What is it about the phrase ''Service is our business!'' that sends shivers down a customer's spine? ''Service is our business!'' has become one of those promises - like ''Absolutely no obligation!'' or ''Your money will be cheerfully refunded!'' - that seem to arouse the very suspicion they are meant to allay. ''Service'' and yet more ''service''! Why are they so good to us?
One doesn't want to be cynical, but one certainly finds oneself hotfooting it in the opposite direction as fast as one can at the sound of the ominous words - usually attached to a bill: ''In the interests of serving you better . . . .''
The latest case in point, of course, is AT&T. All across the country customers are dropping their peppermint-striped candlestick phones in utter shock as they grasp the bad news that, in order to serve them better, Ma Bell is slapping a $2 surcharge on the bill for the privilege of making long-distance phone calls - whether the privilege is exercised or not.
Then there's the 75-cent charge for each call for long-distance information. This little tariff has all the wits snickering that they'd ring up their congressman to complain - if only it didn't cost 75 cents to get his number. We are trusting to the point of naivete and never indulge in such gibes. Nor would we dream of crudely suggesting that the law is: The more anybody says, ''We're in the service business,'' the less service you're going to get.
But we have been driven to notice what we call the ''rhetoric of service,'' and in the process, to examine the gap between promise and performance.
Two examples may illustrate. First, the case of the double-teaming restaurant. No sooner do you swagger through the door, in that sophisticated way of yours, than two hosts or two hostesses - or perhaps one of each - surround you like parentheses. You are escorted to your table with all sorts of tandem bows and scrapes and fluttered menus and solicitous clucks. As they pull out chairs - two, three, even four chairs (why not?) - they announce: ''Basil and Debbie will be waiting on you.''
On cue, Basil appears, pouring water as he comes. While he reports, ''Hi, I'm Basil,'' a young woman slides a basket of sesame breadsticks between the water glasses (''Hi, I'm Debbie''). For the next half hour, your table is the scene of constant entrances and exits, with exhortations to ''Enjoy!'' from Basil, followed by, ''Is everything OK?'' from Debbie.
In the end, two people manage to serve you in only a little more time than one would have required, leaving you with a strange sensation that you have been waiting on them - plus a guilty feeling that you ought to double your tip.
How else do we get victimized by lip service to service? Everybody's second classic example would have to involve a piece of machinery. Let's stipulate a washing machine that refuses to rinse - just refuses.
The last words the salesman said to you as he took your charge card - remember them? Service is our business! So you call up the ''service number.'' The languid voice at the other end, ''Not today.'' Not tomorrow, either. OK, they'll try to have a man at the house between 4 and 5 on Friday. Be there.
You are. He isn't.
After two more no-shows, the truck rolls in your driveway. Painted on the side of it is the slogan ''Quality Products Deserve Quality Service.'' The left-hand pocket of the service man's uniform reads ''Jimmy.'' The right-hand pocket reads, ''We care.''
Jimmy who cares fixes the machine so it rinses, but now it refuses to spin dry.
A couple of weeks later Jimmy is followed by Sheldon, who also cares - and calls you by your first name to prove it. Sheldon fixes the rinse and the spin-dry cycles. Now if somebody could only get the washing machine to wash.
Some days, when people talk about the ''service sector'' being the fastest-growing area of the economy, you can fantasize the world turning into a place where we'll all be not quite fixing things for one another. But oh, the smiles! Oh, the promises! Oh, the first-naming!
Still, we're not daunted. We're preparing a service manual for people trying to cope with services. Isn't that service for you?
Our working motto we owe to W.H. Auden: ''I'm here on earth to serve others. What on earth you others are here for, I don't know.''