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Call that service? A smartphone addiction is not a good look. Photo: Peter Braig

Customer service in Australia is bad enough without shopfloor staff being distracted by smartphones and computer tablets. Some seem more interested in checking emails than serving customers.

At a café on the weekend, I struggled to get the attention of a waiter while he played with a smartphone. I wanted to spend money; he was more interested in sending text messages.

I don’t expect fine-dining service when paying $20 for a meal, but neither should a customer have to go up to the counter to ask for something while the waiter busily texts away. And retailers wonder why they are going out of business!

It’s hardly the first time I’ve noticed service slipping due to technology, especially in small businesses that are not as strict on the use of smartphones and computer tablets, such as iPads, at work.

I wonder if this is becoming a bigger problem for retailers whose young staff simply cannot go an eight-hour shift without checking their emails, or sending or receiving texts.

What’s your view?

  • Have you noticed more frontline service staff playing with smartphones during work time?
  • Is this becoming a bigger problem for service organisations?
  • Have customer service standards hit a new low this year, and if so, why?

Perhaps I’m over-reacting to the problem. A few cases of having to attract the attention of staff while they check their phone is hardly a trend and I have not noticed this in big retailers – although with so few shopfloor staff in department stores these days, it’s hard to know.

Staff goofing off at work by using technology is not a new problem. How much time is lost each day in offices because of staff checking websites for personal rather than work reasons? Or checking personal messages/texts on their smartphones or tablet devices?

Mobile technology takes this problem to a new level because it is harder to monitor. And as more people use their technology at work (despite security risks for businesses) the lines between personal and work use are rapidly blurring.

It is worrisome how many people are addicted to their smartphones. As a part-time university lecture, I watch young students dive for their phone as soon as the lecture slows or, to them, gets boring. It only take a one-minute gap to see students texting away with twitching thumbs, or surfing the net on their laptop.

They can’t get through a two-hour lecture without checking/sending text messages, so how could they break their smartphone addiction, work an eight-hour shift, and give their full attention to customers?

Even older adults who should know better check their text messages/emails while talking to you, or having lunch at a café, even though it is unbelievably rude. It’s a shame that concentration and listening are lost arts for so many people, thanks to technology.

It’s easy to blame retailers for this service problem. They should have stricter rules about staff using smartphones/computer tablets in view of customers, and enforce them.

Yet as businesses take advantage of mobile technology, smartphones and computer tablets will become more prevalent as a working tool for frontline staff. Banning these devices is not the answer.

Maybe the real culprit is the casualisation of the workforce and its effect on service. Whatever happened to full-time sales staff who take great pride in their work, maintain high standards, and provide expert, attentive service? Sadly, their numbers are dwindling because they do not get enough recognition and reward.

Staff cutbacks also explain some of this technology-affected bad service. Fewer managers means less staff monitoring, and more employees able to squeeze in a quick text as customers serve themselves.

I’m not sure what the answer is. A clear staff policy about the use of personal devices during work-time is needed, as is some monitoring of work-provided technology.

Making sure staff are always busy is just as obvious. Too many businesses have staff standing around doing nothing because there are not enough set tasks that can be done in slack periods. They don’t encourage casual employees to be pro-active and always looking for work.

Smartphones and computer tablets become a quick fix for their boredom. The result is more customers refusing to pay high prices when bad service makes you want to laugh out loud.