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Published: Tuesday, January 7, 2014, 12:01 a.m.

About the people who serve us

A New York voice boomed from the back of the long car rental line: "Wha'd they do, lay off half the people?"
One of my thoughts no doubt shared by fellow detainees waiting, waiting at the big-name car rental office at a Florida airport. Behind the desk flashed a screen informing us of the company's very high ratings for customer service. I was not the only one smirking.
The problem was not the quality of the employees behind the desk. They performed nobly under strain, all two of them. It turned out that one was stuck wrestling for half an hour with a glitch in a customer's reservation.
Foul weather up north had forced the cancellation of hundreds of flights and rerouting of passengers to other airports. The customer taking up the agent's time needed to return his car to a different airport than planned. The agent needed authorization from some higher-up, and that was requiring multiple phone calls.
Why wasn't he empowered to do what everyone knew he'd have to do -- and which he ended up doing -- which was make the change? Another question: The weather event was obviously going to unleash travel chaos, so why didn't the company put a third person behind the desk? (Perhaps she was laid off.)
Problems in service are usually the fault of the employer, not the employee. Computers attached to exotic chains of command are intended to cut costs to the bone. But should the slightest thing go wrong, the system falls apart. One could almost hear the others making mental notes to try a different car rental company next time. (I know I did.)
Meanwhile, a woman talked about spending extra hours getting out to New York because her flight was short one flight attendant. The jet was there. The pilots were there. No one could leave because they were down one flight attendant. (The same delay happened to me a few years ago, so it's not unique.) You'd think a big airline operating out of a big airport would have an extra flight attendant in reserve.
Heaven forfend that some worker be unoccupied for 10 minutes during a slack in demand. But that's the thinking of executives who regard workers as a mere weight on their bottom line.
"Many retailers see labor as a cost driver rather than a sales driver and therefore focus on minimizing costs," Zeynep Ton wrote in Harvard Business Review. The article is titled "Why 'Good Jobs' Are Good for Retailers."
As Ton explained, the executive needing to quickly goose profits has no easier route than to get rid of workers or add to their load. The assumption that customers don't notice or care about lousy service is a bad one.
A classic example was Robert Nardelli at Home Depot. He cut jobs and began relying more on part-time workers -- all the while arranging outlandish pay packages for himself. Wonder what that did to the stressed staffers' motivation. Wonder how that changed the quality of employee willing to work there.
Home Depot's stock price swooned along with its reputation for excellent service. Nardelli resigned in 2007 -- with a $210 million severance package, natch.
Services requiring a live human being are best delivered by well-trained, well-paid and empowered workers. In a study of one large retailer, every $1 increase in payroll delivered up to $28 more in sales.
As for concerns that better staffing might raise prices, someone should have asked the exhausted travelers waiting in line for a car whether they'd pay an extra $10 to get one right away. There would have been a stampede.

Froma Harrop is a Providence Journal columnist.

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Jon Bauer, Opinion Editor: jbauer@heraldnet.com

Carol MacPherson, Editorial Writer: cmacpherson@heraldnet.com

Neal Pattison, Executive Editor: npattison@heraldnet.com

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