Staff are all too often unhelpful and surly, although notably much less so in Wales than in England. The icing on the cake for me was that, when the time became right to meet, alive and in person, she who was to become my wife, I suffered myself to be sealed into a metal tube and hurtled through the sky to Gatwick, whence I could take a train to darkest Pembrokeshire. It had been many years since I was last in the UK and I was shocked, horrified, stupefied, stonnied, amazed, etc. to find that customer service types – railroad ticket sellers, bank tellers et al – now discharge their dysfunctions from behind industrial strength plexiglass barriers. I can only wonder whether that’s been done to keep them in or to protect them from attack by exasperated customers. Here in the USA, all such business is still done face to face, across a counter with no intervening barrier likely to impair one’s understanding of mumbled speech.

    Sipu: When you say, “work will set you free,” I assume that you intended no reference to the slogan, “Arbeit macht frei,” that appeared above the entrance to a certain infamous place. Useful, though, as an illustration of how nearly any good concept can be taken to extremes or otherwise corrupted.

  15. Hello, cog! Plexiglass barriers are indeed to protect the staff from frustrated, abusive wannabe customers. Having said that, I was pleasantly surprised at Gatwick last Autumn when I was assisted to collect my rail tickets by a friendly and efficient meeter-and-greeter. Maybe the worm is turning…..

  16. While I agree with you Christina about the lack of ‘service’ at airports and railway stations, I have a real problem with companies (and countries) that expect their staff to be paid by virtue of the tips that the public is expected to give,

    Here in Oz, the bus and train drivers / conductors help disabled people and parents with pushchairs on and off their transport – as indeed bus drivers / conductors do in the UK. Here in Oz, our bags are packed in supermarkets, but we are expected to take them to our cars.

    Tipping was definitely a no-no here when I first came here – companies were, by law, expected to pay the going rate for the job. There is still a minimum wage here, and it is expected that it should be sufficient that the customer does not have to subsidise company profits by paying towards the wages of the worker. Tips are given only if there is exceptional service.

    I am absolutely opposed to any economic system that allows workers’ wages to be dependent on tips – but then I have tried to survive, albeit briefly, on that system.It was not a good experience.

    I was greeted at Terminal 2 at Heathrow on my last few visits, although, like you Christina, I could have done with some help at the carousels! And travelling from Brighton to Milton Keynes on the train is a nightmare! Struggling to get my small suitcase up the steps onto a train, with a huge gap between the platform and the train is pretty frightening!

    P.S. Our banks have only just started to put barriers between customer and tellers, but our post offices still have open counters.

  17. Janus: “Sipu, I bet there’s plenty of low-paid work where you live, eh?”

    You lose. There is not much work of any kind here, low-paid or otherwise.

  18. Boa, all inter-city trains here have disabled access with human assistance; main-line stations have lifts between platforms. The banks are all open-plan and post offices……what post offices?! They have now been absorbed by the supermarkets,

  19. Boadicea: To the best of my knowledge and belief (how’s that for legalese?), the only industry in the USA where tips are universally and routinely considered part of the employees’ overall compensation is the restaurant industry. The tax sharks dignify that with the assumption that any waiters (sorry, make that, “waitpersons”) who do not declare a certain amount of tip income must be guilty of something or other and therefore must be pounced upon. Hotel bellhops actively seek tips but, again to the best of, etc., that’s only to augment what I think is already a halfway reasonable base pay. Ditto porters, provided that you can find one.

    Janus: Inter-city trains in the USA do, or at least did as of the last time I rode one, have human assistance available. At intermediate stops that had low platforms, crew members jumped off the train as soon as it stopped to place step stools between the bottom steps of the carriages and the cold, hard concrete below. I never witnessed it myself but had no doubt that they’d also render all required assistance to any disabled passengers. Nowadays, I darkly suspect that fares have been increased by the cost of installing new, high-level platforms. I am, however, reasonably confident that trains do still have real live human crews. Maybe one of these days I ought to take a train ride somewhere just to check. But not while the ground is still wet enough to permit landslides onto the tracks between here and Seattle (a fairly regular occurence).

    Aha! I’ve reminded myself that railway porters (those who turn down beds in sleeper compartments) can be added to the list of those who’ll cheerfully accept tips, although I believe they’re all Union (ASWC, the current incarnation of the “Pullman union”) members who don’t actually depend upon gratuities.

  20. Janus: Thanks for reminding me of taxi drivers. No doubt there are others I’ve forgotten. I’d say that few if any of those who accept tips actually “demand” them, although many show their displeasure when not freely given. Hotel bellhops probably come closest to “demanding” tips, what with the stage production they make of showing you the room. As though you’d just landed on this planet and couldn’t figure out how to use a doorknob or a light switch!

    Latest news: Yesterday (Friday) my wife stepped into our local Post Office to mail a greeting card to a friend in Wales and came out roaring with laughter. It seems the card had some sticky-up bits that made the envelope to a surcharge and the two ladies behind the counter made great sport of calculating the amount (a princely $0.21). Then we went on to the farm store for some gardening stuff and, again, a great time was had by all. To me, that’s great customer service, both efficient and enjoyable, everyone left smiling with no gratuity having changed hands.

    It occurs to me that some of those who complain of bad customer service may, at least in part, bring it upon themselves by harboring unreasonable expectations and by failing to treat service personnel as human beings. The wifeperson and I always make it a point to treat all such, whether tippable or non-tippable, as friends and are rewarded, we think, by receiving the best service that these people are able to provide. Some, such as our local postman and the dispatcher who probably saved my wife’s life by rerouting an ambulance from another call, even graduated to being “tipple-able” when we ran into them in a local restaurant.

  21. Well the least you can do is buy a drink for the guy who saved your life! Or several drinks.

  22. As I recall, he couldn’t drink at the time because he was on call, and so we had the restaurant owners send the guy and his wife home with a decent bottle of grape juice on our bill.

  23. Back in Blighty, many restaurants add a ‘service charge’ – often 15%. I think it originated as an alternative to tipping which many staff/customers found uncomfortable and was to be shared out backstage. In the event there have been endless complaints that staff never receive it – so it’s a profit charge.

  24. Thanks to the influx of Poles, Spanish, Lithuanians etc etc. Service round here is pretty good and it’s heartening to see the locals raising their game. As for taxis, in Oxford they are almost totally manned by Asians. As I rarely take a taxi I don’t know what the service is like but I hope it’s better than the driving.

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