Bryson's America: No service today, for your convenience

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OUR TOPIC this week is a feature of modern life that really gets up my nasal passages, namely the way corporations do things to make life easy for themselves and then pretend it's for your benefit. You can usually tell this is happening when the phrase "for your convenience" or "in order to provide a better service for our customers" appears somewhere in writing.

For example, I was recently in a big hotel when I went to get ice, and I traipsed around miles of corridors (possibly, I see now, in a large continuous circle) without finding any. It used to be that there was an ice machine on every floor of every hotel in America. I think it was guaranteed in the Constitution, just above the right to bear arms and below the right to shop till we drop. But there was nothing on the eighteenth floor of this hotel. Finally, I found an alcove where an ice machine clearly had once stood, and on the wall was a sign that said: "For your convenience, ice machines are now located on floors 2 and 27." You see my point, of course.

My objection isn't to the removal of ice machines per se, but to the pretence that it was done with my happiness in mind. If the sign had said something honest like: "What do you want ice for anyway? Your beverage is already chilled," I would have no problem with the situation.

Of course this is not a strictly American phenomenon. Residents of Skipton, North Yorkshire, may recall the morning a couple of years back when an anonymous and unassuming American-born journalist, in a hurry to catch a train, was to be seen hurling himself bodily at the door of the High Street branch of a leading bank and shouting vivid sentiments through the letter slot with regard to a notice in the window that said: "In order to provide a better service, the bank will open 45 minutes later on Mondays for staff training." (The same bank later made thousands of employees redundant and claimed without evident irony that it was "to provide a better service to our customers". One awaits the day when it sacks everyone and stops handling money altogether, at which point its service should be impeccable.)

Still, like most things, good and bad, corporate hypocrisy exists in greater measure here than in most other places. I was in another hotel, in New York City, when I noticed that the room service menu said: "For your convenience, a charge of 17.5 per cent will be added to all orders."

Curiosity aroused, I called room service and asked in what way it would be convenient to me to have 17.5 per cent added to my room service charge.

There was a long silence. "Because it guarantees that you will get your food before next Thursday." That may not be the precise form of words the man used, but that was clearly the drift of his sentiment.

There is a simple explanation for why this happens. Most big companies don't like you very much, except for hotels, airlines and Microsoft, which don't like you at all. I think - though this is a very tough call - hotels may be the worst. (Actually, Microsoft is the worst, but if I started on them I would never finish.) A couple of years ago, I arrived at about 2pm at a large hotel in Kansas City, of all places, having flown in from Fiji, of all other places. Fiji, as you will appreciate, is a long way from Kansas City and I was tired and keenly eager for a shower and a little liedown.

"Check-in time is 4pm," the clerk informed me serenely.

I looked at him with that pained, helpless expression I often wear at check-in desks. "Four pm? Why?"

"It's company policy."


"Because it is." He realised this was a trifle inadequate. "The cleaners need time to clean the rooms."

"Are you saying that they don't finish cleaning any of the rooms until 4pm?"

"No, I am saying the rooms are not available until 4pm."


"Because it's company policy."

At this point I poked him in the eyes with two forked fingers and stalked off to pass a delightful two hours at a shopping mall food court across the road.

Another place to seek out this sort of thing, if you are looking to torment yourself, is airline magazines. Airline magazines nearly always carry a column from a smiling chief executive explaining how something that cannot possibly be considered an improvement - making you change planes in Cleveland when flying from New York to Miami, say - has been done to provide a better service.

My favourite in this vein was a chairman's letter explaining, quite earnestly, that overbooking was a good thing. The logic, as he explained it, was that by making sure all flights were full the airline would maximise its earnings, which would allow it to thrive, which in turn would enable it to offer more and better services. He really appeared to believe this.

I have long suspected that the people who run America's airlines have completely lost touch with reality, and I believe I have now had this confirmed. It was in a report in the New York Times investigating how infrequently airlines serve food on domestic flights these days and how much paltrier that food is compared with yore.

In the course of the article, an official of Delta Airlines, one Cindy Reeds, is quoted as saying: "The public asked us to eliminate the food."

Excuse me? The customers asked not to be fed? Frankly, I find that a little hard to, uh, swallow. A little further on in the article, Ms Reeds explains the airline's line of reasoning: "About a year and a half ago," she says, "we took a survey of a thousand passengers ... and they said they wanted lower fares, so we got rid of the meals."

Well, hold on a minute, Cindy. If you say to passengers, "Would you like lower fares?" and they reply, "Yes, we certainly would," (which is pretty much what you would expect them to say, is it not?) that is not actually the same as their saying: "Yes, we certainly would, and please stop serving us food while you are at it."

But try explaining this, or anything else, to an airline. At least she did not claim that the airline had stopped serving food as a convenience to customers - though perhaps on reflection she should have.

Anyway, in an attempt to provide a better service, I'm stopping here.

`Notes from a Big Country', Doubleday, pounds 16.99