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It's a Rude, Rude, Rude World : Hard times and a lack of optimism seem to be chipping away at basic good manners.

August 27, 1992|AURORA MACKEY | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Ahhh. Finally, a commercial that really reflects the times in which we live.

It's a radio spot about the virtues of carrying the American Express card, and it features a visionary Beverly Hills chef who makes a magnificent meatloaf. The chef is asked if he's offended when customers at his tony restaurant slather his culinary creation with catsup.

Offended? Why, this guy probably wouldn't mind if diners sandwiched his delicacy in Wonder Bread.

"I've always thought that the customer should have what he wants," the chef says, "and the way he wants it." Perfect. Isn't this, after all, what service is all about? Especially in these recessionary times, when employees are doing everything they can to keep customers happy and coming back? When, fearful of losing their jobs, they are even more friendly and courteous? When business owners have adopted a bygone era's credo: The customer is always right?

Uh, not exactly.

"If anything, I think people have just gotten ruder," says Cristy Warner, manager of Network Personnel, a placement agency in Ventura.

"You go into stores and they act like they're doing you a favor by waiting on you. You ask for help finding something, and it's like you're bothering them. And people are so nasty on the phone.

"I called an attorney with a big law firm in Los Angeles about a personal matter, and she picks up the phone and goes, 'Yeah?' I was so mad I said, 'You obviously aren't interested in my business' and hung up."

Warner isn't the only consumer who thinks Miss Manners could fill volumes with all the rudeness, crudeness and just plain incivility going on in a lot of businesses these days.

In a highly unscientific poll, conducted recently on a downtown Ventura street corner, passersby were asked to rate the service they have been getting during the recession.

Is there more courtesy? More helpfulness? More of a feeling that their business is genuinely desired and appreciated?

The answer to all three, almost without exception, was a resounding "No."

Snooty salespeople, cavalier clerks, snippy business owners and surly waiters were only a few of the examples customers came up with.

"They stand there talking with people and have no interest in helping you. They look like they're bored and annoyed to have to work there," said Maxwell Fuerth, a retired private investigator who frequently travels north with his wife to escape the summer heat in the San Fernando Valley.

"But Ventura is a lot better than the Valley," Fuerth added. "There, it's like New York."

Siobhan McNair, a 26-year-old waitress whose husband owns a shop in the Buenaventura Mall, said she views customers as "our bread and butter" and does everything she can to make sure they walk away happy. But that attitude, she believes, is becoming the exception to the rule.

"Customer service is really becoming a lost art," she said. "I went to a store here and tried on a pair of expensive shoes that were too big, and the salesgirl said, 'So, you gonna buy them or what?'

"You either get that kind of attitude, or people who act like you're wasting their time if you ask them something. Unless you're dressed like you have a lot of money, they don't pay any attention to you."

Particularly irksome to many older customers are the younger, often teen-age or twentysomething employees who appear to be on the job in body only. Their biggest job perk, their demeanor suggests, is the company phone.

"I waited 20 minutes in line for a cup of cappuccino, while this girl talked on the phone about what her plans were for that night," said one fortysomething Ventura man who recently relocated from the East Coast. "Then, when she got to me, she acted as if we had some relationship going. She wanted to engage me in a conversation."

Customers, it should be noted, aren't the only ones with stories of ill manners to tell. To hear some merchants and employees, it's usually the people walking into their stores who cast the first stone.

"I'll tell you why some people get treated rudely," said Michelle Farnell, owner of a women's fine clothing store in downtown Ventura. "It's because the recession has made a lot of customers more rude, and they bring it on themselves."

Farnell said she has watched women bring babies into her store who proceed to pull clothes off the rack. She has seen women drop garments on the floor and walk over them. She has seen her salesclerks walk up to customers and ask politely if they can help with something, only to be treated as if they had a disease.

"They act like you have to put up with it," Farnell said. "I've actually had people say, 'Surely you must realize you're a small business and this is a recession.' They try to intimidate you."

Restaurant employees say they have witnessed a similar attitude among customers.

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