Dissatisfactory service: Separating the person from the problem?

It happens too often: dissatisfactory service spoils an otherwise satisfactory experience. Given the ubiquity of such events, it probably makes sense to consider our reactions carefully, comparing them against the types of reactions that can make life negotiable. Let’s start by considering two real and recent experiences from my own life:

  1. Last Friday, we arrived in a pleasant and sedate local restaurant, sitting outside and awaiting our waiter’s arrival. Sadly, he didn’t show for ~20 minutes, which with kids might as well be ~20 years. And then, upon the arrival of his royal highness “Andy,” he had no particular comment on his tardiness and showed no more interest in our dinner order than the speck of dust on his shirt. Coupled with the other highlights of Andy’s service—his complete disappearance until well into the second half of the meal, the complete absence of our drink orders even at that point—it seemed pretty clear that this was a problem for which the person was largely if not wholly responsible.
  2. A few weeks back, a local painting company repainted our kitchen. The painter in charge, let’s call him Jose, had immigrated to this country and was obviously working hard to create a better life. And I’ve rarely if ever seen someone trying harder to do that. He focused intensely and exhaustively on his work, his brushwork rivaled the Impressionist masters, he even listened to music about Jesus while working. Was this guy form the same planet as the reprehensible Andy? Unfortunately, Jose made a rather pronounced mistake when moving the fridge. He didn’t lift it off the wood floor nor the staple apparently lying on top of the floor, creating a rather large gouge in the wood. Now here was a problem for which the person wasn’t particularly responsible—a simple mistake that could’ve befallen anyone, and has befallen me.

Faced with situations like these, many people respond in one of three ways:

  1. Ignore the poor service offered by either Andy or Jose, hoping the weekend will get better and the scratch will fade from conscious awareness.
  2. Chew out Andy and Jose to their respective employers if not to their faces, noting the inadequacy of both final products.
  3. Chew out Andy but ignore the scratch attributable to Jose.

Of the three, the third probably looks most appropriate. But the third is still problematic, isn’t it? Because the scratch is still there—the problem persists. So what to do? Situations like these call for a careful assessment of the relationship between the person and the problem. Are they one in the same? In Andy’s case, probably—in Jose’s, not so much. Armed with that insight, you can spend more time separating the person from the problem while dealing with the scratch. And that’s just what I did.

In Andy’s case, I lost no time in detailing his lackadaisical attitude to his manager, who lost no time in giving us a free bottle of wine and coupon, then probably lost no time in chewing out Andy. The person was the problem, so separating them was less necessary. In Jose’s case, however, I applied a very different strategy to the person—this utterly impeachable, even admirable individual who had nevertheless made a mistake. I lost no time in calling his superior, but the call started with a long-winded monologue on the many unimpeachable aspects of Jose and his work—a veritable ode to Jose. Only after establishing Jose’s credentials did I note the issue with the scratch, and only then by labeling it an honest mistake that all of us could easily make. I hope this approach protected Jose’s reputation. I know it corrected the problem, as the painting company offered to fix the floor free-of-charge.

None of this is rocket science, and I don’t pretend it is. I only raise these issues to point out that the relationship between the person and the problem deserves careful consideration when responding. Sometimes, there’s a nearly one-to-one correspondence; other times, there’s little correlation at all. The latter situations require a different strategy—actually two strategies, lest the person get confounded with the problem by your response. And you don’t want that to happen—no way, Jose!

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