A couple of years ago when I decided I was going to write a book about customer service, I wrote the following fiction story as an opener. I wanted to illustrate what it is like from the employee's side for those who might not know what we go through in the name of "Customer Service."
It was a busy night at the diner, especially for a Tuesday. Our local high school football team was the main reason for that, having just come from their biggest victory of the season. The additional business put an obvious strain on our staff; payroll didn’t allow for much in the way of extra coverage on weekdays. And, of course, nobody was shy about voicing their complaints.
I was carrying two dinners to a table when an old man grabbed the arm of my shirt, nearly sending mashed potatoes and turkey across the floor. “Sonny, I’ve been waiting for over ten minutes and our waiter hasn’t arrived,” he grumbled, nearly spitting into the plate in my hand. “Can’t you take my order?”
“I’m sorry, but I have customers waiting for me,” I explained, faking a smile. “I’ll try to find out what happened to your waitress as soon as I deliver these dinners.”
I moved to step away, but that wasn’t enough for the gentleman. “This is ridiculous,” he growled, staring at me as though I’d told him I was going to murder his grandchildren. “I’ve been here fifteen whole minutes and I still haven’t been asked what I’d like to eat! Maybe I should just go down the road and eat at McDonalds! At least they can get me my food quickly!”
I had to stay calm. I had to be pleasant. It was my job. “Unfortunately, we’re a little short-staffed tonight, but we’re doing our best to ensure that every table gets serviced quickly. If you can just give me a minute, I’ll make sure your orders are taken as soon as possible.”
The old man turned to his wife and began mumbling about how lousy customer service was these days. I took the opportunity to hurry along and deliver my meals. With my eyes fixed on my customers, a still-uniformed football player and his cheerleader girlfriend, I marched over and placed their piping hot dinners before them. “Be careful,” I warned, “these plates are quite warm.”
The young lady gave me a glare and a near imperceptible shake of her head while her male companion smiled politely. “Thank you,” he said simply. She glared at him for it.
After a quick check to ensure that they had all they needed, I hurried back to the kitchen. Armando, our head chef, was assembling a cheeseburger platter when I arrived. “Armando, table twelve hasn’t been serviced. Where’s Lindsay?” Lindsay was our part-time waitress who covered weeknights. She’d been bustling between tables earlier, but I hadn’t seen her in nearly an hour. “She’s not on break, is she?”
“Last I saw she was headed for the bathroom,” Armando said, a touch of concern in his frown. “I don’t think she’s feeling well tonight.”
“Great,” I muttered, grabbing an order pad from the counter. “I’ll try to fit her tables in between my own for now, but I’m not going to be able to hold out forever. Where’s Jeff?”
That earned me a roll of Armando’s eyes. “Where do you think?”
Jeff was the night manager of our diner, a snotty and arrogant brat of a kid who only held the title because his father was the owner. He spent most of his shifts sitting in the break room munching on leftover fries and watching baseball on the little television back there. Needless to say, it made all of our jobs harder when the person in charge did everything he could to avoid work.
I was about to head back through the doors when I felt my cell phone vibrating in my pocket. In any other case, I would’ve ignored it and tried to take care of some of Lindsay’s tables, but I’d been waiting all night for this call. I yanked the phone out and opened it. “Hello?”
My mother’s voice was somber. “Hi, Honey. We just heard from the doctor. Your father isn’t responding well to treatment. The accident damaged his spine so severely that they doubt he’ll ever walk again. He can barely even move his lips, let alone stand.”
That was enough to fill my eyes with tears, but I forced them back. For the sake of my job, I had to. “Is he in pain?”
“No, he’s got lots of medication in him,” she said. “I think he’s more scared than anything else, but you know he’ll never admit that.”
“Is there anything I can do?” I asked her. “I’m going to buy a plane ticket to visit you guys as soon as I can afford it, but rent is due at the end of the week and I don’t even have that money yet.”
“Just keep him in your prayers,” she told me. “That’s all we can do for now.”
One of the busboys came through the doors carrying a tub full of dishes, and I shifted to the side. “I will. But I’m at work, so I’ve gotta go for now. I’ll call you when I get out.”
“Okay. Talk to you later.”
I wiped my eyes as I returned my phone to my pocket. From behind, Armando raised his voice over the sizzling of fresh meat on the grill. “Is he all right?”
“Paralyzed,” I said. “Don’t know if it’s permanent. The doctors are still evaluating the extent of his injuries. We’ll talk more later. I have to get back out there.”
With a sigh of resignation, I tried to recover my phony smile and returned to the dining room. The old man at table twelve had apparently been staring impatiently at the door the entire time, and now he threw his arms up as if to ask if he’d been forgotten. It took all the self-control I could muster to return to his table with my order pad in hand. “May I take your order?”
“Oh, finished with your little phone call, are you?” he asked, disdain dripping from his voice. “I saw you through that doorway when that janitor went through. Good to see that you value my business enough to make time for me. And if you’re going to be my waiter, then why the hell couldn’t you have taken my order before?”
“I was delivering food to one of my tables, Sir,” I said as nicely as I could. “You see, normally another server would be out here handling this end of the diner, but as I said before, we’re a bit short staffed tonight. So I’m going to take your orders and see that your food gets cooking.”
Of course, that answer got me nowhere. “Oh, I get it,” he said through a sneer of a smile. “You figure you can just take care of your own tables and ignore the rest of us, is that it? Well, let me tell you a thing or two about customer service, young man. I worked in a restaurant for twenty-three years, and good customer service means taking care of everyone who needs assistance, not just those you feel like helping. It’s obvious that you haven’t been taught that the customers come first! That’s true customer service!”
“Customer service is the reason I am standing here offering to take your order,” I responded, making sure to keep my plastered smile looking as authentic as possible. “What can I get for you?”
Surprise of surprises, it took a number of minutes before he and his wife finally decided what they wanted to eat. My assurances that their orders would be delivered as quickly as possible were met with sour faces, but I had no time to continue trying to convince them. There were other tables waiting.
As I turned around, I noticed that the table of four near the entrance had finished their meals and left, leaving both check and payment standing upright between the salt and pepper shakers. I walked over and picked up both to see how much of a tip I’d received for my hard work. The bill came to a total of fifty-eight dollars and thirty-seven cents.
They left me sixty dollars.
“One dollar and sixty-three cents,” I muttered, heading for the cash register. “There’s no way I’m going to be able to make my rent payment this month.”
First and foremost, let me say that we, the employees of the customer service field, are human beings just like the rest of you. We have families, friends, lives, and bills. We have good times and bad, great accomplishments and horrible tragedies. Just like you, we do have emotions, and just like you, sometimes our emotions can get the best of us.
I've heard it said by many people that if you work in the service industry, you should be prepared to always put on a happy face and give each customer the most pleasant and wonderful shopping experience they've ever received. Typically, those same people say that if you aren't prepared to perform that way, then the service industry isn't for you. This, oh arrogant customer, is a crock.
There are very few people who work at Walmart because their dream was to spend their career stocking shelves at Walmart. It's quite unlikely that the guy who makes your burger at Burger King does it because it was the greatest aspiration he had for his life. Sure, there are people out there like that, but the number is likely to be something like one out of every thousand.
The majority of service workers are doing the job for two reasons: They needed a job, and (insert company name here) hired them. Plain and simple.
The common notion out there seems to be that if we don't like working customer service jobs, we should get out of that field. Right, because it's just THAT simple. Not everyone has a degree to get a job in their preferred field. Not everyone has the money to GET a degree in their preferred field. And while a degree isn't necessary to get a job, the majority of the most easily accessible jobs out there involve customer service in one form or another.
For that matter, many don't even HAVE a preferred field because they haven't yet discovered something that they really enjoy doing. It took me four years after high school to figure out what I wanted to do with my life. In the meantime, when you're a teenager with no work experience under your belt, who is going to hire you? The answer, of course, is the customer service industry. Sure, there are others here and there that might want to take a chance on an inexperienced teenager, but the majority of job opportunities come from the service field.
And that's what most customers don't seem to understand. We are just working our way through college. We're working a second job to pay bills. We're trying to buy cars, pay off student loans, pay auto insurance, etc. We're not trying to sell you a pack of paperclips at Staples because we have some kind of absurd passion for office supply products, we're doing it because it was the job we were offered, and it pays the bills - or some of them, anyway. You can't expect us to be all happy-go-lucky about leading you to the toilet paper aisle or super-sizing your french fries. It's not exactly a very fulfilling lifestyle, but for most of us, it's a temporary necessity. If you told an unhappy retail employee to get another job if they didn't like customer service, they'd likely respond with, "I'd love to. Who's hiring?"
Then there is the human factor that no one ever seems to take into account. As I said, we are people with lives just as much as you are, and we experience emotions too. I remember a day when I worked at CompUSA where I almost got in trouble because some over-sensitive customer got all worked up over something that wasn't even about her. We had three long lines at all the registers and we were trying to get people out as fast as we could. One of our salesmen brought up a cart full of stuff - a computer, monitor, printer, etc - for me to ring up. Then he decides he forgot something and runs off, telling us to wait a minute. I started to get pretty annoyed because we had a lot of people waiting and the salesman had stopped my line dead. Well, this customer saw me shaking my head in disgust, and when the salesman returned, she demanded that he summon the manager because I was "huffing and puffing" over having to ring up their sale.
I didn't have a problem with her before that, but you can be sure that AFTER she jumped to that absurd conclusion, I was pretty ticked off at her.
If an employee is taking a personal call at the cash register, most customers get annoyed. What if it is an emergency? What if they're getting an update on a sick relative? What if the babysitter just called to tell them the electricity had been shut off? Customers have no idea what's going on in these people's lives, yet they whine and complain if they aren't helped in less than thirty seconds. And should something happen that offends them, nothing less than the unemployment line for the offending employee will satisfy. That's right, if someone loses their cool and tells you to "Shut the hell up," you respond by demanding that person's job. Should the employee have said that to you? No, of course not. Should he lose the ability to pay his bills and feed his family for it? Absolutely not. We are human beings. We have emotions, and we make mistakes. Get your heads out of your rear-ends and move on with life.
And while we're on the subject of pay, let's talk about the money issue. Many customer service employees work two jobs. Sometimes three. Why? Because we get paid next to nothing while the world is expected of us. Take my cashier job at CompUSA, for example (the old CompUSA, not the current one owned by TigerDirect). For $7 an hour, we were expected to sell Product Replacement Plans, Training Classes, Tech Services, Unmatched (Another phone/training service), CompUSA Credit Cards, Add-on products, and AOL. The phrase "Ask Every Customer" was pounded into our heads multiple times daily. Our numbers were closely monitored, and we were ripped in half when we didn't reach our goals. And don't be so foolish as to think that we were given commissions or spiffs for those things. For a short time, commissions were a part of the CompUSA pay structure, but they were so small it was laughable (we're talking $10 for meeting your goals for a week), and they didn't apply to cashiers anyway. So, given all of that, how enthusiastic and happy can you really expect an employee to be?
Staples was the same way. Their company is trying to position their "Easy Tech" department to be a contender with Best Buy's Geek Squad. Yet the only "technicians" they hired while I worked there were recent high school graduates who were not certified. Why no certification? So they could pay them $8.00 per hour, of course. Honestly - what kind of quality tech work can you expect from that kind of employee?
Then we have to face the ramifications of all that. We ask every customer to buy every service we offer because our bosses demand that we do it. So, of course, every customer gets angry that we're badgering them to spend more money. You see us as money hungry employees trying to squeeze every last penny. In reality, we're just trying to keep our jobs. And when our inexperienced "technician" screws up your computer because the company wouldn't put out the money for a real tech, the customer service reps have to take the heat from the customer for it. And we're getting paid like crap, too.
Customers don't seem to grasp any of this. The phrase "The customer is always right" seems to have brainwashed people into thinking that they should get their way no matter how absurd their demands are. And as I'm sure you've seen from the stories I've posted here, they can get QUITE absurd. I read a story on www.consumerist.com about a woman who got angry because a Costco employee tried to stop her from cutting ahead of the line of people waiting to have their receipts checked. Now, I'll be the first to say that the employee had no right to act the way that they did, but at the same time, this lady really thought she was justified in cutting ahead of everyone else who had been waiting because she only had one item and was, as she put it, "in a hurry." How does that make you more important that everyone else? Then there was the story of the customer who tried to use a taser on a Wendy's employee who got their order wrong. How about the woman who called TheTechGuy! radio show to get help stealing her neighbor's Wi-Fi connection? People just don't understand how ridiculous their behavior can be or the hassle we go through in dealing with them, yet they expect us as service people to always be happy and enthusiastic.
You want good service? Here's the one and only tip you'll need.
You know how you expect us to treat you when you walk into our store or call our company?
Treat us the same way.
I promise you'll have more good experiences than bad that way. Don't get me wrong, there are lots of lazy and uncaring employees out there who don't give a damn whether you're polite or not. But for the most part, you'll get a far more pleasant experience with an understanding and friendly attitude than you ever will with anger and threats. Just keep in mind that sometimes, no matter what you do, you won't be getting your way.
Because the truth is that the customer is not always right.