Wednesday, July 29, 2009

A customer service experience from Abbot and Costello

Because this is an etiquette blog, I like to share customer service stories - both good and bad. This one doesn't really fit into either category. It's more bizarre than anything else.

For reasons I won't go into, I find myself having to take a three-hour bus trip this Friday. I visited, the Canadian version of the bus company's consumer website to check out schedules and fares. I am delighted to find that they have an online purchasing option. I choose my date, time and fare and attempt to proceed to the actual purchasing part but alas, I am foiled. It won't let me. But that's okay. I am informed that I can call a toll-free number to get technical help. I dial the number. An automated attendant asks if I'm travelling in Canada or the U.S. I find this odd since I got the number from the Canadian website. When I tell the computer that I'm travelling within Canada, she tells me I need to dial the Canadian number and provides it. I dial the number. I get another automated attendant and after pressing numerous buttons in an attempt to reach a live person, I am connected to an agent.

The agent is lovely and polite. I tell him I had trouble purchasing my ticket online and he explains that this is because the website doesn't actually offer the capacity to purchase tickets online. This, of course, is in direct opposition to the flashing button that encouraged me to PURCHASE MY TICKETS ONLINE but I digress.

I ask if I can purchase the ticket through him and he agrees. Once the transaction is complete he tells me that Greyhound cannot guarantee that I will actually get a seat on the bus because it's first-come, first-served. I ask how they can sell tickets in advance and then not guarantee seats and he explains that it is "greyhound policy". He tells me that in order to actually guarantee my seat, I can cancel my order with him and purchase it from the actual station at any point between now and Friday afternoon, or, arrive one hour ahead of departure. Both of these options will cost me an additional $5.

Sensing my confusion, he asks if he can help with anything else. I politely tell him that no, I'm watching my blood pressure, and thank him for my time.

Is the human animal's capacity for complicating even the most routine of transactions not amazing?

Tuesday, July 28, 2009

An Etiquette Lesson for Organized Labour

A while ago I blogged here about recession etiquette, the main point of which was the need for those who had fared well during the economic downturn to be more aware of the feelings of those who have fallen victim to these times. I know that everyone has felt the pinch in some way or another but let's face it, losing your job is infinitely more stressful than realizing that your house has decreased in value, especially if you weren't planning to sell anyway.

Here in Toronto, we have just experienced a 35-day strike by 30,000 municipal employees which resulted in the complete shut-down of everything from garbage pick-up to city-operated daycares and daycamps. Among other things, the striking workers, many of whom enjoy 18 sick days per year, challenged the city's decision to eliminate a contract provision which enabled them to bank unused sick time to be paid when they left or retired.

In my career, I have belonged to a public sector union. It was mandatory when I was an employee with the Government of Ontario. In the end, it just wasn't for me. I chafed against the notion of paying someone to speak on my behalf and I was surrounded by too many colleagues who had become complacent in their approach to work in the knowledge that the union would "protect" them. I left for more meritorious pastures. On the other hand, I am a beneficiary of organized labour. My husband belongs to a union, a very respectable one, whose leadership seems to focus on relevant issues like making the workplace more family-friendly.
As the manufacturing heart of Canada, Ontario has been hit especially hard by the recession. In the private sector, those who have not already lost their jobs, are facing paycuts, shortened workweeks, the removal of benefits and reduced opportunity for advancement. Those of us who own our own businesses, have had to deal with cancelled orders, slashed budgets and chasing down payments, all while we continue to employ people and inject money into the struggling economy. While none of us is pleased with this turn of events, we are bound together by a realization that life, as we know it, has changed and will never be the same again. Things that we relied upon, including signed contracts, are subject to change. Most importantly, agreements that were made two years ago are being revisited due to pressures beyond everyone's control. At the end of the day, we're happy to be taking home a paycheque.
It is for that reason that I think it was so difficult for Torontonians to get behind the striking workers, all of whom are well compensated and enjoy generous benefits already. In fact, one wonders if government employees even need the protection of organized labour. The thousands of unemployed would gladly have taken the city workers's jobs, even with a pay cut and citizens were at a loss to understand how the union leaders could suggest that provisions that were negotiated during an economic boom, should somehow be guaranteed through a downturn, and beyond. Private sector workers who have accepted paycuts in lieu of losing their jobs certainly didn't have that kind of expectation. And if they did, there was nowhere for them to air their grievances.

Emily Post charaterized etiquette as a sensitive awareness of the feelings of others. This certainly wasn't in evidence during the strike as Torontonians had to haul their own garbage to temporary dumps and then deal with irate union members when they arrived. Parents who had booked and paid for summer programs for their children had to scramble to find alternative arrangements. And sadly, the language, on both sides of the argument was deplorable. In a Toronto Star article entitled, Is Mark Ferguson the most hated man in Toronto, the embattled union leader tells of e-mails he has received saying thinks like, "I hate you with all my heart" and "you are a terrorist". Certainly not an appropriate way of dealing with anger. His retort, that "you might redirect your anger towards the banks, financiers and Wall Street rather than cannibalizing gains made by other working people" is equally inappropriate when those "other working people" are paid by taxpayers.

So, the strike is over and in the next couple of days, we'll find out just how much our Mayor gave on our behalf. While I'm relieved that the thousands of tonnes of garbage currently stockpiled in our city parks will be removed, I wonder if we will still be "putting up with garbage" for years to come.

I look forward to your polite responses.

Friday, July 24, 2009

Are Today's Kids the Rudest Ever?

On vacation last week, I read this story about how today's kids might just be the rudest ever. I'm sad to say that, since both of mine were at that point, banished to their bedroom for exessively rude behaviour, I thought it might be true. I comforted myself with the knowledge that, although my boys had behaved deplorably, the fact that they were, at this very moment, facing the consequences of their actions, meant that they would eventually learn the value of kindness right?

I tend to agree with the author that today's tykes are bolder, more brazen and quicker to offer an opinion than those of earlier generations. When I was little, kids were seen and not heard. This is not necessarily a good thing but I don't recall ever being asked for my thoughts on what we would be having for dinner never mind if a teacher should be challenged for disciplining me. If I came home and told my parents that I had been reprimanded at school, their first question was always the same: "What did you do?" followed by "I'm sure you wouldn't have gotten into trouble if you didn't deserve it". The discussion usually ended there. Today, if a child gets into trouble, many parents act as their lawyer, arranging meetings with the principal, speaking in their defense and brokering agreements.

As the article points out, the self-esteem epidemic that many Gen Xrs and late Boomers have perpetuated with their children can have unintended negative consequences. According to pediatrician Dr. Philippa Gordon, "It may well be that today's parents are so fixated on their children's emotional wellbeing that they're teaching them that the well-being of others is comparatively unimportant." A friend of mine who is a flight attendant, regularly tells stories of youngsters snapping their fingers and barking orders at her while their parents tap away on BlackBerries or read, magazines in the next seat, blissfully ignorant of their child's rudeness or worse still, aware of it and unperturbed.

Years of being told that they are wonderful for simply existing can result in a rude awakening when 20-something grads are thrust into the workforce and find out that they might just be fairly ordinary after all. Dr. Jean Twenge, a professor at San Diego State University writes about this in her book, Generation Me: Why Today's Young Americans Are More Confident, Assertive, Entitled, and More Miserable Than Ever Before. According to Twenge, we have moved from true self esteem, which is based on accomplishments to self esteem based on nothing but narcissism. Is it any wonder, when popular television shows feature young men and women crying on camera because they were eliminated from the opportunity to be the fake friend of a Hollywood socialite who has, despite overwhelming privilege, accomplished nothing with her life?

As a parent of two boys, I work really hard to teach them the importance of manners and respect for other people. But, I probably also tell them I love them every single day, which is a hallmark of my generation of parenting. I hope I'm not giving them too much self esteem. How much is too much?

Thursday, July 23, 2009

Five Easy Ways to Celebrate National Cellphone Courtesy Month

Yes folks, it's that time of year again that I know you've all been waiting for - National Cellphone Courtesy Month. What's that? You weren't even aware that there was such a thing? Well I'm shocked. Surely you don't think that there's no need for it. Perish the thought.

Fellow etiquette expert Jacqueline Whitmore first declared July National Cellphone Courtesy Month in 2002 and sadly, it's still necessary, maybe even more so. Why, just a few weeks ago, President Obama had to interupt a speech because someone's cell phone, with a quacking duck ringtone no less, was going off. If the leader of the free world doesn't merit cell phone etiquette, is there any chance for the rest of us?

Wanna prove that you're not a total cretin when it comes to cell phone use? Here are my five tips for celebrating National Cellphone Courtesy Month. I'm sure you can abide by at least one of them for the rest of July.

1. Turn it off - That's right, I said it. Does it really need to be on all the time? Are you SO important? Next time you go for dinner or to a movie, just turn it right off. I'm not talking about putting it on mute or vibrate. I mean, press that big old red button that turns the screen black and put it at the bottom of your purse or pocket. Your date will thank you.

2. Prioritize real people - A real person, that is one who happens to be standing right in front of you ALWAYS takes priority over a virtual person. Simple as that. If you answer calls, respond to e-mails or send text messages while talking to another human, you are sending a message that they are unimportant to you. And we don't want to do that now, do we?

3. If you must answer... - Okay, I get it. You're so important that there are times you absolutely can't turn off your phone or ignore the beeping. Maybe you're waiting to find out that you've been cast in the latest installment in the Twilight franchise. Or you're about to "bag the elephant" client you've been chasing for months. Just have the decency to let people know ahead of time. Here's how: "I must apologize in advance. I'm waiting for a really important call and might have to answer my phone during our discussion". Simple!

4. Don't trap people - Unless your house is burning down, please try to limit cell phone use in any place where people cannot escape from you. This includes bank lineups, grounded airplanes, elevators and, shudder, bathroom stalls. There is nothing more ingratiating than having to listen to someone drone on in a loud voice about their plans for redecorating the guest room, the trials and tribulations of their love life or their latest "player" exploits. Yes, boastful jerk on the tarmac at Dorval. You know who you are.

5. Ditch the cute ring tones - Especially if the statute of limitations on your eligibility to join a frat house has expired. This is particularly relevant for employees who are looking to broaden their horizons. Nothing says "I'm not ready to be promoted" like Mr. T's voice blaring every time your phone goes off. Of course, if you're at work, it shouldn't really be on...Refer to point #1.