December 27, 2012
Lessons in Service from Sacramento County Jail


Recently, I had the opportunity to visit the Sacramento County Jail. I was checking on a friendly acquaintance, a homeless man I know who is accused of a relatively minor offense. It's a clean, well-lit place, at least for visitors.

But what I want to address relates to service. And since I spend so much time visiting restaurants and trying to assess how skillfully they serve their customers, I thought it might be revealing to see what we could learn from how our county employees serve the taxpaying public. Hmm, let me think of a single word to describe it. Dismal? Sort of. Rude? Yes, but incomplete. Pathetic? Perfect. Let's go with that.

How does this relate to restaurants? For one, the uniformed officers assigned to greet and assist members of the public visiting the jail, represent our county. That's us. We pay for all this with our tax dollars. And the performance of these officers is a reflection on the Sacramento County Sheriff's Department and the Sacramento area in general. (I would be remiss if I didn't also note that I have seen numerous examples through the years of peace officers and other public employees treating the public admirably).


Restaurants? Yes, if you have new employees and want to give them a 15-minute primer on how NOT to treat the public, send them over to the jail. In fact, the rude, dismal, dismissive, arrogant service I encountered was rather startling. The title of this blog post is actually a pun referring to an exceptionally vivid and detailed book on the topic, "Lessons in Service from Charlie Trotter" by Ed Lawler.

Here's how the jail encounter went:

First, you have to get through the metal detector. I set it off, so the officer minding the machine thought it would be cute to suggest that maybe I have a lighter or inhaler that I had neglected to place in the dish. Hilarious. "I don't smoke," I said as I removed my belt and walked through without making the machine beep.

Unsure of how the system works, I walked up to an information booth enclosed by glass. There were two uniformed officers inside. I approached the glass, and the officer at the front didn't look up. I watched as he took out a thick black marker and slowwwwwlllly drew a vertical line down a piece of laminated paper. Very slowly. I waited patiently. After about 45 seconds, he looked up. And he stared. I looked back and smiled. In the world of good manners, it is customary for someone working at a greeting station to actually say something. You know, greet. Maybe, "Hello." "Welcome" would be a stretch, but it certainly would have worked. I waited for what seemed like a long awkward pause. I'm stubborn that way when it comes to rudeness. "Can I help you?" he finally asked.

I told him I was checking on someone who had been arrested that morning.

"What's his 'X-ref' number? he asked.

"I don't know what an 'X-ref' is," I replied.

He motioned toward a book 20 feet away and told me I would have to go look it up.

"Then, do I come back here?" I asked.

He nodded.

When I returned, I spoke, but the officer, dripping with attitude, didn't bother to turn on his speaker, so I couldn't hear him through the glass. It went on like that. I wanted to inform him that, "Hey, you know I didn't commit a crime, right? I'm a member of the public and part of your job is to serve the public and represent your organization - our organization - in an honorable way." But I didn't. I walked away, disappointed by how it all unfolded. I didn't feel so great about my county and my city. I wasn't expecting much, and the service feel short of those expectation.

How does this relate to restaurants? It's not that big of a stretch. Those restaurants that emphasize customer service and make sure to greet visitors in a prompt, friendly and sincere way immediately have an edge on the competition. They've made the customer feel good. While we've never been treated this rudely at a restaurant, we do encounter folks who like to act busy when they're not, and some who don't have a grasp of basic manners. I still remember the host who was reading a book when we arrived and who apparently wanted to finish a crucial passage before looking up. I recall the host who showed us to our table and then walked away without saying a word. But I remember all the great service and extra-friendly exchanges we've enjoyed through the years. I know it's not easy being "on" all the time, and I admire those who are able to do it - bringing the energy, the friendliness -- with such aplomb.

Treating people well is the foundation upon which everything else in the restaurant business is built. The cool ambience, the creative cooking, the snappy timing all fall apart if a single person in the chain fails to treat the customer properly.

The guy I went to check on is still in jail. He spent Christmas there and he'll ring in the New Year behind bars. I'm not holding my breath that the jail employees will shape up and do better. If they don't, restaurants certainly have a perfect new-employee training ground for how not to treat the public.

Blair Anthony Robertson is The Bee's restaurant critic. Follow him on Twitter, @blarob.

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