10/02/2012 08:47 pm ET Updated Dec 02, 2012

Dial 2 for Travel: The Lost Art of Customer Service

The other day, while contemplating a trip to Big Sur, I contacted an organization that is commonly associated with roadside service, and asked for their travel agency department. After surfing a menu of possible extensions, I was told to "dial 2 for travel."

As an eternal optimist, I thought, "What a relief. At least I'm not getting music on hold," but then it occurred to me that I had a simple question, and no, maybe I didn't want to sit around waiting for a call back, maybe I didn't want music on hold, maybe I wanted a live voice, so I called back, and dialed "O" for operator.

You already know that about 30 percent of the time that one dials "O" for operator, one may find oneself properly seated in the operator's mailbox. I didn't know about you, but when this happens, I usually hang up. This time, a woman answered the phone. I told her that I got voicemail at 10 a.m. on a Monday morning in their travel agency department, that I have been a member of their roadside assistance organization for many years, and never call. When I call, I expect someone to answer the phone, so the operator asks me to hold (a skill with which I have great acumen. After all, where would we be without a speaker phone?). Suddenly, I'm transferred and another female voice answers the phone and asks me what I want. "I'd like a travel guide, please." "Oh," she says, snarky, "you could have asked the operator for that. Well, I'll put one in the mail for you, but it'll take a week or so to reach you, so you can pick it up." A week or so? It's going two miles. A week or so?

After that charming telephone exchange, I went to the local supermarket. In my town, one has a choice of only one supermarket chain -- several locations, but one chain which greatly simplifies 30-second television commercials: "Come see this week's savings at Roger's. This week, cereal is on sale for $5 a box."

I needed apple sauce and, needless to say, none of the signs designated where one could find canned goods only "vegetables." Apple sauce is not a vegetable. As a Martian might, I walked around the market looking for someone who works there who might help. To my chagrin, I found that the only place in the entire market where one could find anyone to help was at the cash register. Yes, when it comes to taking your money, they're not short-handed, so I dutifully waited on the express line to ask the cashier where the apple sauce was. "On Aisle 5," he said perfunctorily, and to Aisle 5 I went.

I must have walked back and forth on the aisle about four times, each time thinking I'd missed something, and to no avail, so I went back to the same cashier and said "There is no apple sauce on Aisle 5," to which he replied "What's the matter? Can't you reach the top shelf?" angrily. My response: "There is no apple sauce on the top shelf."

At this point, whatever token patience I had exhibited previously was completely lost. I yelled out, "What does it take to get someone to help you in this place? You charge top dollar, yet you don't deliver service," and a frail, elderly woman walked over to me and said "I'll help you." The sweetest thing I'd heard in a long time, but what a sad commentary on the state of customer service.

Before I knew what hit me, a worker at the market came over to me panting, and out of breath. "What are you looking for?" he said. I would have said "the Holy Grail," but it would have gone over his head. "Apple sauce," I said. "Oh, that's on Aisle 9." "Aisle 9," I shouted, "the cashier said it was in Aisle 5."

Not only doesn't anyone know what they're doing, but they don't care. That's the bottom line. Doing business in America, or California more likely, means having to work around everyone's break, lunch hour, gone for the day, out sick. Customer service is a lost art.

One more little story. Last week, I went to buy a dress for a party, and when into this fashionable boutique in downtown Walnut Creek. I didn't want to spend a small fortune, but I did want something that would look good on me. In the corner of the store, I saw a cluster of young women, all under 30, apparently cracking jokes and giggling. I approached one of them and asked politely, "Excuse me, do you work here?" She turned, sprang on me like a tiger, clearly irritated and said, "Yeah, what's up?"

What's up? What's up? What's up is that I wanted someone to help me find a dress that might look good on me and be perfect for the occasion for which I was buying it. What's up is I want someone to do a little work. I later found out that this young lady was the store manager.

You want to know what's up? I'll tell you. A large part of the problem is that the minimum wage, or slightly above it, is what these stores, and roadside assistance chains are paying their workers. Of course, they don't care about their jobs. You get what you pay for. If management is going to pay their workers in nickels and dimes, they will deliver nickel-and-dime service.

In many cases, they're having to work two or three jobs. As we've seen from Ron Paul to Rick Perry, and down the line, the GOP would like to end the minimum wage which means these same workers will have to work four or maybe five jobs, and have even less of an investment in their jobs.

At Wednesday night's first presidential debate, I hope that, among the many questions moderator Jim Lehrer has prepared to ask, is: "What are your views on the minimum wage?" Not only does Mr. Romney need to explain what "tax holes" he intends to eliminate, but he also has to account for his party's views on eliminating the protection of a wage which doesn't even begin to compensate unskilled labor for their services. Unless, and until, a living wage is available to all workers, regardless of their education and skills, we can kiss customer service goodbye.