Monday, August 08, 2011

While we're on the subject of customer disservice...

Read yesterday's related post.

Last week I was in Washington, DC on business with my boss and a few other key employees. In the course of our two-day stay, which we spent at one of the city's premier hotels, just down the street from the White House, we encountered no less than five hotel employees who could barely make themselves understood in English. It's hard for me to convey how Kafkaesque and exasperating some of the resulting "conversations" were. Apparently we weren't the only ones who felt that way. At breakfast in the hotel cafe on the morning of our departure, a well-dressed man at the next table grew so irate over the situation that he summone
d the maitre d' (whose Spanish accent was only slightly less thick than our server's) and loudly insisted on being served by "an American." Lest he himself be misunderstood, the man added, "someone who speaks actual English."

At first I was a bit embarrassed by the man's demand, which struck me as jingoistic, but the more I thought about it, the more I found it defensible, even reasonable. Anti-discrimination laws or not, no mainstream company would be required (would it?) to hire in a customer-service capacity an individual who literally did not speak Englishwhich is to say, a non-English-speaking person. Just as I can't imagine that EEOC laws meant to protect the obese would be invoked in a case where a 410-pound man applied for a job as a jockey. So what's really the difference? If the person's attempts at English are as faltering and ineffective as what we encountered in DC, how does that materially differ from, say, a Monty Python skit in which a Lithuanian-speaking taxi driver is taking directions from a Mandarin-speaking customer?

The problem is especially acute when the would-be conversation is occurring over the telephone (or the squawk box in the drive-through lane of a fast-food restaurant), where you don't have the benefit of lip-reading, supportive gestures and body language, or other communication enhancers.

So I'd like to hear from our contributors. Where should these lines be drawn? Why in the name of political correctness or social engineering should we be forced to endure situations where each of a succession of questions must be asked and answered a half-dozen times? And even then you can't be sure the proper action will ensue. (Several times, for example, one or more members of our Washington contingent received a menu item we did not order, or failed to receive an item we did order.) Come to think of it, I'm sure we've all had hotel experiences where we attempted to ask a question of the maid making up our room, and she simply shook her head and said, "No speak English" or some such. Not to mention the technical-support lines provided by many firms nowadays, which all seem fiber-optically routed to the same building in Jaipur.

Did the well-dressed man in the hotel cafe have a valid gripe? What do you think?


Anonymous said...

I have to assume this is more a comment on who's willing to work for the pittance they pay servers, even in the most elite area of DC, than anything else, and given how hard servers have to work for their meagre pay, it strikes me as a broken system. How do restaurants justify charging massive amounts for food, yet paying servers minimum wage or below, even when it's clearly impossible to survive on a minimum-wage salary in any city, much less a major one? You have to give the waitstaff credit for making the effort to get an actual job. But having said that, I'd say that there's a distinction between going to an ethnic restaurant, such as a Chinese restaurant, where one expects the language barrier to be fairly formidable (I once was very proudly and ceremoniously served vegetable sushi, specially created by the chef at "my" request, after I'd asked if they had any vegetable egg rolls or spring rolls) and a mainstream restaurant that serves so-called "American" food.

And having said THAT, I see no reason for rudeness on any occasion, in any circumstances, to someone in a subordinate position, be it a waiter or a maitre d'. The man you describe should have sent a pungent letter to the CEO of the hotel chain, telling him or her exactly what he thought of the service in the hotel restaurant and suggesting that there were plenty of alternative accomodations available for him and everyone he knew if the situation weren't rectified ASAP. Taking his ire out on the hapless server, loudly and humiliatingly, could cost the poor man both his pride and his job. He might have done what I do in similar circumstances: Picture myself attempting to serve customers in a restaurant in the server's own country, with my limited or nonexistent knowledge of their language. Mandarin Chinese, Japanese, Hindi, anyone?

Speaking of Hindi, your comment about customer service being routed through India made me laugh. I of course thought of the scene in "Slumdog Millionaire" where the movie's Indian hero is on a customer-service line and affects a Scottish accent to reassure a caller. And I myself was once routed by AT&T to a service rep in India who informed me that her name was Angelina. Yes, I thought but refrained from saying, and my name's Brad Pitt.

1minionsopinion said...

This put me in mind of a course I took in university where the lab portion was presided over by a fellow whose (Mandarin? forget now) accent was so thick as to be incomprehensible to the majority of the class. He would have been understandable if he'd talked a little louder and slower but after it became clear he couldn't pronounce anyone's names or enunciate English well enough in general, several in the class reported it to our professor. Next class we had a new TA.

I wonder if it depends more on the person. I know people who've come from other countries that work at my library (their home education doesn't transfer into work in their actual fields usually) and most of them make a conscious effort to be well understood in English. Maybe some people just care more or at least have a vested interest in improving.

On the other hand, my uncle's been married to a woman from Thailand for nearly 16 years and she's still terrible speaking English. Only a few people in the extended family are prepared to listen hard enough to catch onto what she's trying to say.

roger o'keefe said...

As someone who ran companies or managed large staffs, I can tell you from experience this is a thorny problem. It's not just about speaking skills either, but general ability and dedication to the job. A boss or manager has to be very careful about firing people who belong to certain protected classes of minorities. This is true especially in government work almost regardless of how poorly they perform. I'm going to catch hell for this, but if I'd hired or promoted based strictly on performance my staffs would have been nearly 100% white anglo-saxon. You can't get away with that however. While I'm on that subject, though I had many excellent female workers who worked for me, they also came with issues that male workers didn't seem to have. They took a lot more time off and they didn't generally put in the hours that male employees did. Just the facts, ma'am.

RevRon's Rants said...

I doubtt you'll catch hell from anyone who knows you, Roger. My experience has been quite different from yours. Having managed (and in some cases, directly supervised) groups consisting of black, Hispanic, and Caucasian employees (male and female), I found it more common for the Caucasians to exhibit an attitude of entitlement than for other groups to do so.

I also didn't hesitate to terminate anyone who failed to perform their duties or who caused problems within their group - no matter their ethnicity or gender. Only had one ethnic individual attempt to sue for discrimination, but once the HR director pulled evaluations & promotion trends among my departments, which dispelled any implication that I treated any group unfairly, the suit was dropped. The HR director also submitted into evidence employee evaluations of my performance, which I had all key personnel fill out annually and turn in to the corporate treasurer, to whom I reported.

I don't doubt that the facts you present are accurate, but I do believe that a manager frequently has the capacity to set the baseline upon which those facts are founded, and that such a baseline - as well as general management attitudes - can go a long way toward averting personnel challenges.

This isn't to claim that I was a superior manager, especially since we don't have all the circumstances in either case, and we are each presenting "facts" based upon our individual perspective. I do, however, firmly believe that employee performance is greatly influenced, if not dictated, by management attitudes.

LizaJane3 said...

Expecting someone in a service job to communicate effectively with the people they serve is quite reasonable. Why is this even a question? If the server can't properly serve, he's not a server. Simple as that.

Anonymous said...

You mean like this!