I was so taken aback by his words they made me stop suddenly. “We’re here to serve” said the head of my son’s kindergarten, after I’d asked to change one of his weekly sessions from Thursdays to Wednesdays. It was a simple request, admittedly, but I felt some trepidation at the time of asking. Why? Because life often feels rigid and inflexible whenever you want to do something that hasn’t been planned or put in writing with plenty of notice (I’m afraid to say the British are particularly good at this.) Or you’ve simply changed your mind because what you agreed to six months ago doesn’t work quite so well now. All this doesn’t apply to legally binding contracts by the way. Why should even the simplest things in life be set in stone? Why am I so shocked when someone goes out of their way to accommodate a request, in a shop for example, or when you get a helpful voice on the phone trying to rebook tickets that the “rules” say cannot be exchanged or refunded?
I recently called Tate Britain to ask if I could change the time I’d booked to see an exhibition. Could I go later on that same afternoon as I now couldn’t make the earlier time, I asked? Several times I heard the young woman on the other end of the phone say “let me put you on hold, I’ll go and check.”I held on patiently as I had the sense she was genuinely trying to help. “Yes, we can do that.” As I reflected on the positive outcome I kept thinking, “why am I so ridiculously relieved?” What I’d asked for wasn’t a particularly difficult or odd request. Have we become so used to accepting sub-standard service nowadays that when we get really good service (which should be the norm, surely?) we are so pleasantly surprised we can’t quite believe our luck? So I salute the young lady at the Tate who happily found a way to change my booking; I salute the local, Italian restaurant that willingly ignores what’s written on their menu and serves my son his favourite, chicken escalope with chips instead of truffle oil pappardelle, because that’s what the boy likes; I salute the helpful assistant at the shoe shop who tracked down a particular shoe in my size to a branch hundreds of miles away and had the pair delivered to me the following day (in time for my son’s christening.) Understanding the true meaning of being “here to serve” has served us right. The so-called “service industry” would do well to remember that.