A few weeks ago I was at the Brazilian Consulate in Chicago obtaining a VISA for travel to that country. The Consulate is on the 18th floor of one of Chicago’s many tall buildings. When I walked into the Consulate there was a big room with about 50 folding chairs. The employees of the Consulate sat in booths along one wall; one for visas, one for passports, and one for notary services, etc. The wall consisted of wooden desks, above which was solid glass all the way to the ceiling. With the exception of a small area to slide documents back and forth the employees of the consulate were completely separated from their “customers.” There was not a single Consulate employee in the customer area to give assistance or answer questions from the customers.
As people approached the window with their requests, many did not have appropriate documentation or were otherwise ill prepared. While moderately courteous, the Consulate staff didn’t display much empathy. The unwritten message from the Consulate employees to their customers was “You either obey my commands by giving me the exact paperwork I want or get the heck out of here and come another day.”
Of course, there are some cases where “floor to ceiling” barriers might be justified like 24-hour pump & pay gas outlets, police stations, and cash facilities in high crime neighborhoods. I’m not convinced that a VISA office needs full barriers.
The Consulate experience got me thinking about the places where I encounter people barriers. The local Social Security Office has floor to ceiling barriers. Bank tellers and DMV employees have “half” barriers, but if I make an appointment with a banker or investment advisor there is no barrier. The jeweler comes out and meets his customer on the floor of his shop, as do almost all retail employees.
Generally speaking I think that people barriers are a harbinger of poor service. When there is a physical barrier between people this tells me that the service agency distrusts the customer and is likely to be less courteous than would otherwise be the case. That’s why you find more people barriers in the government sector than in the private sector. After all, a shop owner can’t afford to alienate his customers, but the DMV employee doesn’t need to give a rip. As far as I am concerned, the fewer the barriers the better.