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Help yourself

Has self-service become self-serving?

By Carolyn Pogue

What genius started all this business of self-service? How did it sneak up on us and rip those lovely signs off shop walls: “The customer is always right” and “We are at your service”? How has this wet blanket been so meekly accepted by all of us? Did we think we’d save money? I haven’t noticed a reduction in bank fees, grocery bills or gas, even though management no longer has to pay cashiers or gas jockeys. And don’t get me started on digital parking meters.

When I was a kid, service was important. Public servants were those who offered to serve others for the common good. And businesses ran on their reputations for service to their customers and communities. As a teen, I worked in my father’s meat store. I learned wonderful lessons about service and the foibles of human nature (his and the customers’). I also learned that I was not cut out to stand on my feet eight hours a day.

The biggest lesson though, was a mantra, repeated by my father in a tone reserved for moments when he really Meant Business. “Always treat the customer with respect and kindness. Smile. Apologize if things go wrong — even if it’s not your fault.” That’s good customer service; it’s also common sense. Or was.

Recently my husband decided he’s opting out of self-serve, do-it-yourself plane reservations. “It’s not that I can’t do it online,” he said. “It’s that little clock on the screen, ticking away the seconds as I fill in tiny boxes. . . . It freaks me out.” Many of us have become so accustomed to our self-serve world that we hardly notice our own rising stress levels. High blood pressure, anyone?

Reading the newspaper or tuning in to the news can also induce stress, but reading the Globe and Mail on Jan. 29 — the day after the Idle No More National Day of Action — helped me realize we’ve really gone too far.

On the front page there was a colour photo of Idle No More people at the parliament buildings. Like tens of thousands of us throughout Canada, they had gathered for prayers, speeches and dancing, in hope that the government was taking the movement seriously.

Also on the front page was a story about how, for the Harper government, it’s business as usual on the First Nations file. What? Has the prime minister really not been listening over the past six weeks? Inside the pages of the Globe, though, I found another article that helped to explain that. I guess Mr. Harper is terribly busy.

On Jan. 28, the prime minister was occupied with tweeting (15 times) and having photos of himself taken and posted with his #dayinthelife hashtag. Now, that is self-service of a different stripe. Heaven save us from it all.

Author's photo
Carolyn Pogue is a longtime Observer contributor. New posts of The Pogue Blog will appear on the first and third Thursday of the month. For more information on Carolyn Pogue, visit www.carolynpogue.ca..
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