-{Note: For those of you not familiar with this blog, I give fictional names to the places that I’ve lived. Colosse is the large southern city that I was raised in. Deseret is a largely Mormon state out west where I lived in a rural portion of for a few years, living in a town called Zarahemla and working in a town called Mocum. Estacado is the inner-southwestern state that I currently live, living in the decently sized city of Santomas and working in the smaller city of Almeida}-

I stopped by Wendy’s this morning to get a biscuit sandwich and breakfast burrito and for the fifth time in my last seven visits to this particular Wendy’s, they got the order wrong. There’s a McDonald’s on my way to work that gets it right only half of the time, leading me to go a bit out of my way to another Mickey Dee’s that manages to get it right a good 80% of the time. By “getting it wrong” I don’t mean that they forgot to hold the ketchup, I mean that I ordered something and they gave me something else entirely.

One doesn’t generally expect much from barely-above-minimum-wage fast food workers, but living in Estacado has dragged my expectations below the floor. In Colosse it’s not a whole lot better, but in Colosse it’s limited to certain demographics (age, gender, and unfortunately race) that are most likely to work a fast food counter.

In Estacado, though, the problem seems different. The attitude seems to be fine. Employees of all colors and demographic groups are on the whole a lot more pleasant, but far more incompetent. And the incompetence seems to affect all ages, all races, and both genders. Not only is the fast food workforce in Estacado more diverse, but so is the incompetence. So much so that I can’t dismiss bad service as being the product of a bored high school kid or stressed out single mother or whatever. It’s just universal.

To be honest, I never noticed how bad the service back in Colosse was until I got to Deseret five or so years back. Clancy, who arrived in Deseret well before I did, noticed the exact same thing. They get what we ordered out to us relatively quickly and usually with a sunny demeanor. Doesn’t matter whether they’re just out of high school or pushing forty. Doesn’t seem to matter if they’re Mormon or not. Doesn’t even seem to matter if they’re even from Deseret originally. In some ways you’re less likely to get worse service in a service restaurant than you are a fast food joint.

I’ve been pondering why it’s all so different in Deseret compared to Estacado and Colosse and I’ve come up with a theory. In Colosse and Santomas-Almeida, there are a lot of career opportunities available to those that want to take advantage. I’m not talking about easy tickets to the middle class, necessarily, but jobs that pay at least somewhat decently that are leaps and bounds better than fast food or convenience store work. If you cut your professional teeth in customer service, there are a fair number of places that you can move on to once you’ve demonstrated the ability to show up to work sober on a regular basis and (mostly) avoid getting fired or impulsively quitting jobs every couple of months.

The same may well be true in Deseret’s capital city of Gazelem, but once you get out past the suburbs it becomes a different story. To take an example, getting a clerical job with the county or a DMV job with the state is a sign of lacking ambition or desperation in Colosse and Santomas, but working for the government seemed to be a crowning achievement in Zarahemla and Mocum and are thus really difficult to get. With the shifted goalposts, working at a fast food place isn’t nearly the humiliating experience in Deseret that it is more prosperous cities. As such, the types of employees that fast food establishments get out there are several cuts above what they can expect to get here or back in Colosse.

To take another industry, call center employers absolutely love Deseret. Out there they can manage to get well-spoken, reasonably educated and dedicated workers for considerably less than it costs them to get worse employees in Colosse. Some guys I talk to have speculated that there are so many call centers out there because Deseretians don’t have accents. I think they’re wrong, not only because they do have accents (though like midwestern accents they’re easier to understand than other ones) but because I don’t think it’s a matter of accents so much as it is a matter that they can find high school and college graduates that speak so well and have a fair amount of intelligence salivating at the prospect of working for $9/hr.* and much less likely to find a better opportunity elsewhere to move onto.

So that’s pretty much my theory: fast food workers here are the dregs of employable society. Fast food workers there are folks that would be able to take advantage of better opportunities if they live anywhere else.

My wife Clancy has a different theory. She thinks that Deseret is different because of the Mormon work ethic. I’ve commented on the industriousness of Mormons before, but from the lowest positions on up everyone at my job out there was trying to find ways to improve the company even as the company expressed as clearly as they could that they didn’t care what the underlings thought about anything. The same was true to a lesser extent when I worked at a phone bank out there. I’m not going to say that the Mormon employees out there were perfect because they weren’t, but by and large they seemed more intent on making the most of whatever situation they were in than any other group that I’ve worked with.

The Mormons’ family values also often create family structures that are more dedicated to bettering themselves than I’ve seen elsewhere. Though I never attended a Deseretian school, I definitely got the impression that a lot more kids went there to actually learn than elsewhere. I suspect that they managed to create an atmosphere that affected non-Mormons, too, as well as Mormons that would just assume screw around at school. It’s not as much fun being a class clown when few are laughing. Not having gone to school with them, a lot of this is speculation. What isn’t speculation is that by and large people out there that graduate high school manage to actually come out with an education.

Clancy’s theory and mine aren’t mutually exclusive and in fact compliment one another. If the Mormon culture produces a lot of really good workers and the local economy can’t absorb them, you end up with a lot of potentially great employees stuck working in drive-through lines.

As I’ve commented before, if I was the entrepreneurial type and wanted a great place to start a business (and there weren’t some cultural considerations), I’d look pretty strongly at Deseret.

* – I’d be remiss if I did not point to this post, wherein my employer had a candidate that was a thesis away from a masters degree in computer science, taught collegiate classes, had impressive internships, and a good attitude for an entry-level programming job and refused to pay her a penny more than $9/hr. That was less than the other programmers made, but what they determined was the least they could get away with paying her. She took the job and was excited about it.

Category: Market

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4 Responses to Economic Mobility & Customer Service

  1. Peter says:

    One stereotype that exists mainly in the realm of fantasy is the fast-food or other low-end service worker who is bumblingly incompetent yet has such a charming friendly personality that customers don’t mind. In reality, I’ve usually seen a strong direct relationship between incompetence and unpleasantness, in other words the incompetent service workers are usually rather nasty too. Other people I know have had similar observations. For the record, the relationship is relatively weaker in the opposite direction. While most efficient service workers are quite pleasant in my experience, there are some who are brusque and very business-like.

    Your comments about Deseret are a bit surprising. There seems to be a general perception in most parts of the country that the state, for reasons attributable to its religious makeup, is a very prosperous place. It could be because people of that relgious persuasion who live in other parts of the country, especially here in the Northeast, indeed do tend to be well-educated and at least middle class.

  2. trumwill says:

    I wouldn’t go as far as to say that I “don’t mind” when I get back service by a good-natured incompetent, but in the case of service restaurants it helps salvage their tip. I rarely go below 15% if they seem to have a good attitude (Clancy and I both start at 20% and go up and down from there).

    There is a pretty strong correlation though between attitude and performance.

    As for Deseret, it’s a rural/urban thing. I doubt there are many towns of 50k or so (unless they’re anchored to a larger city) that have really good economies. It seems like you need to get to somewhere around 200k or so (like Spokane or Boise) before the good employers will start moving in. In Deseret’s capital city, I’d expect opportunities to be much more plentiful. It’s actually created some conflict because the economic prosperity of that city attracts outsiders that start having an effect on local politics (the capital city’s last mayor was a rather liberal Democrat in the most Republican state in the US).

  3. Abel says:

    The reason wages are lower in Deseret than compared to other parts of the country is the overabundance of well educated people. Deseret has one of the highest percentages of adults with college degrees in the country. This means when looking for work, there’s more equally qualified people ready to do the same job and are just as qualified. Hence the reason some companies get away with paying lower wages.

    This also means that it’s harder for people with an education but little or no real-world experience to move out of lower-level fast food or call center jobs in to something better. (It took me eight months after graduating college to land my first real job. And, yes, I worked in a call-center environment during that time.)

    However, I don’t think the low paying theory holds for workers in Deseret with lots of experience. While job hunting back in November, I ended up with four well paying job offers within a month of being out of work. All in offers were in the suburbs and all paid well above the average wage for workers this state.

    Sure, there were a couple of writing jobs dangled in front of my face where the employer wanted to pay me something like $12 an hour but I laughed at those offers and turned them down flat. There are well paying jobs here for people with experience but getting that experience is sometimes difficult.

  4. trumwill says:

    It could well be that it doesn’t hold as much for those with a lot of experience. Even in more rural areas having worthwhile experience will get you in the door of the relatively few good employers available and employers like mine would pay better the higher up the food chain (I assume, I never saw numbers).

    You’re right about the abundance of degreed people. Even those without degrees, though, seem to come out a lot better than high school graduates in the other places that I’ve lived.

    A lot of it is going to come down to whether you’re in the more urban or rural parts of the state.

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