A little extortion to set you on your way, sir

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 10 December, 2000, 12:00am
UPDATED : Sunday, 10 December, 2000, 12:00am

'HAVE A NICE DAY,' said the Las Vegas taxi driver shortly after I arrived in the United States. It was the first time I had actually heard someone use the cliche at the heart of America's much-vaunted service culture, but it came hissed through clenched teeth, and underpinned with a marked tone of sarcasm.

Seconds earlier I had been struggling to open the heavy rear door of the hulking Chevrolet Caprice. When asked if he could kindly free the central locking device, the driver turned down a blaring car radio, calmly turned around and said: 'It is customary to tip in Las Vegas.'

It was only after I produced a couple of dollar bills that the doors suddenly sprang open - showing that nothing beats a little extortion to get your tourist's day off to a good start.

As a relative newcomer, it has been a fascinating experience to test one's prejudices and misconceptions against the realities of life in America at the start of the new millennium. The service culture myth, alas, was one of the first to be shattered. Whenever Asian countries suffer a downturn in tourism, there is a marked tendency to bash themselves over the head about the need to improve the whole service ethic. 'Why can't we be more like America,' is a phrase sometimes heard. Well, America is not all Disneyland.

After five years of travelling professionally around Southeast Asia, I am constantly struck by how well even ordinary service in the region's shops, hotels, cafes and markets compares with that in the United States - notwithstanding the greedy cabbies of Jakarta and Hanoi. A night's stay in a cheap, run-down Laotian family-run guesthouse tends to offer far superior service to a billet in an American chain hotel that costs substantially more.

Don't get me wrong, there is some superb service on offer in the US. More often than not, however, in the Land of the Free you very definitely get what you pay for. In Los Angeles, a more hard-bitten town than most it has to be said, it is not unusual to see diners in restaurants palming over fat tips at the start of the meal to ensure decent service. In Manhattan, where the hipper establishments make a point of turning away anyone who does not fit their target clientele, many top-line joints are, in the words of one local restaurant critic, 'about as welcoming as a guillotine'.

Waiters, working to the strictest of timetables for moving people on, often plonk a bill down halfway through a meal, frequently pulling it from a notebook stored disconcertingly down the back of the trousers. They linger only while the cash is being handed over. Then you will hear the only pleasantries you will receive all evening.

Talk to local retailers and hotel managers and a steady chorus often develops, whether it is in Washington or Florida. They throw their hands up and exclaim: 'It is the staff you know. You just can't get good help these days.' And if you do manage to get someone decent, they add, it is a struggle to keep them.

Certainly there is something in this. After nearly a decade of stellar, record-shattering growth and unemployment at its lowest level in a generation, there are many low-level jobs that ordinary Americans now shun. In their place are struggling newly arrived immigrants or a hard core who, to put it politely, have motivational problems.

It is not uncommon to find yourself in long queues at airports, bus counters or even small shops. Often, a lone new but harassed employee is nervously battling with a computer or cash machine.

At the root of the problem is a corporate culture that is often a byword for commercial cynicism. In an increasingly automated, just-in-time world, dealing with a large chain or public utility can be an exercise in coldness and frustration. You quickly learn they operate on an all-front basis, creating a vast facade of smiles and service through advertising and promotion - while paring actual staff down to the bone.

You discover this if you have a specific problem that requires a personal touch to solve. After perilously negotiating with computerised voices and push-buttons, you finally end up in a waiting queue for an operator. This can literally take 30 to 40 minutes and sometimes you are cut-off, having to begin the process again. While you are on the line holding (and trying to keep your blood pressure below stroke level), your nerves are constantly jangled with soothing recorded messages such as: 'Acme cable just wants to remind you that you are a truly valued customer.' So valued, in fact, that they give you a machine to talk to.

Running into a problem with a cable-television company recently, it took a week of trying to finally get through to an operator. Then, after several more days of waiting for a serviceman, I realised the only way to get some definitive action was to troop-off to the company office itself. 'You should really call our customer-service hotline,' came the response. Tempers were raised but, after a few more days, the matter was resolved.

Even the famed - and often gracious - 'Southern hospitality' is feeling the pressure. One of an army of correspondents staying in Tallahassee, Florida, to cover the electoral crisis, I found myself looking for a room as tens of thousands of sports fans converged on the old southern town for a big local football match.

Heavily booked, my chain hotel was keen to get me out by noon at the latest, slipping a most polite yet alarming note under the door: 'We apologise for any inconvenience caused. We therefore invite you back to a complimentary lunch or dinner at the hotel next week. Please be advised that if you have not vacated your room by the requested time, the police will be summoned to assist us in removing your belongings.'

Greg Torode is the Post's Washington correspondent