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When Service Means More Than a Smile

FROM dawn until nearly midnight these days, the sound of hammers, saws, and drills echoes through Boston's Prudential Center. Construction workers are racing the clock to complete a $100-million renovation in time for the grand opening.

For more than two years, pedestrians have threaded their way through an ever-changing maze of walkways as a slightly dowdy, 1960s-era retail complex has been transformed into a fashionable urban mall. Now pink granite sheaths the exterior, and sleek chandeliers hang from soaring skylights. Most promising of all, ``Help Wanted'' signs dot storefronts still hidden behind plywood.

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Some of those signs take a low-key approach: ``Employment opportunities. Please call Lisa.'' Others emphasize group spirit: ``Join our team!'' and ``Join the crew.'' Still others list specific qualifications, such as the fashion-accessory store looking for applicants who ``like to look good, work hard, and have fun.'' Another fashion shop wants to hire ``fun, energetic people with great customer-service skills.''

In past decades, when retailing was more staid and less competitive, ``fun'' was not an adjective routinely associated with waiting on customers all day. No-nonsense sales clerks gave off an air of weary resignation, although what they lacked in energy they often made up for in knowledge of what they were selling.

Today the somber floorwalkers of yore have been replaced by cheerful ``greeters'' who welcome customers as they enter. In an age of high competition, high energy starts at the door.

In the days leading up to the opening of the first establishment at the new Prudential Center, a coffee bar, recently hired employees huddled around managers, dodging last-minute workmen as they learned the fundamentals of good service. Passersby could only watch with interest and wonder: What instructions are they receiving? And what constitutes ideal service in today's much-vaunted service economy?

Even customers themselves may not always be sure what they want from clerks and restaurant employees. For all the supposed benefits of ``greeters,'' for instance (Sam Walton insisted that each of his Wal-Mart stores have one), the hearty ``Welcome to the world of Brookstone'' chirped by salespeople at the entrance doesn't really add much to shopping pleasure. Likewise, many women find themselves increasingly annoyed by the small army of cooly smiling sales representatives stationed in the aisles of cosmetics departments, eager to spritz a wrist with perfume or apply the latest makeup. Rather than being welcoming, they form an obstacle course.

In restaurants, similar contradictions exists. A poll published this week finds that service, not price, determines women's restaurant choices. EDK Forecast, an executive newsletter about women consumers, reports that almost twice as many women cite ``good service'' as ``price'' as the reason they choose a restaurant.

But what constitutes ``good service''? An attentive waiter who serves unobtrusively, almost anonymously? Or one who adopts a chummy ``Hi-folks-my-name-is-Brian-I'll-be-your-server-today'' approach?

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There may be no poll to indicate it yet, but if consumers are given a choice between style and substance, it's safe to say they'll choose substance every time. But the evidence is that for the moment, the trend is toward style.

The new Prudential Center does not differ from most ambitious retail operations of the '90s in emphasizing two assets: a milieu of eye-dazzling decor and a team of aggressively cheerful employees. ``Service with a smile'' - the old motto comes back to haunt new scenes! But is there a danger point at which the smile becomes synonymous with service, swallowing it up like the smile of the Cheshire cat until the smile is all the service you get?

Service is not something that can be peddled as image. Service is a good solid commodity, as solid as any other commodity, and customers know it when they see it, whether it comes with a smile or not. Let the sellers of service beware, like the Holiday Inn executives who interviewed 5,000 applicants for 500 positions at a new facility and ruled out any candidate who didn't smile at least four times during the interview. Does a four-smile interview leave room for anything else, such as ascertaining competence?

No scowls need apply either, of course. But let the news be official. The bland age of ``Have-a-nice-day'' should come to a deserving end.

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