The Customer Isn’t Always Right

Like many young adults, I’ve had my fair share of work experience in the service industry working as part of business models that put the customer first. Let me preface by stating that this is not a bad model – obviously you want to please the people paying you so they will continue to do so.

I’m not questioning or critiquing the basic idea or function of customer service, but I do want to talk about the role of the consumer in these interactions.

We all know what to expect from various service employees: waiters need to be timely and accurate with orders; retail employees should be helpful and knowledgeable concerning their products; secretaries and receptionists should be organized and welcoming for office guests. These norms are known and expected by everyone, creating a kind of social road map for our daily interactions with employees in these capacities.

On the flip-side, the behavior and expectations for those playing the role of ‘customer’ are not universally defined in our culture. There is no road map.

This is a problem which I believe often ruins customer service interactions. Quite simply, customers often don’t take the time to remember that the person serving them is, in fact, a person. It’s as if employees are perceived as part of an unthinking, unfeeling  corporate machine. Their human status seems to melt away until they appear only as a nondescript cog.

I’m not sure why this disconnect is present: certain customers may never have had to work on the other side, providing the service. Maybe they have and have forgotten what it’s like. Maybe they feel entitled, or maybe they simply don’t care because employees are paid to be nice and helpful.

Who knows? I’m not a mind reader.

But I am a desk attendant, resident assistant, merchandise vendor, retail employee (a story for another time), and a hospital volunteer. I can tell you from these experiences that I have never seen myself as a cog in a machine. I have never lost my personality, empathy, uniqueness, nor have I ever physically become a metal wheel with teeth for that matter.

As an employee in the lower levels of an organization, I am aware that I represent my employer. I do my best to fulfill the duties I am paid to perform, including creating positive experiences for customers. In these positions, however, I still retain my human nature and dignity.

I am paid to help. I am not paid to be a doormat.

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Werk werk werk, werk werk

I have endured yelling, swearing, and verbal abuse on many occasions while working in these capacities. Most of the time, a customer will become angry with me about something over which I have no control: the steep price tag of a concert shirt, not letting someone who forgot their ID into the dorm, or not being able to give out a room number  for a patient marked ‘private,’ just to name a few.

Instances like these have shown me that the customer has just as important of a role in the customer service experience as the employee assisting them. It is draining and demoralizing for an employee to be doing the best they can to appease someone only to be met with verbal abuse and anger.

Most of these jobs pay at or just slightly above minimum wage (aka, not enough to put up with ludicrous demands or insults). I’m not sure what kind of salary, if any, would be worth that.

So, you had a long day at your job and your food is taking a long time? Guess who has no control over how long a chef takes and is also likely to have had a long day – your server. Don’t cut their tip or personally attack them if their duty of bringing you your order was impeded by a slow chef.

You’re upset that you can’t get a discount for buying two $40 shirts at a concert? Guess what? The vendor you’re yelling at didn’t set the prices but has to abide by them (after completing inventory, setting up sales booths, and helping hundreds of other people over 13+ hour days). If you don’t want to buy something that’s too expensive – then don’t. No one but you cares to be perfectly honest.

Overall, I’m asking that next time you are an unhappy customer, take a second and put yourself in the shoes of the employee helping you. Ask yourself if that specific employee is actually part of the problem or if they are working towards a solution to the best of their ability. Remember that they are caught between pleasing you, being professional, and following policies.

There is definitely a time and place to be angry with a service employee who is performing poorly. But if you’re mad at a company overall, do you really think yelling at a lower-level employee will accomplish anything worthwhile? You’re just more likely to get poorer service if you’re the fifth or tenth or whatever person in a row to drag an employee for something that truly isn’t their fault.

Being an abusive and difficult customer creates makes the experience more negative for everyone involved. Employees like me know they aren’t doormats to be walked over, we are people first and employees second. Push someone far enough past their ability to remain professional and they’ll clapback to remind you of their humanity and your place (once again, no paycheck amount warrants being verbally abused).

This isn’t a whiny post; it’s a reality check to ask for common decency, person to person.

Establish a road map for consumer behavior. Remember what it was like when you were on the other side and don’t be the difficult customer if it isn’t warranted. When you’re acting as consumer, remember that you’re talking to a person and not a cog.

Nothing should dehumanize, least of all a job.

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