Taking the Servant out of Customer Service
I don’t often go into too much detail about what I do, and more importantly what I stand for, but lately I’ve been sitting on some thoughts about what it means to be a woman in a customer service field.
I manage a grab-and-go lunchtime market. For the most part, I run the ship myself. Almost all of the food is prepared by me, I clean the counters, I sweep the floors, and I interact with the customers. I have a steady stream of kind regulars who grab their sandwiches and salads and go about the rest of their day. My interaction with customers is nearly always pleasant. Because the market is in the downtown area, occasionally a homeless or “crazy” person will come in the shop and ask for money, or food, or sit down and make me uncomfortable, but as a whole, I’ve not experienced too much trouble at my little shop.
But as I said before, there have been a few times when my interaction with actual customers (not people wandering in off the street,) has been unpleasant. I can think of two times in particular that I’ve had bad and downright aggressive experience with guests, and those two times the people giving me grief weren’t crazy, or impoverished, they were rich, white, 30 something dudes, who didn’t get exactly what they wanted, at exactly the time they wanted it. I’m not about to go into a huge diatribe about dirty millennials, because, guess what? I am one of them. I’m also not attempting to attack all white men. But I am going to talk a minute about what it means to be in customer service.
Being in customer service means that sometimes things go wrong and you have to apologize for that which you have no control. Customer service means having to smile even when you’ve had a shitty day. Customer service means validating a customer’s complaint, even if you think it’s trivial. Customer service means having to do a lot of things that you may not want to do. But there is one thing that I’ve learned customer service DOESN’T mean. Being in customer service does not mean that I will allow myself to be mistreated. Just because there is a counter or a bar separating me from my customer, doesn’t mean that a customer gets to be aggressive because I ran out of chicken salad (seriously, that happened.) When you are the customer, you get to be right, but you don’t get to be mean and hostile.
When the dude got pissed in my shop, it was scary. He was volatile, I was alone, he was unpredictable, and I had to remain in control of the situation. Sure, it wasn’t ideal to run out of something, but guess what? Shit happens: people eat, and some days we are inexplicably busier than others. I had to stand up for myself. From a business standpoint, perhaps I was in the wrong, but from a personal standpoint, I cannot allow a man to scream in my face. I wouldn’t allow anyone to talk to me that way.
I could chalk his behavior up to hanger, because I certainly struggle with that myself, but it was more than that. Somewhere in my serving career, I sensed a shift. I am inclined to blame Yelp, letting every Joe Schmo who has ever been to Applebee’s insert their opinion about their dining experience, while knowing little to nothing about actually being a diner. Somewhere it shifted and customers at a restaurant started actually treating their server like shit. As I waitress I remember thinking that just because I am your server, doesn’t mean I’m your servant. Just because I’m waiting on you doesn’t mean that you don’t have to say please and thank you, or even “hello” rather than “give me a water” when I approach your table.
I don’t want to sound ungrateful for the business, and the lovely customers who walk through the door and keep my little market alive. The people who walk through that door are lovely, and are supporting a small business. They are the ones who allow me to cook and bake for a living, the things I love to do the most, I am so grateful for their support. I think it’s also worth mentioning that I don’t automatically assume all 30 year old white guys are going to be aggressive. That behavior is the exception, not the norm.
But I, and many other service industry people I know still experience aggression and entitlement on a day to day. What I would love to see less of is the entitlement some people exhibit for what they want without the understanding of what they’re getting, and how they are getting it. What I would like to see more of is compassion rather than aggression, and actual appreciation for the people who wait on you — who serve you. In my experience, service industry folks are some of the hardest workers around, and a smile from a guest goes a long way. If you can’t find it in your heart to be nice to the people who serve you, then please, pack your lunch. And if you NEED your chicken so badly that you feel like you might snap at an unsuspecting shop girl, then there is a McDonald’s right around the corner, I hear they’ve got plenty.