Plastic Plea – Please Be Kind To Those In Customer Service

Photo via Flickr: fernando_graphicos

I noticed a comment on Facebook this morning, regarding “checkers” at Vons and how annoying it is that they refer to you by your last name and tell you how much you’ve saved.

Now, let me just say, I don’t disagree with this view. It is a bit annoying. However, I kindly pointed out that the Vons employees hardly have a choice in the matter; those policies are all dictated by corporate. You see, my mother works for Safeway, and has since her early twenties – nearly thirty years. I’ve straight up asked her if she feels like a dumbass sending off every person who schleps through her line with a “thanks Mr./Mrs. T, you’ve saved XYZ dollars.” And, of course she does. I mean, who wouldn’t?

It’s not a secret that corporate mucky-mucks are frightfully detached from the reality of the store-line trenches. I work for a corporate retailer, and when I enter one of our stores, I see it. Our store staff never shut up; we always have at least 5 live promotions they are forced to “suggest” to the customer. It’s no wonder they cannot maintain any of the visual standards I send their way – they’re too busy trying to keep up with the constant promotional changes and sales.

You’ve encountered it. I challenge you to find ONE specialty mall retailer who will not try and up-sell you a credit card or reward program at the register. A few years ago, I had to walk out of a Body Shop store because an employee would not leave me alone. She was like a gnat buzzing in my ear. I figured I should leave before I snapped at her. I just wanted some damn Body Butter!

And, they rarely get any money for their efforts. They are not working on commission, they’re working for a gold star on the employee list hanging in the stock room, or a mention in the corporate-wide weekly memo. If they’re ambitious, they’re likely positioning themselves for a promotion to store or district manager. Numbers matter, and it’s not only sales. UPT is an acronym to remember – Units Per Transaction. When that girl at Banana Republic is suggesting the sale jewelry? She’s trying to bump up her UPT. When I worked for a mall retailer, 3 was the magic UPT number. I can only imagine what it is these days.

Even working in corporate creative, one has to think about ADT (Average Dollar per Transaction). If you’re developing a new item, how many coordinating pieces should also be developed? When you’re directing the stores on a fixture set, what are the product adjacencies?

We’re thinking about you, the customer, more than you might think. How you interact with the product, how you spend your money, how you move about within a retail space and what motivates you to purchase.

I have a great deal of respect for those who work in the service industry. It’s an often thankless job that doesn’t pay much, which is why there’s nearly always high turnover. I have worked at a coffee shop (my first job), a specialty mall retailer (I was berated by countless customers and cried on the floor at least 5 times), an upscale boutique (much nicer, but more high maintenance, customer base) and as a waitress (a Greek place, I set someones hair on fire when lighting an Opa Saganaki appetizer). I know of what I speak. People often assume you’re unambitious, stupid or without skill. You’re often looked at with pity or complete disregard. It’s really disgusting how some people treat those in customer service, and I have absolutely no tolerance for it. Because, working with people, helping people, should be a positive experience, for both parties. I don’t want anyone to assume that it’s all shit. I can’t tell you how many great interactions I had with customers throughout my time working in retail.

It’s a two-way street between the customer and the individual supplying the service. I’m not suggesting that the asshole at Best Buy shouldn’t be reported to a manager. But it’s important to remember the barriers that the service person themselves might be up against.

Sometimes They Really Can’t Help

There’s no problem with asking to see or speak with a manager or supervisor. But, if the lower ranking person has been nice enough, there’s no reason to treat him/her like shit because your return or your bill adjustment must be done by someone in upper management. There’s no need to say “this person won’t help me.” Because 90% of the time, it’s not that they won’t, it’s that they cannot. The manager likely will not correct you (you’re the customer, after all) and you’ll just make the lower ranking person feel like crap, and you’ll sound like an asshole. I’ve seen countless people spend ridiculous amounts of time fighting with people in retail over the stupidest things. I once stood behind a woman at Cost Plus who was bitching and moaning over A DOLLAR because she felt that the “Buy One, Get One” sign was written incorrectly. 15 fucking minutes. She looked like a complete dumbass. But I was happy to wait while the only two people in the store stood their ground.

And Sometimes They Have No Choice

Remember that girl from Body Shop? I told you I walked out because I couldn’t take her aggressiveness? There are a lot of eager beavers out there, and I can usually shut them up with a firm “I am just looking, I will let you know if I need some help, thanks!” Sometimes I need to walk away. The combination of a sugary sweet (read: fake) personality and corporate sales requirements can be a tough pill to swallow. That said, most sales people are just doing their job, or what they are told. When I was working for a mall retailer, I was forced to adhere to the following rules:

  • I had to greet customers before they got more than 1/3 of the way into the store.
  • If there was a promotion/sale going on, I had to spew the same stupid line to each person (i.e. “I just want to let you know that we’re having a great sale on our basic tee – buy one and get the second for half off!!”).
  • I had to up-sell items at the dressing room. If someone said no to my suggestion, I had to bring it to them anyhow.
  • I had to up-sell our credit card at the register. Twice.
  • I had to ask customers making returns if they wanted to exchange for another item. Twice.

One time, I had greeted a rather pissy customer, a woman in her late 40’s, when my manager (a total sociopath) came up behind me. “Go and tell that customer about our denim sale.” “I already did,” I said. She grabbed me by my arm and muttered into my ear, “go, now.” I shuffled back over to the customer, feeling my manager’s eyes burning into my back. I hadn’t even gotten two words in before the woman whipped around and came down on me like a ton of bricks. I burst into tears and ran into the back room.

Sometimes, as a customer, you just have a suck it up and say “no thanks” more than once. Please, for the love of God, don’t bitch out the innocents!

You Can Catch More Flies With Honey

A lot of people can’t seem to get their teeny, tiny brains around this one. It must be pride. If you enter into a conversation with someone mad, defensive and bitchy, it’s not going to do you any favors. Even if you feel you’ve been wronged. You will put the other person on the defensive straight-away, and the encounter is more likely to spiral downward. This goes for ANY conversation, not just one between you and a customer service representative. In fact, if you’ve worked with people, ever, you’ll know that “customer service” can roughly be translated into “how to deal with people and get what you want or need.”

Have A Little Empathy, Please

You don’t need to have customer service experience to know its challenges. If you see that someone is busy juggling three customers, don’t tap your foot, sigh loudly and stare – talk about passive aggressive. Being left alone to manage a store or getting stuck with a co-waiter’s 5 two-tops can increase a person’s stress level exponentially. My general rule is this – when I need service and the person is busy – I give them a few moments to acknowledge me. This means a “I will be right with you,” or “I will be back in a moment to take your order.” Even a smile or nod will sometimes suffice. If I am being flat-out ignored I will say something. If it looks as though the person is totally overwhelmed, I will go back later.

Think Of All The Assholes Out There

I know you’ve run into a few. If they are jerks to everyone, imagine how much jerkier they are to service professionals. There is a certain breed of individual who believes people in customer service are their slaves. They abuse them, they show them no respect; in a word, they’re total assholes. Just remember that the average customer service individual will run into one of these people at least once a day.

Everyone Has Bad Days

This is always a tough sell, because many people feel that if someone is working in a customer service position, they don’t have the luxury of bad days. And, to a certain degree this is true. However, shit happens. A bad mood can usually be tempered with a smile and a “hello, how are you?” They have to deal with your shitty moods, and sometimes you will be forced to deal with theirs. A bad mood does not equate to someone who is blatantly ignoring you, being a bitch/asshole, deliberately not assisting you or being totally unresponsive. I’m certainly not suggesting that you take any abuse, from anyone. Just remember that people in customer service are human. Their cats die, their boyfriends dump them, they overdraw their bank accounts.

Don’t Be A Stingy Tipper

I’m a stickler about this. I don’t tell anyone outright how to tip, but I have very firm opinions about it. I am a ridiculously generous tipper. I was like this before I worked as a waitress. On average I will tip 20%. If it’s bare-bones service at a casual joint, I might tip 15%, but it’s a rarity. Good/decent service will get you 20%, great service will earn you 25%, and if you hook me up with free shit, expect at least 30%.

I do NOT accept the “but I’m too poor to tip well” excuse. If you can afford to go out to dinner or get your hair done, you can manage a decent tip.

I do accept poor tips for poor service. If I am treated badly, I have no problem leaving no tip at all. Thankfully, this has not happened…..

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15 Responses to “Plastic Plea – Please Be Kind To Those In Customer Service”

  1. SarahMC Says:

    This was good. And so thorough!
    I don’t understand that disconnect between corporate policy & how it plays out on the ground. Do the suits not shop on a regular basis and realize that pushiness is off-putting?
    I worked for Gap Kids as a teenager (and during college), and I was mortified when I had to work as a greeter – forcing a “Happy Holidays; who are you shopping for today?” within 10 seconds once a person entered the store.

  2. Laura (pinkyBella) Says:

    I hear you. I worked at a shoe store one summer in high school and at a Greek cafe in college. People are rude and thoughtless. I always try to be nice to customer service people. One time, my mom totally bitched out a cashier at Blockbuster b/c of the return policy. I was mortified!! I got in the car and told her it was not the girl’s fault the return policy sucked. Then she felt bad, I’m glad I made her feel guilty.

    A little empathy and respect go a long way. It’s the Golden Rule: Treat people how you want to be treated.

  3. May Says:

    It’s so weird reading this post from Israel, because customer service here is such a circus. My cousin is a customer service rep for a cellphone company, and she’s had knives pulled at her, guns put in her face, and had a customer throw a computer in the store. Also, her customers kept showing up during the war even though there was lots of rocket fire in that town. But they wanted their cellphones upgraded! Craziness.

    It’s such a madhouse, and as a customer, you get no points for being nice to the salespeople. They only respond to you if you’re an ass (or at least a little aggressive). Otherwise they don’t respect you.

    It is out of control.

  4. Claire Says:

    Great advice and like Sarah said, very thorough. I always do my best to be as polite as possible to customer service people. I’ve had to work many a receptionist job and know how frustrating it is to have be pleasant and polite even while dealing with rude people. Though I do make one exception and that’s when dealing with Verizon. I have to deal with Verizon all the time in my current position and try as I might, I just cannot be nice to anyone who works at that company. I don’t know if they are poorly trained or if they only hire people with a high level of total incompetency, or what, but I’ve never once had a phone conversation with a Verizon employee that didn’t make me fear for the future of the human race all the while wishing that I could just shoot myself in the head and end the whole mess.

  5. Sukie Says:

    I bet if everyone had to work retail for at least 6 months, then everyone would treat employees better.

    …I’m just happy that Target has started making their receipts shorter…

  6. Britni Says:

    THANK YOU for this. As someone that worked retail for years, I know how assholeish people can be. The biggest things that I learned?

    1) Most of the time, employees really do know what they’re talking about! We CAN help. Don’t be afraid to ask for it, its what we’re there for!

    2) Talking on your cellphone while getting rung up is REALLY, REALLY RUDE. You may not be aware of it, but it’s basically like telling the employee that they don’t exist and don’t matter. Hang up or put the phone down while the person is ringing up your stuff. Seriously.

  7. Unpossible Says:

    This is wonderful, thanks for writing! I worked as a barista for six years, and encountered everything from insanely nice customers who chatted, tipped generously, and even brought us holiday presents, to perennially grumpy and obnoxious customers who viewed the customer-salesperson interaction as a war. I have also, as a customer, encountered servicepeople who were belligerent and grossly incompetent. On the whole, I feel that if we try to approach the interaction with a spirit of cooperation and generosity on both sides, it could save everyone a lot of ridiculousness.

  8. pennyplastic Says:

    I am VERY sensitive to the cell phone thing. If I am on the phone in line I will click off when I need to, you know, actually interact with another person.

  9. Claudia (Bluebears) Says:

    I worked as a waitress at Big Boys and Chilis in college and at Victorias Secret in High School. If nothing else, those experiences taught me that I needed to get an advanced degree because I could NOT spend the next 30 years of my life being treated like a piece of shit, no a DUMB piece of shit by so many people that I interacted with at work. Seriously, like 99% percent of the shit that annoys coming from people in the service industry is stuff they either have to do or completely beyond their control. One woman at Big Boy lost her shit at me because the salad bar was out of cheese. Cheese.

  10. Claudia (Bluebears) Says:

    for fairness sake, I did also encounter some really nice people, but you always remember the jerks.

  11. Kivrin Says:

    I worked in a mall music store during h.s./college, so I am very familiar with the forced “greeting” and register up-sells. I was so noticeably uncomfortable in the greeter position, my boss only made me do it once—not the job for painfully shy introverts! But I definitely did my share of “would you like to purchase these CD wipes for only 99 cents?” So I’m always nice when people ask me that stuff in stores. I know they’re only asking because they have to.

  12. nenasadije Says:

    i find that being nice as a customer has a direct correlation to the amount of free (or reduced cost) shit you’ll get. tip your bartenders well, learn their name, there will always be a free drink waiting at the end of the night when you’ve “misplaced” your wallet. throw your change and a few bills in the barista’s jar, watch the free refills suddenly appear. frequent the local sub joint with a smile, extra pickles, olives and sub sauce are yours for the taking. strike up a conversation with your local mall’s retail kids, you may just get the secret to an extra 50% discount on any item that ends in $0.97.

    it’s all about respect.

  13. bebehblog Says:

    Sarah – I have NO IDEA how the higher ups come up with this crap. I worked at a Brookstone over the holidays during college and was expected to sell at least two massage chairs and one Tempurpedic mattress every week. Do you know how much that shit costs? And we were a small store in a hotel lobby, it’s not like people bought massage chairs as souvenirs of their South Carolina vacation. I had to quit because I couldn’t take the constant pressure from management to bug the crap out of the customers.

    I always pull out my super extra polite attitude for phone customer service. Those people usually have access to my account info and the ability to hang up on me if I start yelling. Plus most of the time they’re so stunned by a nice request they’ll help you with almost anything.

  14. aspiringexpatriate Says:

    See, whenever I worked retail or as a waiter, I always silently refused to upsell. Course, I almost always got fired too. Funny that.

    And talking on a cell phone while getting rung up is incredibly rude, but I get the feeling that the people who do that are the same people who talk on a phone while walking with friends or while a passenger in their friends’ cars and expect the friend to turn down the music for a non-important phone call. Fucking pricks.

    Cell phones have really just allowed people to be complete assholes for no reason.

  15. Lindsay Says:

    Thank you for this! I’ve been ranting about this for years. The only good dating advice my mother ever gave me was never to go on a second date with a bad tipper or someone who is rude to the waitstaff. I worked in a series of soul-crushing customer service and food service positions during high school and college. While I remember the assholes most vividly, I can’t overstate the effect of a kind word from a customer on a crappy day.

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