On Customer Service

25 Jan

Today in class we learned about customer service (answering phones, handling complaints, making people happy). We viewed a video in which we were instructed to live by the mantra “The customer is always right.” It’s a good idea in theory- businesses are asking clients to patronize their stores and spend hard-earned cash and they deserve a pleasant and satisfying experience in return. This is true. Especially in hospitals, I suppose, where people are experiencing trauma to themselves or their loved ones and could use a dose of kindness.

But let’s talk about the flip side of that idea.

Nobody ever gives a class on being a good customer. Being a good customer should be synonymous with being a good person, practicing common sense, following the Golden Rule. To many people it is. But ask any person who works in the service industry about their professional encounters and you are sure to hear stories of customers who unfortunately do not behave as though the expectation of kindness and common decency applies to them.

For most of my working life I have serviced customers. From teaching swimming lessons at 15 and dealing with the very entitled Discovery Bay parents to managing a locally owned retail shop in Edina– I have handled some customer service issues in my day. I have met some really interesting people. Many of them have made lasting impressions on me, becoming life-long friends or professional contacts, or being wonderful in ways I will always remember. I have had customers offer me jobs in my area of interest or refer me to people who could, customers bring me home-baked goodies, who remember my name and write a glowing online review about me. I get all verklempt just thinking about those folks.

Then there are nasty people: I have had customers interrupt me mid-sentence to answer a cell phone, steal from the store and lie to my face, insist that I change the music playing overhead because it’s not their style, repeatedly return used merchandise and become indignant when I cannot take those items back, leave me a $0.47 tip after patting my bottom, attempt to bargain for a cheaper price and threaten to leave if I don’t give them a better deal, scream at me over the phone, call me fat, threaten to cause me bodily harm, tell me they don’t like my outfit and never to wear it again, and even one who told me I would definitely be going to Hell for kicking her thieving ass out of the store. (Ah, good times.)

I don’t think the bad customer behavior has happened because they are all inherently bad people. Businesses need to take responsibility for the customers they have created. Our consumer driven society has put out the message that the dollar is worth more than the person behind the counter. “The customer is always right” implies the empowerment of the consumer exclusively and not the sales associate. And, many times the customer is not in the right, whether it’s the way they treat an employee or their ignorance of a store policy.

It is important to examine and consider often your personal ethics while spending your money. When I choose to shop, dine, or otherwise patronize an establishment, I understand that I am a guest of the house. That’s not to say I am devoid of expectation. I let the representatives of a business know when I am happy as well as disappointed with my services. I practice courtesy, mind my manners,  and follow the Golden Rule just like my parents taught me as a child.

I wish there were more discussions in schools (from Kindergarten on up) and in private homes about this issue. We teach kids about standing up to bullies on the playground so why must we be forced to greet them with a smile as adults? And why won’t business owners take a stand for the mental and emotional health of their employees? The best lesson I have learned over the years is that it is okay to fire a person if they cross the line and exhibit abusive behavior- be they friends, employers, employees, or customers.

The bottom line is that it doesn’t take a lot of effort to be nice. Just do it, and don’t stop.


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