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We'll Miss Those Happy Days of Recession : Economy: The service was great. Clerks helped, plumbers came, mechanics fixed--on time, on budget and with a smile.

June 30, 1991|GERALD C. MEYERS | Gerald C. Meyers is a business professor at Carnegie Mellon University's Graduate School of Industrial Administration in Pittsburgh, Pa

It was great while it lasted. After six or seven years of fighting for good service, it arrived with the recession late last summer. The plumber showed up the morning after I called him, permit in hand. My Honda dealer fixed the hidden rattle in my car's instrument panel while I waited, then washed my car without asking and handed me a candy bar--for free. It was incredible, and I don't want it to go away.

But it will, because I hear that the recession has bottomed out. Employment is improving, interest rates are waning and production is trending higher. Prosperity may not be just around the corner, but better times are on the way back. If you ask me, it's a crying shame.

Because the biggest recession dividend is about to bit the dust. We're going to lose good service again. Boarding a half-empty airplane, snagging the seat I love and riding the skies for a ridiculously low fare will be a lost pleasure. The color television I've been planning to scoop up will no longer be a steal. In fact, most prices will begin to climb again.

In the last six months, the fleeting service bonanza even spilled into my office. The copy machine went on the blink on the same day as the electric typewriter. I made one call to each repair shop. The copy repair guy arrived in half an hour and we were back in business in a flash. He left with a cheery wave over his shoulder: no charge, he said, it's all in your service contract. The typewriter guy showed up a little later, charged a nominal sum and stayed to chat.

My landlord's agent also paid me a visit, the first in three years. "So," he said after looking around, "When would you like your office remodeled?"

But I hear times are getting better. So say goodby to low prices, quality products and services. Say so long to attentive sales people and speedy delivery. Once again, service with a smile is about to swap places with surly mediocrity.

Americans love to soak up good service, but no one wants to dish it out. Sure, we can treat the customer like a king, but only when forced to by bad sales or fierce competition. We will court customers when we're hungry, but Americans won't settle for servant status for very long. We'd rather let the customer suffer.

The recession has, of course, created hard times for many people who are out of work or struggling to jump-start a business. For them, this windfall feels hollow. But lower prices and good service are consumer-friendly to all. Dollars stretch further and salespeople treat you like a human being even if they suspect it's your last nickel.

Still, I can't help but reflect on how gracious my architect and his builder were the other day when they met with my wife and I to plan a kitchen remodeling job on our 30-year-old home. They cozied up to us as if we intended to build a castle in Spain. They pored over every detail. They couldn't have been more accommodating in making arrangements and concessions. When can you start? Right away! How long to do it? Two weeks! Will you stand behind your work? Yep, five-year warranty!

Please forgive me if I sound callous or even perverse. But I loved this recession.

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