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Hold the phone, this ain't great service

Call that service? A smartphone addiction is not a good look.

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.

17 comments so far

  • Every company should have a clear policy about BYOD (bring your own device) to work.
    This will help to clearly set the boundaries, and help both employees & employers to know what is acceptable behaviour in the Workplace.

    Date and time
    October 02, 2012, 11:29AM
    • I notice my tutors at uni can't get through the tutes with checking their smart phones every ten minutes. It's only the gen Y tutors though. The older ones don't do it.

      Date and time
      October 02, 2012, 11:48AM
      • Staff are as rude as managers and owners allow them to be. Don't worry about bad service, let them go broke and let the market do its job. Smart owners and managers will watch and work with staff, others will not. And if you allow students to read in your class, then it is apparently okay for you. You should not HAVE to teach them manners, but if you do not hold people accountable, why should they change?

        Rick Blain
        Date and time
        October 02, 2012, 11:54AM
        • Its not just face to face customer service that is bad. I buy online both in Australia and overseas. A few weeks ago (6th of September) I bought an air mattress from Rays Outdoors online. I waited two weeks then called their customer service line. I was told that the store (which was a local store mind you) did not process my order (the money was already taken out of my account) I was reassured that it will be sent from another store. I waited another week and still no parcel. I called customer service again this time I told them that I am not happy and will be telling people not to buy from them etc. I was again reassured it will be sent. I hung up. Then I received a phone call from head office. A miracle happened. Two days later my parcel arrived. I told the delivery driver what happened and he said to me that it happens all the time with Rays Outdoors. As I said before I order online from overseas. I have ordered things from USA and got the parcel a week later (even passing customs). I now buy online from overseas!

          Death to Australian Companies
          Date and time
          October 02, 2012, 1:12PM
          • My last five customer service experiences.

            1. Asked for sweetcorn cob forks in Tony Rama's. Was told 'we don't have them, eat it with your hands'. Wow. Now i'm told 'how' to eat your food as well as overpaying for it!

            2. Brother asked for mustard on his sandwich in Subway Rottonest. Came the reply 'i didn't ask you if you wanted sauce yet'. That was bad enough but the same again happened 10 seconds later when he asked 'for onions'. I told my brother he should have mirrored the language when asked for payment.

            3. Having a meal in Aviary. As i was mid way fork-to-mouth. Waitress removes half of our table to give to another 4 people who had lingered for a full 2 minutes and 30 seconds seeking a table to sit at. Sheesh! Could've waited at least until we were finished our meal. No wonder it receives a paltry 36% positive recommendations on

            4. McDonalds. Asked for no pickle and she failed to understand. Was subsequently given a big mac, with yep you guessed it! No BURGER! How dumb do you want to be?!?

            5. Home parcel deliveries. Took a day off to wait for a parcel. Nope. The delivery guy just writes up the card. Doesn't even bother pushing the buzzer to your flat. Waste of time!

            My worst was being passed around on the phone, for 2 hours, around call centres in India, Phillipines, Bangladore, Pakistan and Chile when all i wanted was to speak to someone about why my broadband wasnt working. Thanks Telstra! You've yet to figure out customers leave because of that.

            Liam B
            Date and time
            October 02, 2012, 1:13PM
            • Be pleasant and helpful first time round. Voice your concern second time round. Start looking to change on the third episode.

              Discount the above advice if the series of HelpDesk problems occur over several years ;-)

              New England Region
              Date and time
              October 02, 2012, 2:41PM
              • how sad that anyone cannot be without their smartphone for 10 minutes, half an hour, and heaven forbid, a whole hour or two, oh my god ! disaster ! Staff should be working, and if you're working in a customer service place like a cafe, get rid of the phone. How pathetic, make clear workplace rules. I had the same happen to me in a large office supply franchise store in Mosman, Sydney. I left the stuff on the counter and walked out, won't go back there. It's rude and lazy.

                phone user
                Neutral Bay
                Date and time
                October 02, 2012, 4:34PM
                • Heh, I found a good way to deal with that. Last time I was in a shop where the sales assistant was busy fiddling with her phone instead of helping the customers, I asked her for her mobile number. She looked all shocked and startled and asked why and I replied, "Well, you seem far more interested in playing with your phone than helping anyone so I figured perhaps it would be easier if I just stood here and texted you my question."

                  Date and time
                  October 04, 2012, 9:52AM
              • It is more difficult to manage staff these days. There isn't a lot can be done about poor performers or staff who would rather text. I suggested once that a junior should read the original study before treating someone and was accused of bullying. Does tend to make you just let it ride.

                Date and time
                October 02, 2012, 8:59PM
                • When in any sort of employment these days, whether it be casual or otherwise, I give about as many hoots about my boss or business's welfare as they give about me - which is more often than not, zero hoots. And I expect that a great number of young casual workers would feel the same way. Workers, I imagine, are sick of hearing about how valuable they are, and then being treated like disposable gloves. Checking smartphones etc is fine, if you don't care about your job too much. Workers will stop doing it only when it costs them money, which is exactly the same motivator that drives bosses to treat their employees in the way they generally do - with disdain.

                  Bill Bergman
                  Gold Coast
                  Date and time
                  October 03, 2012, 7:51AM

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