Wednesday, 20 February 2013

The Customer's Always Right...

I used to work in retail, I've been a supervisor of a takeaway sandwich shop, a baker and counter-staff at a supermarket, a clerk in a video store, a barista in a coffee shop, a sales assistant and temporary manager of the online shop at a London museum, as well as a Christmas temp at a high street entertainment store. Out of all these roles I always enjoyed customer service, working with - and for - the public. Generally it's an enjoyable experience, and I've never really been bothered by "difficult" customers because I treat them as politely and helpfully as possible, therefore giving them nothing to butt heads against.

I was at a conference quite recently and there was a talk given by a customer service 'guru' that rubbed me up the wrong way. He opened his presentation asking if anyone has ever had a negative experience at a Walt Disney resort and then asking if anyone has ever had a negative experience at a service station, gas station, local shop or food store, and believing that the lack of hands raised for the former compared to the wealth of hands raised for the latter justifies his insipid, rambling, moronic guff spouting. Of course, these two things are incomparable, you don't go on a week long trip to Sainsburys expecting to experience Mr. Toad's Wild Ride or Space Mountain, nor do you pop to the Magical Kingdom to pick up some beans. Sure, both places, like most places, have people working there who will have to face customers, but then the structure around those people and the expectations placed upon them differs greatly.

In ethical argument this would fall under bifurcation, the idea that if only presented with two alternatives then one has to be right as a result of the other being wrong. This is very silly and ignores things such as mitigating circumstances, context, or, in this case, the two things being completely different, but, sneakily shunted under an umbrella of similarity. You see, it is not the places that are the same but it is the relative experiences, and by dint of this contrast the speaker is making the audience believe that one is showing exemplary customer service and the other is clearly rubbish.

But, overall, most people working in customer service - whether in the Magic Kingdom or the Michaelwood M5 services - want to do their jobs well, and most of the resentment from customer service employees is not from the employees to the customers, no, it's from the employees to their employers, their employers who come and listen to this 'guru' deliver bullshit speeches at their conferences and then, inevitably, fill out a post-conference survey where they gripe about the hotel staff's customer service.


Is there a veiled point being made by this 'guru' when, as he begins his presentation he jokes; "I'm going to make this quick, my girlfriend has larengitis and I don't want to miss a second of it." Or later, during his talk, he 'randomly' singles out one of the female delegates from a conference room of 160 men and about 4 women, pointing at her and saying; "What is your name my darling?" He requests of this 'random' person that they keep an eye on his water during his talk and that when it gets low they should run forward and refill it for him, perhaps he's 'playing a part' and trying to demonstrate something about customer service? I kept expecting him to refer back to this earlier section of the talk, revealing it to not be just an aside, but a point to show what excellent 'customer service' this 'random' person had shown, but, nope, never comes back, apart from when he later needs his water refilled and he winks in her direction, she refils his glass and then he whispers "Thank you" patronisingly. So, I can only assume that what he is demonstrating is that the customer (see; him) is often a cunt, especially with his remark to this delegate; "I need you to do me a favour, I drink like a fish, but I need to talk to these guys [referring to the other delegates]."

According to some research he presents to the assembled, the number one customer complaint about staff is 'rudeness', of course it's going to be 'rudeness', the number one complaint about having to interact with other people in general is always going to be 'rudeness', but you can't just sit the word 'rudeness' out there on an island and generally apply it to customer service by and large especially not without factoring in the 'rudeness' of a customer. Admittedly my technique for dealing with a rude customer was to be even nicer to them in the hopes of belittling and patronising them with kindness, nobody can go to your manager and complain that you were too polite. But, some people do take customer service personally, on both sides of the transaction, and outside factors play a large role too. I was told at one job's pre-start date training to make sure we left our life at home, not in a horrible robotic way, but that personal problems aren't for the work place, and if it is something that is going to be an issue request a day off.

He says that it doesn't matter what the product is, the service is the same, it's about people, he mentions two products; lingerie and Mars bars. I'm sure lots of girls remember the last time they had to go to a fitting for a Mars bar.

This arse trumpet, sorry, 'guru', then goes on to tell a story about the customer service recevied by a friend of his when buying a Mercedes, of course, where someone buying a car differs to someone buying a Mars bar is in things like commission and the amount of money changing hands; the nature of the relationship. Often I walk around the 'lot' at my local newsagents unsure whether to go for a Twix or a Kit-Kat, and if I do get a Kit-Kat should it be the standard or the chunky... I never trust the opinion of the guy serving me, he's just thinking about that big fat kick-back he'll get from selling me the more expensive Kit-Kat Chunky, so, of course he's going to schmooze the pants off of me.

Conversely, to me, good customer service comes from a place of sincerity. I like going to my local corner shop, some of the staff there are very friendly, and I'm the type of customer that prefers to just drift in and out, but there's a jovial nature to the staff there that is appealing. But there's no real reason for them to act that way. There are staff members there who are very functional in their duties and barely acknowledge you. Don't mind, it's just a job, they can treat their service how they want, I'm just buying some milk. However, a car salesperson might offer you an insincere customer service experience in an effort to get you to feel at ease, to 'like' them and therefore be more inclined to buy their product. It's not about customer service for them, it's about comission, and your managers, your employers, and these conference speakers, who bandy around the term 'customer service' are using it as a 'euphemism' for their profiteering.

Indeed, a friend of mine was telling me recently about incentives offered during their Christmas temp job. If you up-sold extra items to customers at the checkout and managed to hit a target during the day you'd get a bag of sweets (a tiny Haribo bag no less, mmm, beef gelatin), alongside this confection you would also be singled out in front of your co-workers as having been brilliant that day, thus embarassing you and earning the contempt of your colleagues, and what do you have to show for it? Some Fangtastics.


The one sort-of-valid point this 'guru' makes, reinforcing something I said earlier, is you can't deliver good customer service if you yourself do not feel good. Now, if you're working a shitty job in shitty conditions for people who pay you shit all expect shit loads but don't give a shit about you, then you'll probably feel like shit. This was how I felt when I worked in a department store's coffee shop in Brighton, so I quit. (Unfortunately though, I was unable to get another job and ultimately had to move away from Brighton and live on a friend's sofa for six months, so quitting isn't a luxury available to everyone (especially more rational -and less impetuous - people than me)). However, when I worked in the gift shop of a Museum in London the staff at all levels were generally lovely and that was reflected in my behavior.

Having said that though, sometimes I would use my job as an escape from reality, here, in the workplace, I didn't have to face the problems outside of the store/warehouse/office, etc. I could be silly and carefree, and all I had to worry about was serving customers, tidying up, cashing out, locking up, etc. My existence could be left bundled up with my casual clothes in my locker. So, a workplace can be an escape, but only when your employers help foster an atmosphere that supports that, and the flimsy incentives most companies offer is no way to do that. We, the employees, all know, at the back of our minds, that, by and large, our employers are looking out for their profits and not the happiness of their staff.

He goes on to illustrate some workplace 'types' who he believes cause bad customer service. The first of which is someone who comes into work in a terrible mood - the reasons behind this mood that the guru gives are husband having an affair, teenage daughter pregnant again and teenage son on smack - now, clearly, this person needs some support and isn't finding it in her workplace, perhaps they don't have a support group outside of their family, and clearly their family aren't there for them to talk to, if she lacks friends then someone in upper management, or maybe even another colleague, needs to reach out.

As much as, in an ideal world, we should leave our emotions at home we do also have to earn a wage, and some people are afraid that if they take time off for personal problems then their workmates will resent them, which, according to this 'guru' they already seem to do, because she comes into work, she tries to shoulder her problems, but she can't help but feel awful, and I feel sorry for her, because she's got nobody and this chump thinks she should just put it under her hat and smile dopily at pictures of a new puppy someone's fawning over in the other corner of the office, well, no Mr. 'Guru', that's not how it should be, the only coda that would wrap up your version of events is the sentence "before turning the gun on herself" in the following day's newspaper.

The other four 'types' are the broadest of out-dated cliches created by people who probably only see human-shaped robots rather than actual people working behind desks.

He then goes on to get misty-eyed about the notion of saying thank you, he says "When you were a child you were told to say thank you all the time, when did that stop?" It stops when you shouldn't have to be told to say thank you any more, and you should be a decent enough human being to say it of your own volition. Almost all the people I know say please and thank you, they smile, they move out of the way, they give up their seat, they go out of their way for others, for friends and strangers, but in this 'guru's' bubble world everyone is a mean spirited, close minded "arse". Sometimes we see the world through a shade cast by our own eyes, if you're an arse then you'll either inspire arseiness in others or just assume that everyone else is an arse as well.

He ends his presentation with a bit about 'special talents' and about how long it would take to learn the alphabet backwards, before engaging in a prolonged and convoluted story about an ex-warrior named 'Zee-Why', this story farts along with call and response bits which ultimately spell out the alphabet backwards, but, of course, this isn't someone learning the alphabet backwards, this is just a bunch of people being prompted into a short term memory game and, if you asked them 30 minutes later, they'd struggle to remember the story and, more than likely, the only way they would remember would be to recite the alphabet backwards, which is a far easier task than putting up with this shit.

He says that it's not about learning the alphabet backwards, which is true, but then he says that it's about those things that we think take a lot longer to achieve can actually be achieveable in a shorter time if we change the way we look at them, of course, learning this story would take as long as - if not longer than - simply reversing the order of the alphabet. Which I shall now try to do quickly:


One mistake, and that took me about 30 seconds, if that. So, learning that backwards would probably take me 30 minutes, and I could adapt it into a sing-song version, much like when you learn the alphabet as a child, and easily repeat it from memory using that.

Interestingly his final point refers to the idea of having a teacher at school who you didn't like and how that you may not now even like that subject. Well, I had a teacher at school that I positively hated, she was pretty much pure evil, and she taught English, something I went on to study at University and continue to enjoy. Maybe I'm the exception that proves the rule? But a good friend of mine had the very same teacher, hated her with a passion, and also went on to study English and become a teacher himself.

In summary, why am I writing about this customer service 'guru'? Well, beyond the fact that it actually angered me that this man gets paid a substantial sum to go to conferences and talk this utter bollocks at people as if there's any validity to it whatsoever, and ignoring his casual sexism and lazy jokes, I wanted to ultimately make the point that there is so much kindness, warmth and politeness in the world but those who don't see it often choose not to see it. Sure, sometimes you have a bad day and that effects you at work, but people, I believe, generally don't intend to take it out on others, they're just caught off guard, or things mount up; like your evening plans suddenly being ruined by an impending deadline or a late-running train.

Misery is infectious, it's strange how when I've been commuting that if there's one commuter being an audible grump it begins to bleed through into the other passengers, it's like Newton's Cradle, you shove one way, eventually someone will shove back. I think it's highly unrealistic to expect the world to be sunshine and lollipops all the time, Lord knows it'd be hypocritical of me to suggest that, but I do try to shrug things off, or laugh things off, and endeavour - whether my curmudgeonly face allows it or not - to keep smiling, even when faced with absolute cockhats like that 'guru'.

Thank you, come again!

1 comment:

Favio Becker said...

I enjoyed this post, and took the liberty of sharing it on Google+ too.

Hope you're well,