So, since starting a retail job, I’ve been thinking a lot about customer service. I remember the last time I had a job where I dealt with customers directly, I had a really terrible attitude, so I was eager to start afresh and put into practice many of the things I’d thought to have already or now wanted to learn, particularly to be less judgmental, more generous with my time, and over all more loving. I’ll admit it was easy at first, because I was learning new things, I felt as though I was genuinely helping others, the customers were all nice, and because overall, as a beginning cashier, my duties were fairly light.
As time has gone on however, I’ve started to sense a shift. I’m fighting it for sure, which in itself is a sign of growth, but I’ll be honest in that there are a few things fighting back. For one, I can be super jealous for my time (even though it’s not really my time anyway and I’m getting paid to be there. Sorry God, I’m working on it!) so being in a setting where I do roughly the same thing week after week and find myself picking up the same items left around the store over and over again instead of being free to write or do the other things I’d rather do (apparently the self-employed independently wealthy lifestyle appeals to me) can feel like being an extra cog just spinning around in a pointless, giant machine. Secondly, having more responsibilities means I don’t have as much time to spare to (ironically) help a customer plan out a project or find a product if I’m going to get everything done. Third, when you have people around you who are negative in the work place, even if it’s just a few, it can be really easy to find those attitudes and habits slipping into you (for the record, I really like my coworkers, so nothing bad on them at all here) just because it’s around.
In any case, when I started noticing those first pangs of resentment, I started to question why. I think my first clue was when they started asking us to say “Thank you for shopping at _______” at the end of every transaction, and things have grown from there.
I think, ultimately, the problem is, we think of customers as our “them.”
See, when they started asking us to name drop at the end of every transaction (as if they wouldn’t know where they are?), I got pretty upset. I don’t mind asking if they found everything alright at the beginning of a transaction because if there’s something I could help them find, I really do want to know. That’s exactly why I’m there, but to end the purchase with a scripted response like that, well, it felt really…inhuman. I’d normally finish off by saying some personalized variation of “have a nice day,” swapping out the adjective and measurement of time as suited to each person, or something related to something we’d said. You know, something to logically end a conversation you’ve just had with a human being. To begin and end the transaction with a scripted response though, well, they could be a rock or a cat or the 14th moon of Gatralpa VI and it wouldn’t really matter because no matter who or what you’re talking to, the interaction is the same. And even if you had a nice conversation with them during the purchase, adding that little name drop on the end just makes the whole thing seem hollow. Or rushed, which it usually is. And I know why they set up those rules. It’s to make sure surly cashiers don’t end purchases on a sour note, but if we have to make rules to make sure people who are serving others aren’t rude, doesn’t that point to a bigger issue? Adding a scripted response is just a bandaid, it doesn’t treat the problem itself. No, if anything it makes it worse, because it frees us to settle for less than a servant’s heart in exchange for a set of rules.
Now, you may be thinking how this makes customers into “them,” but what I mean is that the whole attitude of customer service puts up walls that keep us apart. I’m not saying there shouldn’t be boundaries of course, and I think that for some people those rules are a good starting place (who knows, maybe if they thank customers enough for shopping they’ll start to actually be grateful for their shopping), but I think more often those kinds of things put us into robot mode instead of people mode. You know, a fake smile, laughing at everything, the banter or service formulas. We retreat into our own hearts and minds because we’ve reduced human interaction to such a basic and shallow level that we don’t even need to pay attention during. Does that seem like service to you? More importantly, does it scare you? Phrasing it like this, it kind of scares me, and I think maybe it should.
There are other walls too. Anyone who’s ever worked in retail can tell you stories about customers. “They” leave stuff around the store. “They” are rude. “They” ask stupid questions, “they” bring in screaming kids and “they” don’t act like you’re human. But, under a given set of circumstances, couldn’t you do (or more likely, haven’t you done) the same thing? I know I’ve had times where I’ve run into a store to grab one quick thing right before they close. I’ve had trouble finding things, left things in a general area rather than the correct spot and almost certainly been rude at some point. As a customer I’ve probably fallen into the same robot interaction trap cashiers do because my mind’s been on other things. What is it about the fact that they just happen to be doing it in my store with me as the cashier that makes them any different? Sometimes when people talk about customers, it’s like they’re this bumbling sub-human race whose only goal is to wreck the store. “Those people” are humans too though and while yes, some of them might do things we consider rude, it’s their flawed humanity at the root, not their role as customer. By simply bundling them under that label, we allow ourselves a chance for distance, distance that goes too far, I think, when that’s not really the point at all.
The point is to serve them (like all humans), to better their lives so to speak, which brings me to my last point.
I’ve talked about how customer service can dehumanize people, turn them into dollar signs or stumbling fools, but what it can also do, is put them up on a pedestal. If customers are people, then no, they’re not always right.
Respect for others, discipline, and boundaries are all things that are good for us, things which if not maintained require correction. I’m not saying we should go around calling customers out on everything or be rude or anything–that same love and respect we desire should be at the heart of our own actions–but I sometimes wonder if certain aspects of customer service culture prevent social accountability, a sort of pass for shoppers to be rude or unreasonably angry because “they” are always right. Their actions always excusable because they have the right of way. I’ve been lucky to be free for the most part from squeaky wheel people myself, though there have been a few, and when they come up, I sometimes wonder, just how much better would it be for you if someone told you you’re being rude? If someone questioned your actions? Part of this is because they usually make me angry or sad and the natural instinct is to fight back, but part of it is also because, even though I understand they may have a larger life context that is causing the problem, that doesn’t give them excuse to treat someone else poorly. I don’t believe true service has any place for letting people get away with things. If it did I’d never be corrected at dance, counselors would always simply agree and Jesus would never have rebuked or corrected the flawed thinking of his disciples.
I guess the places I feel have the best customer service are the places I’ve felt least like a customer. I’m more comfortable as a human, not a pot of money, fool or queen. I am still sorting a lot of this out though. I’d really like to know what you think. Are there more walls that you see? Do you think I take things too far? Where have you experienced the best customer service? What do you think marks the worst?
Thanks for sticking with me. I know it’s been a long ride.
P.S. While I do recognize a lot of these attitudes in myself, I am not trying to say that all of those in customer service positions do. I’m sure there are many people out there who really do care about their customers as equally I am sure there are many who really don’t. This is just a reflection of some of the things I’ve experienced, not meant to be representative of anyone else at my company or otherwise.