The No-Service Sector

Sometimes it seems as if there’s not a whole lot of service coming from the so-called service sector.

Take health care.  The people who work in the health care field like to say they’re part of the service sector.

They lie.

Oh, sure, what they offer is a service, but in many respects, the health care industry is about as un-service-oriented as any you’ll find.  Anyone who’s ever tried to get a medical appointment at a time when they don’t have to be at work can attest to this.  Anyone who’s ever tried to get help during what they consider to be a medical emergency of some kind can attest to this as well.  Your idea of a medical emergency, you quickly learn, is not exactly your doctor’s idea of a medical emergency (dentists seem to be a notable exception).  When economists complain about overuse of hospital emergency rooms, they show naïve ignorance of the simple reality that there are times of the day and times of the week when the ER, even if it’s not the ideal place to go, is the only game in town.

Here’s an example.  The Curmudgeon’s baby sister fell at work recently.  She went to the ER, where they took an x-ray, said there were no breaks, put her foot in a combination soft cast and splint, and told her to see her orthopedist as soon as possible.

If only it were that easy.

Over the next forty-eight hours she called her orthopedist four times and never received a return call.  The fifth call finally was the charm, and it landed her an appointment – in two weeks.  Considering that both feet still really hurt and she could barely walk, even with the aid of crutches or a walker – one foot was still in the soft cast/splint and the other had turned almost entirely black and blue – she didn’t think waiting two weeks was such a good idea, so she called her family doctor for a suggestion.  The family doctor recommended an affiliated orthopedic practice and gave her its phone number.

Which The Curmudgeon’s sister used to make an appointment – the very next day.  Not two weeks away.  Not one week away.  The next day.

Guess who now has a new orthopedist?  (And yes, her urgency was justified.  The new doctor took fresh x-rays and discovered two breaks that the hospital missed ­– and how that happened, and how The Curmudgeon’s sister managed to visit a hospital emergency room and never be seen by a doctor, is a story for another time.)  And guess how many eyebrows were raised in the old orthopedist’s office when sister handed them a form seeking the release of her records to her new orthopedist – a form on which she had written that she had an emergency, you guys didn’t return my calls, and you weren’t there when I needed you, so I’m going to go to someone who was there when I needed him?  And guess who lost a real cash cow, because sister has a few chronic orthopedic problems that necessitate fairly regular office visits and is almost certainly going to need a (highly lucrative) knee replacement in the next few years?  And guess who will be bringing other family members along with her to that new orthopedist?

Or consider The Curmudgeon’s attempt this summer to purchase and arrange for installation of a ceiling fan in his home.  He made his purchase at Home Depot because the company advertises installation services.  He bought the fan, took it home, and left information with the store staff about how an installation subcontractor could contact him; he was told he would hear from the installer within forty-eight hours.  Forty-eight hours after the forty-eight hours by which time the installer was supposed to call, The Curmudgeon called the store, and later, after finding the store unable to help, contacted the company headquarters by email as well.  He still received no call from the installer, whom The Curmudgeon also had twice called directly himself.  The Curmudgeon called again, and finally the installer returned his call – but said he was on the road and didn’t have his schedule with him and would call as soon as he got home.  That was five months ago, and The Curmudgeon still hasn’t heard from the guy.  The Curmudgeon returned the fan to Home Depot, purchased another fan at Lowe’s, and could not have been more pleased with the service he received there.

Just recently, The Curmudgeon ate a late breakfast and was out running errands and decided on a late lunch, so he repaired to a Wawa convenience store.  For readers who don’t know Wawa, it’s generally a terrific convenience store:  clean, good service, professionally managed, good selection, quality products, reasonable prices.  The Curmudgeon’s often thought that if a 7-Eleven owner or executive ever walked into a Wawa, he surely would hang his head in shame.

At the time of The Curmudgeon’s arrival the store was completely empty – not a single customer in sight.  Two cashiers stood behind their registers, talking quietly, and one person behind the sandwich counter was taking advantage of the lull in business to do some cleaning.  The Curmudgeon approached and asked for a chicken salad sandwich.  The guy pointed to a computer terminal.

“You have to enter your order in the terminal,” he said.

“But there’s no line,” The Curmudgeon replied.  “There’s no one here.”

“You have to enter your order in the terminal,” the man repeated.

The Curmudgeon left the store and found lunch elsewhere.

Whether it’s a doctor or a home supplies store or a restaurant or a retail establishment or an auto service center or anywhere else, like the barbecue establishment near The Curmudgeon’s home that has been out of his two favorite dishes on about half his visits over the past year (“You should call ahead to see if we have it,” the woman behind the counter suggested.  “Call ahead to see if you have what’s on your menu?” The Curmudgeon asked), a lot of people want our business but not that many are interested in earning it.

In The Curmudgeon’s neighborhood, to cite one final example, there are numerous family-owned convenience stores and takeout restaurants (as he noted in a previous post, fifteen Chinese restaurants alone within a ten-minute drive, and certainly at least as many pizza places) that routinely fail to extend a simple “thank you” when The Curmudgeon hands over his money when he makes a purchase.  The first time that happens, The Curmudgeon is annoyed but remains silent.  When it happens a second time, The Curmudgeon is annoyed and says “You’re welcome” in a firm voice before leaving the establishment.  And when it happens a third time, The Curmudgeon asks to see the owner or manager and quietly – or, if met with indifference, sometimes not-so-quietly – explains why he’s never patronizing the establishment again.

After all, he is a curmudgeon.

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