Customer service need only go so far

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Customer service need only go so far


The telephone number for directory assistance is 114, and the greeting by the operator has changed over time from “Hello” to “How are you?” to “You’ve reached the convenient service of 114” to “Welcome.”

Now, when you dial 114, you get one of two greetings. KT’s two subsidiaries are in charge of local 114 directory service, and the KT operators servicing Seoul, Gyeonggi and Gangwon say: “I love you, dear customer.” KT operators for south of Chungcheong greet customers by saying: “I wish you happiness, dear customer.”

Some callers may feel flattered by these well-intentioned greetings. The cynical caller might say: “Why do you love me? We’ve never met.” But what does the operator feel as he confesses his love and wishes happiness to thousands of callers every day?

The 114 operators are not the only ones who have to offer a cheery welcome. Cashiers, waitstaff, salespeople and others engage in this type of emotional labor, offering kind greetings and smiles, regardless of their real feelings.

Long ago, I went to a bar in Tokyo, and the waitress knelt down on the floor as she took my order. I was quite puzzled and asked her if it was not awkward or embarrassing to kneel before her customers. She responded proudly: “It’s my job.” I was impressed with her professional spirit, and it led me to understand that the Japanese believe that the customer is king.

Nowadays, Koreans are known for their hospitality and quality of service. But service has its limits - or it should.

In a survey of 1,700 toll collectors at highways around the country who worked over the Chuseok holiday, commissioned by Grand National Party lawmaker Kim Gi-hyeon, 49.8 percent of those surveyed responded that they had experienced sexual harassment, including physical touching and indecent exposure. Most said they had just put up with the situation, though no worker should ever have to feel this way.

Service workers in Korea have an especially hard time because the Confucian concept of the four castes - scholars and officials, farmers, artisans and merchants - which values hierarchy, clashes with the capitalist concept of labor, which values service and ingenuity over hierarchy.

But some things cannot, and must not, be translated into money. Individual dignity is one of those things. Insults and harassment should never be a part of the bargain.

*The writer is an editorial writer of the JoongAng Ilbo.

By Noh Jae-hyun
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