A Pretty Penny

A pennyI often have to remind myself that the U.S. economy is a service economy because let’s face it, even when only seeking the most mundane assistance…how often do any of us really feel like we’re being served?

Sometimes it’s subtle, like when a post office worker moves at the speed of Dutch elm disease, completely oblivious to those of us waiting in line on our lunch hours.  Or when a sales clerk answers my product questions monosyllabically, seemingly intent on being so unhelpful that I just give up, and go home empty-handed.

Occasionally, however, I encounter customer service that is so shockingly bad – intentional, and carefully calculated – that it deserves its own blog post.

Behold two stories of service so appalling, it was funny:

The first story comes from my friend Jenni, and I know it’s true because you can’t make this stuff up.  On Friday night she was perusing the Comcast website, and a chat window popped up.  Such proactive online chats are generally triggered under two conditions: a website visitor remains on a page long enough to indicate he/she might need help, and there is bandwidth in the customer service center.  It’s pointless for a company to offer chat, if there’s no representative available to be part of the conversation.

When invited to chat, Jenni typed a message, and waited for a response.  She waited, and waited.  After several minutes she sent another message. “Are you there?”  Again, no response.  At this point, she was vexed.  She wrote, “Comcast never fails to disappoint. You initiate the chat and disappear. One more chance.  Are you there?”

The service agent immediately responded “Nope”, and ended the session.

Comcast is notorious for shoddy service.  I’ve received the Comcast treatment myself many times, so I would have thought it impossible for that company to shock me.  But that was bad customer service on a whole new level.

Now, my story.  This morning I battled the holiday crowds in San Francisco’s Union Square.  I had an errand to run at Macy’s, and afterwards stopped at Stanley’s gourmet pretzel cart at the front entrance for a soda.  I was parched, and $1.50 seemed a small priced to pay for relief.

My wallet held a $20 bill, a single and a fist full of change. So that the young woman managing the cart wouldn’t have to break a twenty, I gave her a $1 bill and $.50 in change including five pennies.

Her response:  “Ooh, do you have anything other than pennies?”

I was completely stumped.  Often a cab driver or shopkeeper will be unable to break a twenty or something, because they are running short of change.  But I’ve never, ever had someone balk when I paid the correct amount for an item, no change required.

“I beg your pardon?”

“Well, we don’t take pennies.  We only take nickels, dimes and quarters.”  Or maybe she said, “We don’t work in pennies.”  I was so shocked, I think I lost consciousness for a second.

Was she prejudiced against Abraham Lincoln, and therefore anti-penny?  Unlikely, since I figure she had plenty of $5 bills with Abe’s face on them in her till.

No, she was just a garden-variety penny hater.

After considering, then rejecting, the idea of explaining the term legal tender to her, I did what any sane person would do; I burst out laughing, grabbed my soda and left her the money.

“Sorry about that,” I said.

I think that’s when she swore at me.

I love my hairdresser, Ray.  His salon was my next stop.  I plopped into his chair and immediately told him the story of the penny-hater.  He vowed to stop by her cart on the way home to buy a pretzel…. with pennies, of course.

Likewise, if any of you find yourselves in Union Square before the holidays, please pay a visit to Stanley’s gourmet pretzel cart and spread some cheer — one penny at a time.

And be sure to tell them Kimbo sent you!

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