Tuesday, November 29, 2005

Bad service mirrors a general decline

From the Daily Telegraph:

Sales assistants are ruder, more ignorant and less helpful than they were 10 years ago, according to one of the biggest surveys of its kind.

Overall, customer service has fallen by 3.3 percentage points while customer satisfaction is down by 1.6 points. The biggest decline was in knowledge - which fell by seven points.

Only one in four customers were served within a minute of queuing for a cash till, a fifth of sales staff did not smile while serving customers, 22 per cent had little knowledge of their products, and 24 per cent failed to say goodbye at the end of a transaction.

The survey was carried out by a consultancy called Grass Roots and was based on 1775 visits by mystery shoppers. The consultancy's spokesman said,

...pressure on costs meant there was less money to spend on staff and training. "Staff are equally ready and willing, but less able to provide good service."

It seems odd to me that the only way a member of staff can say thank you or greet you in a mannered way is if their company can afford the right kind of training. Manners which, apart from product knowledge, are what constitutes most people's experience of customer service, are difficult to teach. If a person has them then training is of marginal use; if they don't have them then training is of no use since all the training will give them is a set of techniques - which will be eventually forgotten.

At my local supermarket cashiers are told to greet each customer and offer to help pack their shopping for them. It's a nice touch - made much more noticeable when you go elsewhere and the cashier barely acknowledges you at any point in the transaction. However, even within my local supermarket's courtesy regime there is plenty of scope for the individual to adapt the company's rules of engagement - from the cheerful, smiling greeting and enthusiastic assistance of one employee to, well, a total ignorance of the rules by another.

What it comes down to is the norms of society, the standards of behaviour that we insist on in our dealings with each other. And these have been degraded over time such that, now, it is a fairly accurate rule of thumb that if it's polite service you require the older the assistant the better. These people have, in most cases, carried their culture's habit of courtesy with them and have not succumbed to the brute insolence of today's 'rights but no responsibilities' brigade.

They also have some command of the English language which means they can convey requests or information in whole, meaningful sentences - unlike my recent experience in my bank where the person allocating appointments asked/instructed (I'm not sure which) me to 'Sit over there, yeah?'

In the end though I wonder if the decline in customer service - which may well mirror a general decline in incivility - is necessarily an increase in rudeness. For somebody to be actually rude implies they are aware of society's norms and conventions with regards to manners but chooses to ignore them. Something I detect in the blank visage of the average youth when spoken to is actually the absence of confidence, rather than the wilful ignorance of accepted courtesies. Too often the person seems to lack the conversational skills necessary to navigate the white waters of mainstream communication - and he or she appears to be acutely aware of it.

This is faintly tragic. As the wonders of cultural instant gratification erase the human ability to focus and pay attention and the evils of state-provided education keep the lower classes well and truly in their place the victims of these attacks on human potential seem aware at some primitive level that they're being marginalised, left out and deprived in a truly fundamental way.

If there is any such thing as social exclusion it is the removal of the basic ability to communicate with one's fellow citizen that is its ultimate manifestation. Unable to perform adequately in a job interview, to debate with local or national representatives, to engage in the daily affairs of their community or country or to speak up effectively for themselves or their families when the need arises it seems that some people are condemned to live next to society but not necessarily in it.

It is an affront to democracy - and a betrayal of the working classes who are least able to spend their way out of difficulty - that a significant portion of our children cannot speak, write or converse effectively and it is a crime against all our people that the means of their subjugation - vacuous and corrupting entertainment, readily available narcotics, free and easy response to criminality, the state-sanctioned demeaning of the family, removal of most structures of authority, the subordination of educational striving to the more pressing needs of meeting governmental targets, and the exalting of the satisfaction of individual impulses over the need for humans to attend to duties before rights - are becoming more rather than less prevalent. All attempts to improve people against such an onslaught is an uphill struggle and one destined to fail.

Next time your local supermarket oik responds to you with a belligerent frown and a meaningless grunt it might be well to recognise that, rather than being wilfully ignorant, he may simply be a product of a depraved society and a corrupt governing class. In a country awash with so-called victims, he might be a genuine article.

Thursday, November 10, 2005

Banged up for 90 days

A question: why does almost everybody who isn't a politician support the proposed raising of the 14 day limit on holding suspects before charging them to 90 days?

None of them want to see innocent people held in prison for 3 months only to be finally released to go back to jobs that might have disappeared, relationships that may have fractured, children that have become traumatised and the suspicions of friends and neighbours who will not have been able to avoid noticing their absence.

There must be a reason why so many people are supporting such incarceration. I think there is - and it's a simple one: whenever somebody mentions holding somebody for 90 days while they are investigated for terrorist crimes Joe Average immediately thinks of a Muslim terrorist - dark skin, souless eyes, headscarf and a sneer - who is either aiding and abetting a bomber - or actually is a bomber - and who is almost certainly guilty. All the police need is enough time to gather the evidence to prove it. Once they do we're all saved from being ripped to shreds by the evil designs of these godless devils.

Now Joe Average mostly is not making his assumptions due to any racist urges nor does he particularly have it in for Muslims. But he's got a bee in his bonnet about people trying to blow him up and he automatically assumes that this legislation will only affect people who are, basically, in the business of doing just that. He does not for a moment imagine that anybody who doesn't deserve it could possibly get caught up in what, for that individual, could be a defining moment of their lives.

And this is where, I think, those of us who opposed the 90-day measure have failed to do a decent enough job of promoting our view. 'Freedom', to Joe Average, is a given - rather like the right to vote. Nobody is excited about voting; barely half of us even bothered last time. We've got to actually lose the right to vote before one properly notices one even has it. Freedom, though, is a different creature. It's difficult to even define and probably only noticable once it's lost. Freedom, after all, is not something one does. So it's difficult to imagine not being able to do it - unlike voting.

So what are some of the objections to 90-day detention without charge? Here's a couple to consider:

1. It is wrong to be imprisoned without trial. And, while it is a subjective call, 14 days (the current limit) is reasonable while 90 days is, to my mind, straightforward imprisonment. There are prison sentences handed out for violent crime that result in the guilty suffering less than 90 days - 3 months - in prison.

2. The police are not 100% trustworthy. Most might be but not all. Some are plain dishonest. Some are not as good at their jobs as we might like. Some officers, dedicated to the cause, will hold a man who they 'know' is guilty and present their evidence imaginatively to the judge so as to secure maximum time to hold their suspect. I do not think judges will often let a man free whom the police can portray as a menace to society.

And police fishing for suspects may well pull in a likely lad simply in the knowledge that, if they don't currently have that much on him, they can still hold him for a while until they do. It gives police an opportunity to avoid the necessary up-front work on gathering evidence and put it off until a later time. In the meantime, the suspect is effectively doing time.

3. It may well not be necessary. Tony Blair ignored the question in Parliament the other day but it's a pertinent one, namely: has there ever been a case where the police have let a suspect go because they couldn't hold him longer than 14 days (although they wanted to) and he went on to do something unpleasant? Somebody correct me if I'm wrong but I don't think there has been. It seems that if you haven't got the evidence to charge him after 14 days you probably aren't going to have it after 90. Better, then, to watch your suspect carefully, see who he mixes with, gather intelligence and then nab him when - if - you really do have something to pin on him.

The fact remains that the police, understandably, want all the tools they can possibly obtain in order to do their job. Whether they're useful to them - or good for society as a whole - is of no concern to them. And if the police always get what they want then we find ourselves edging towards a police state because their wants will not sit easily with our liberties.

4. I don't believe the Labour government itself particularly wants this legislation. What this is, I believe, is a golden opportunity for Labour to look tough to the public and enjoy the additional benefit of making those conservatives interested in protecting an Englishman's freedom look like they're soft on terrorism. The lie that will be propogated is that we care about murderers. We don't. But we do care about our country and its liberties and will undoubtedly make ourselves unpopular defending such qualities.

5. I do not agree with pandering to the sensibilities of minorities wherever such pandering conflicts with the way of life or preferences of the majority. But nor do I agree with measures that subject a particular section of society to illiberal treatment that cannot be shown to offer any material benefits. It's inhumane to do so if the returns are not sufficiently valuable but also it's also impractical with reference to the wider, intelligence-led fight against Islamic extremism. Since this legislation may well fall disproportionately on British Muslims - and that's perfectly understandable, as far as that goes - it will be they who bear the brunt of the pain of false imprisonments.

But British Muslims, reviled generally in some quarters, are also in the forefront of our anti-terrorism intelligence gathering activities. How exactly are we going to secure the support of the decent majority of Muslims who will assist the security forces in their attempts to catch Muslim fanatics when they find the innocent amongst them being imprisoned without trial? The feeling that they - and they alone - are on the receiving end of undemocratic legislation will be hard to refute.

6. Finally, I do not want to live in a country where the powers of MPs - who are supposed to represent us - and the police - who are supposed to serve us - are so overwhelming that we become subject to their wishes and preferences. They are our servants, not we theirs. The more we allow them to do to us the more they will do - and so the more we fall into their control. This alters the character of our country in ways we might live to regret as we come more and more to resemble states we would never normally wish to resemble.

The 28-day compromise is a better deal but only because 90 days is an awful one. One has to be aware that, once 28 days becomes the norm, 35 days could be the next step.

If we're serious about catching bad people then, rather than giving the police more and more power over our liberties - powers which may, actually, provide limited benefit and are yet to be shown to be required - we should consider giving them more and more freedom from paperwork and political correctness, allow them to recruit more officers to carry out the intelligence work necessary to thwart terrorists and start using the laws we already have to imprison - for years - the various thieves, planners, forgers, con-artists and assorted support staff who, in the end, make the fanatics' final atrocities possible. Restrictions on liberty, if ever needed, should occur only when all else has been exhausted. I don't think all else has been exhausted and this legislation is simply Labour's way of appearing tough and scoring a few points with the electorate.

Thankfully it failed.

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