Friday, September 24, 2010

Tradesmen and Civility

Folks representing various trades have been trooping through our house in recent weeks. A young man from WE Energies installed a new thermostat that allows the company to turn off our air conditioner during a power emergency (in return, they take $50 off our annual bill). An electrician spent several hours tracing a circuit to find where we had “lost our neutral,” which is a bad thing to lose if you are fond of electricity. The furnace technician paid a call when the furnace showed no interest in providing heat. Then there is the guy who is replacing our crumbling front stoop, and the tree service that will remove a stressed ash tree before the ash borers get to it. These expensive visits seem to come in waves, which is why it is good to save for a rainy day.

I found myself recalling the popular images of tradesmen in years past, largely shaped by television situation comedies. The plumber would arrive with a cigarette dangling from his lip and track mud across the carpet on his way to the bathroom. His battered truck would drip oil and transmission fluid on your driveway. And he was required by some mysterious plumber’s code to wear pants slung so low that when he bent over the toilet… Tradesmen never came when they were supposed to. Tradesmen were crude and foul-mouthed. Tradesmen needed to be watched like a hawk because otherwise they would attempt to cheat you. When you called a repairman you needed to gird for battle.

I doubt that any of these popular images ever had a lot of truth behind them. But there is clearly a new focus on customer service in the trades these days. All of the folks I mentioned above arrived when they said they would. Several put on paper booties before they entered the house. They carefully explained what they had done and had me examine the places where they found problems. Each was skilled, knowledgeable and polite. They did not leave until they were certain the problem was resolved to my satisfaction.

I suspect the weak economy has something to do with this high level of customer service. Another likely factor is that the companies providing these services have gotten larger as it becomes less viable to work as an independent contractor because of health insurance and other overhead costs. Larger companies can provide training to their employees, including training in customer relations.

I see some of the same thing in retail stores. Cashiers greet me cheerfully and ask “Did you find everything today?” (“No,” I sometimes reply. “I was looking for world peace and quality health care for all the world’s children.” But I lean a bit towards being a smart aleck). Sadly, as cashiers become friendlier and more polite, customers seem to become ruder, yakking on cell phones while completely ignoring the cashier’s presence. Is our society becoming more civil, or less? I go back and forth, although political campaign ads make it hard to build the case for increasing civility.

Every encounter with a fellow human being, whether with an electrician, a cashier or a friend, is an opportunity to share a bit of kindness and joy. It sounds hokey, I admit, but that does not make it less true. Civility is built and maintained one conversation at a time.

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