It happens every summer at the beach.
Crowds come, they spend lots of money, and then they leave.
For those of us who live here, the summer crowds are a bit of a mixed blessing.
They provide many of us with a large chunk of our yearly wages; in many ways they make it possible for us to live here year-round. Many of the businesses we love to patronize in January couldn't stay open all year if it weren't for their summer customers.
But those same folks clog the roads, the beaches and the stores. Simple trips to the grocery store turn into major tactical manuevers during "peak season."
While it may be understandable that tempers flare occasionally during summer's height, some behaviors I've witnessed in recent weeks are downright inexcusable. And I'm not talking about the tourists. I'm talking about the people who earn their paychecks serving our visitors.
One of the things I love about Sussex County is the friendliness of the people who live here. Unfortunately, though, that friendliness is missing from some of the businesses I've patronized over the past several weeks while playing "tourist" with visiting relatives.
At one restaurant, my family was forced to wait close to an hour for a bill, which was delayed by a computer problem. The wait was causing us to be stuck at a restaurant that was rapidly turning into a nightclub because of the lateness of the hour and we had four kids with us. Instead of being solicitous of us and trying to resolve the problem, the staff treated us like WE were the problem. At one point, a frazzled waitress called in bouncers when my father asked to talk to a manager "pronto".
Suffice it to say a really nice evening was ruined by the inability of the restaurant's staff to deal with a problem and by a total absence of that friendly Sussex County attitude.
That same week, my eight-year-old daughter was treated extremely rudely by an employee of a jewelry store she was visiting with her grandmother. When my daughter asked the price of a tennis charm, she was told it was too expensive for her (in between the woman's obviously non-business-related phone conversations).
Even at such a tender age, my daughter was offended, and recognized the lack of customer service. "I may not be able to afford it, but my Pop-Pop can and he likes to buy me stuff," she said. Way to go, kiddo. I'll bet her Pop-Pop won't be shopping in THAT store.
I've been writing about businesses as part of my job for about 20 years. Since moving to Sussex County more than seven years ago, I've become pretty good at recognizing businesses that probably won't be around to serve the next tourist season.
There's a lack of focus, an absence of that spark in the proprietor's eyes that tells me all I need to know. What amazes me still, though, is how some businesses seem to survive in spite of the inability of their staffs to impart basic customer service. They seem to figure that it doesn't really matter how they treat their customers; new ones will always be right behind them.
I have to believe, though, that one day those businesses will have offended so many customers that they'll start to feel the chill their customers have felt.
The thing is, in a resort area, the failure of one business to treat its customers well refects on the whole area. Our businesses need to think of themselves as ambassadors, representing the whole area to our visitors.
Whether your help is from Sussex County, or Baltimore, or Croatia, you as the business owner need to impart to them the importance of customer service. Because once the summer's over and your summer help has gone, you'll be the one dealing with the damage caused by the negative experiences of your customers.
Of course, tourists aren't always the easiest customers, and sometimes they're amazingly clueless. I'll never forget one rainy afternoon in a gift shop. Two small boys were chasing each other through the store, using rolls of gift wrap as swords. As the owner politely asked the boys' father to rein them in, he shrugged and said "What are ya gonna do? It's raining."
In an ideal world, of course, visitors would have the ability to imagine what it would be like to work in a resort. Here's a tiny glimpse based on some recent conversations I overheard. On a recent Friday night at the beach, we visited a book store, where employees were courteously ringing up customers' summer reading materials. One employee said to the other: "I think if it's nice tomorrow, I'd like to go to the beach. I haven't been to the beach in about a month." Now, mind you, she was working in a store that couldn't be more than 100 yards from the high water line.
It's a fact that those who cater to the tourists don't get much of a chance to enjoy the same surf and sun that brings all the folks here. And most of us have had experiences with family members who don't quite grasp the concept that we're not on vacation when they are. The other day I heard a woman in the grocery store complaining about the person who had opened her home for this woman to enjoy. "I told her," she said, "if you feel you have to work, then that's your choice, but I'm coming and I'm bringing my whole family."
Wouldn't you love to have THAT woman as a houseguest? I'll bet she even brought a half-eaten bag of chips to contribute to the table.
I still don't like those bumper stickers that say, "Some of Us Aren't On Vacation." Or the new one that says, "Next Year, Vacation at the New Jersey Shore". I think they are, well, a little rude and very inhospitable.
But more and more I understand the sentiment. And the more I experience some of the wretched customer service some businesses offer our guests, the more I think we should turn those slogans into calls for better service.
After all, the tourists will be gone in a few weeks. Those of us who live here and patronize these businesses (well, the ones that are open more than four months out of the year) will still be here. And we will be sure to tell our visiting friends and relatives just where we've been treated well -- and where we have not.
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