Service and inequality

On Facebook, an intelligent and conscientious person criticized Moscow upmarket food store “ABC of Taste” for certain excessive services, which, in his opinion, highlight inequality and exploitation. Service quality is dear to my heart, so I would like to separate the complex issue of inequality from simple truths about customer service, staff motivation and competencies of managers.

“The packing service enrages me by its excessiveness”

At the cash desks of a fancy food store “ABC of Taste”, packers put purchases into customers’ bags. Most packers are migrants from Central Asia. The author of the Facebook post says the job is humiliating and the store exploits migrants who cannot find a better job. At not-so-fancy “Dixi”, the same author continues, workers, also migrants, are quite relaxed and joke with customers about mouldy tomatoes. Such attitude of staff is comforting and makes one think that the unpretentious mass market store is more human. In fact, there are three themes here: inequality, service quality and competence of business administrators.

The service in one-storey America

On customer service, I have not yet come across anything better than observations collected in “The One-Story America” by Soviet writers I.Ilf and Y.Petrov’s. In America, they wrote in the last century travelogue, it is a pleasure to do your best to please the customer, and a tip the customer would leave is not the main motivator for the server. This tip, an equivalent of a “thank-you”, servers will pass on to others, when they themselves come as customers to shops and bars. Almost an ideal picture, isn’t it, a comfortable world with equal opportunities for all workers.

In Moscow, the city of social contrasts and divided people, the voice of the loader jokingly warning customers against tomatoes comes as a human touch. We miss that in those fat fancy stores where staff is silent and process-focused.

Inequality is in the eye of the beholder

In the early nineties, I went to New York on a short study tour with other post-Soviet Russians. We were told that leaving a tip is a custom in the US yet we felt ill at ease: how to offer? what to say? just leave the money? what if the waiter does not see it and someone steals it? Some of us still felt a tip could offend.

A friend, back in those years, confessed that she could not imagine going to a salon for a pedicure: the picture of one person attending to another’s feet seemed insulting to her. She probably had an association with a shoe-cleaner bent over the boot of a big white bourgeois.

Here is the voice of the post-soviet character sketched by D.A.Prigov, ironic yet sincere: “I am sitting in a restaurant hall // A man serves me // And I think, how strange it is// I am a Soviet citizen// And here I am, like in ancient Rome// Take this away, give me that // How inexhaustible// In humans is the exploitation.”


«ABC of Taste», in my view, makes steps towards the kind of service that softens inequality between different social strata. Softly, they suggest that the server and the served should respect a distance. Here is a sticker on a glass counter: “Give praise, or criticize, or leave a tip ”. Wrapped in a smile there is an endorsement to translate a thank-you into rubles. As if they are saying: “You needn’t take pity, they are adults and they like working here. If you appreciate the service you can leave a tip, if not you can leave a critical comment.”

There are small differences between otherwise identical «ABC»s in my quarter. My preferred store seems to offers more discounts, and employ nicer people, but this may be just my impression. A visible difference is in the way they offer masks and gloves. In my preferred store they are laid on a table at the entrance. “That’s friendly”, I note every time. In another store, masks are sold and gloves, when they were obligatory, were laid at a check-out counter. No matter how many things you already touched in the store, put a glove under the surveillance cameras, the store administration wants to be protected if sanitary controllers come to check the store’s anti-covid measures.

Lack of common sense ruins customer experience. Absurd rules send the message that no one here really cares.

If you can imagine it you can achieve it

Here’s my ideal picture of an ideal future service at the “ABC of Taste”: first, reusable glass cookware containers, which the shop accepts back (like 15 kopeks milk in the USSR); second, job advertisements mentioning something like a trade union for employees.

Good service is not so much about big smiles and “anything customer wants”. The main goal is to create a space where people feel good – employees and customers alike. Administrators and business managers are responsible for that, and a caring attitude towards personnel is as important as process and discipline.

Imagine yourself in their shoes

My former colleagues might remember this story. The management board of the bank where I was responsible for service quality decided to renovate one of the big branches without stopping operations, to keep revenues. “Yes, the rumble and dust will be there, as well as special partitions and curtains”, the board members said, “but of course inconvenience is inevitable. Let the quality management team write an announcement for customers, nice words, with apologies… well, “quality team”, they know well how to spell it.” “Quality team” had a different view. Customers come to branch for 20 minutes but front office staff will sit amidst that dust and ramble all day. A perfect time to invite board members to come to the branch for a “feel and touch” but of course they were not going to come to visit. The team proposed to organise delivery of fruit & vegetable juices to the branch so that employees feel that the bank cares. Moscow service quality manager together with the department for administration and housekeeping elaborated the logistics. Here is the letter sent to the branch: “Dear colleagues, the renovation has started, and it is a serious discomfort for you. Everyone in the bank understands that and sends you a huge “thank you” for your patience. After the renovation, the branch will be all beauty and style. [….] We understand that you will have to work in a difficult environment for a while. To make it a little easier, you will get a variety of juices delivered regularly, to cheer you up with a bit of vitamins. We hope the juices will help you live through the remont!”