A few of my favorite things

On Facebook I recently posted my annoyance with people who seem to require five or more feet of space around them while waiting in lines. I see this regularly in coffee shops, convenience stores, and ice cream shops. In the case of this last one, I saw a person next in line who was so far from the actual counter, they might have been a passer-by. Then, the person next behind him was so far away that he seemed more likely to leave than to order. Other patrons were glared at for cutting in front of them, while it was the spatially challenged who were acting oddly. I can understand this distance in a bank or pharmacy where personal information is being exchanged. Your selection of skim milk in your triple shot latte? Not so much.

waiting-in-lineI sometimes devote my annoying wait-times thinking about fixes for these glitches in spatial protocols. Sometimes the business itself also attends to them. For example, Amtrak lines in the Milwaukee Intermodal station have been helped in the past six months by the use of pathways created by those black standards roped off with retractable tapes. This approach to guiding people has not completely eliminated the wasted space caused by people who require a wide berth, but it has been improved significantly. The lines now stretch to the door, but are not winding around past the building entrance.

More frequently, however, issues with lines are addressed by businesses through a clerk’s tone of voice while saying, “Next in line!” in such a way as to convey their confusion, frustration, and annoyance in the lack of common sense that they see. While these exchanges improve the situation for the next customer or two, the fix rarely sticks, so the tone is often heightened in the following, “Next!”

Not too long ago I encountered a different problem in the line for the cafe at the Milwaukee Art Museum. This popular eatery is often challenged by lines of customers in which there are reservation holders mixed with other more spontaneous would-be diners. When the line includes strollers, walkers, and wheelchairs, and extended families requiring multiple tables, the hallway becomes bloated and uncomfortable. The usually attractive stroll to the restaurant through the curved hallway becomes so unappealing that many people leave before finding that there are indeed available tables. This problem persists independent of which host is on duty. There is no system that organizes the mess.

The line for a table at Cochon Volant in Chicago is a different issue in many ways. While this popular eatery is often noisy and crowded at lunch, the line has more to do with the inattentive hosts than it does with popularity. There are often two hosts at the reception kiosk, but these seem more interested in their social conversations than in their guests. Once I interrupted their ongoing update on their sex lives to ask how my table was coming. Their looks of shock are truly memorable, like that expression you see on someone’s face when they realize you can hear their shouted cell phone exchange while seated next to them on a train.

The point of my writing about my apparent criticism of these customers and service staff is that my focus on these situations has allowed me to engineer some possible changes to improve outcomes. I know that my attention just screams entitlement and old white guy crankiness. While some of that is likely present, my attention prompts me to come up with possible solutions to things that irritate many of us. Unlike many other people whose patience is tested, I rarely get upset with servers or line staff.

When I have observed these challenges, I notice that there is rarely an active manager present. When one is around, he or she appears to be irritated with his staff or frustrated by customers. When striking up conversations with workers, I learn that they have not been trained, their compensation is substandard, and their working conditions are hostile.

Corner BakeryThere are many places, however, where service is great and managers lead the way. For example, I frequently stop at the Corner Bakery adjacent to Union Station in Chicago where the help is prompt, pleasant, and effective. The customers stand in line and often exchange pleasantries because the whole place displays hospitality. The counter help is bustling and smiling. The length of their friendly exchanges with customers is proportionate to the length of the line waiting. Staff who deliver your food to the table greet everyone again and show interest and enthusiasm missing from places like Cochon Volant. Why all of this enthusiastic care at Corner Bakery? The staff who are hired are likely solid workers when they come on board, but the manager is constantly helping out and cheering them on with positive regard and support for their high-paced tasks. From changing coffee filters, wiping up a spill, or adding a punch line for one of their jokes, he sets a tone of teamwork and service.

Ace Hardware stores and some Boston Market eateries also display an enthusiasm for the work and their customers. In both I have watched with fascination the clear affection that managers and staff have for each other.

Funny how liking people actually shows.

2 thoughts on “A few of my favorite things

  1. I’ve experienced this phenomenon as an employee. When I was a pastor, the supportive members kept me going even in less than ideal personal circumstances. When I worked at Starbucks, our manager was very interested in our lives and we joked around. When I worked for the church, our priest often thanked us for our work and sat down to have coffee all together during the work day. Working for 911, it’s so clear that our management wants all of us to succeed and do well.


  2. Oh – and one more thought – because of the kindness and support of the managers/employers, I was willing to go above and beyond for the good of the organization. In other situations where it felt difficult, eventually I couldn’t go above and beyond anymore because I was so uninspired and the situation felt so toxic.


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