Good customer service starts with the customer

Photo by Clem Onojeghuo on Unsplash

“I had a customer threaten to kill me and my family over two cents missing from their refund.”

This is an actual quote from someone in a Facebook group dedicated to customer service workers and their tales of woe. I joined this group shortly after starting at my new customer service job, mostly so that I could see if other people had it worse than I. They did.

“A customer started throwing things at my head and called me a slur. I still had to apologize to her.”

Unless the people in this group are borderline evil and frequently enter psychopathic rages during the workday, I can’t imagine a scenario in which they -or any other customer service employee- deserves that kind of treatment. These stories are indicative of a larger problem regarding the way we perceive service employees based on the way we’ve been sociologically coded to; for instance, the dehumanizing power of standing behind a counter to assist someone. The counter or desk acts as a physical and psychological barrier; it places a visceral distance between ourselves and the people serving us, which causes us to subconsciously view them as different and often lesser-than.

Good customer service is a combination of many skills: public speaking, expectation management, organization, and creative problem-solving are all a vital part of delivering an overall positive experience. But negative feedback still happens even when all these skills are mastered and used during an interaction. This is because many customers who complain are entering into that interaction with a clear idea of how they believe it should go, and unfortunately, that script is rarely followed.

We can’t help the fact that we feel a little entitled as consumers. American society has led us to believe that when we spend money on something, that means we own it, and therefore we also own the entire experience of purchasing it. The uniform doesn’t help, either. When you walk into a Best Buy and see those blue polo shirts alongside the big blue walls, you’re being coded to perceive the employees as extensions of the company. So when one of those employees tells you you’re ineligible for a refund, you’re more likely to feel like that minimum-wage college student is the one who created the disagreeable policy and therefore deserves your rage.

We can’t help the fact that we feel a little entitled as consumers.

For those non-physical interactions, such as an online helpdesk or a call center, the dehumanization is only made worse by the fact that you can’t see the person helping you. Studies show that seeing someone’s face helps you empathize with them, so when you’re receiving a Zendesk email or call, it’s harder to stomach bad news about your request for a return label.

“As mammals, we are hard-wired to respond to each others’ expressions,” says Clinical Psychologist Wendy Sabbath, Ph.D. “In the absence of visual input, people project their emotions on the other or they have repressed anger, and it’s a convenient way to discharge rage which they feel has no social consequences for them.”

Our biases as consumers also tell us that people working in “lower-level” customer-facing jobs must be uneducated or unhirable when in reality the customer service workforce is highly diverse. Even as we wait in line for our $2 burger made from pure grease and goodness-knows-what, we still believe that the person counting our change has less dignity than ourselves. Even if the entire front-line workforce were uneducated, the idea that the level of respect someone is entitled to runs concurrent to their level of education is classist and often rooted in racism and sexism.

I say all this knowing full well that not all customers are hateful, bitter human beings with an authority complex and a disregard for customer service employees. Most people can take some frustrating news and either cut their losses or ask for a manager without being aggressive about it. I’m not innocent, either — while I always try to be as kind and courteous as possible to service workers, once or twice I’ve found myself writing an email or review that could be interpreted as, well, dramatic.

People are demanding great customer service and an overall perfect or near-perfect experience, whether they’re shopping online or visiting a theme park. Despite this, the aforementioned barriers prevent them from feeling content with their experience and therefore set customer service workers up for failure. Many places — digital and otherwise — offer feedback forms or ask customers to rate their experience, and when those scores fall too low, it’s their jobs and livelihood that are at risk.

Even as we wait in line for our $2 burger made from pure grease and goodness-knows-what, we still believe that the person counting our change has less dignity than ourselves.

Contrary to popular belief, however, good customer service isn’t just giving the customer everything they want. It’s not catering to their every wish and handing over cash like it’s a hold-up. It’s not even being obnoxiously polite and returning flirtatious advances with glee. Good customer service is about the perception of fairness, and too often service employees are treated unfairly by customers and by their own employees. Those employees are being set up for failure by the very nature of their position, either due to a uniform, a physical barrier, or virtual communication — and those are just from customer biases.

I’m reminded of being a 15-year-old student on my very first day of my very first customer service job working at a world-class nonprofit institution. While I was working the register at the in-house movie theater, an adult woman screamed -yes, actually screamed- at me in front of an entire line of people (and my manager, who did nothing to help) because I wouldn’t let her friends enter through the emergency exit. Not only was this a security issue, but it was also a scam issue — she was clearly trying to avoid ponying up the $40 general admission fee.

Thankfully, a brave stranger stood between me and the woman and defended me from her tirade. At that point, I was too traumatized to do anything and took an early lunch break to cry in the washing station. My point in all this is that the woman was infuriated with my level of service, but the reality is that my service was fine — it was her perception of fairness that impacted her happiness. In order to maintain safety and fairness to the other guests, there was no way I could give her what she wanted. I don’t remember if she ever complained about me, but I was in a fortunate position where one or two complaints wouldn’t threaten my job. Many people are not so lucky.

The other part of the problem is that the misconception of what constitutes good customer service extends to the executive level. C-suite doesn’t want to hear that someone lower down the line lost a customer’s business because of the way they were treated. They don’t care that the customer wanted an additional 50% discount on an item that was already 75% off, they care that the subsequent Twitter rant destroyed their PR for the day. Unfortunately, the people creating company policies are rarely the ones actually enforcing them, so they’ll likely never have to face the inevitable vitriol.

Customer service employees are told that “the customer is always right”, which is great in theory, but not so much in practice. As a result of this mantra, employees are forced to work long hours on their feet and take abuse from dozens of customers every week (if not every day). If a customer says jump, the employee jumps without asking about height requirements. The impact on their mental and physical health can have long-term consequences, and that’s to say nothing of how they begin to perceive their own company.

The people creating company policies are rarely the ones actually enforcing them.

Treating customer service workers poorly comes from both ends — both from the customers and the employers. Employees who feel jaded and abandoned by their company are a flight risk, and the subsequent revolving door can get expensive and exhausting. Because C-suite is rarely exposed to customer experience, they are usually unable to properly grasp how draining and frustrating the day-to-day can be for their employees. The lack of communication begets unreasonable or difficult-to-enforce policies, and the cycle continues.

Without enough incentive to stay, whether in the form of monetary compensation or otherwise, employee retention, and eventually customer retention, tanks. As much as supervisors would like to believe that their employees’ motivation for delivering service with a smile is completely intrinsic, the reality is that that smile usually lasts just long enough to get a decent tip or a positive satisfaction rating.

In contrast, when customer service employees are given more autonomy and better working conditions, it becomes easier to tackle the stress of irate customers and to come up with creative solutions for more complicated service issues. They’re more motivated to deliver excellent service because they’re being properly rewarded for it in the form of bonuses, time off, or even a sincere pat on the back. Think about it: have you ever spoken to a service clerk and could immediately tell how they felt about their job?

If an interaction with a sales clerk ever feels insincere, it’s probably because they’re feeling a lack of sincerity and gratitude from their own superiors. The way employees treat customers can be a reflection on how they feel they’re being treated by their company, says Sabbath. If someone is already prone to externalizing their unhappiness (“you made me feel X”) rather than internalizing (“I’m upset because X happened”), they’re more likely to project that unhappiness onto customers. This is not to say that everyone who works in customer service is likely to take out their anger or sadness on customers, rather, people who already have a tendency to excessively personalize are more likely to deliver a less-than-perfect customer service experience.

In short, happy people tend to spread their joy. It’s already a proven fact that happy employees tend to perform better, so it shouldn’t come as a surprise that customer service employees who are being treated fairly by both customers and employers are more likely to deliver higher-quality service for a longer period of time without getting burned out.

Customer service employees are the hardest to retain, despite the fact that they’re often the face of the company and therefore fill one of the most important roles. The turnover has nothing to do with how difficult it is to be issue refunds and log complaints; it has everything to do with the emotional labor these employees are required to perform 20–60 hours per week.

The way employees treat customers can be a reflection on how they feel they’re treated by their company.

When it comes to preventing turnover, employers and customers must protect the service workers first. Employers should practice empathy and implement new policies regarding how customer service employees behave on the job. Increasing face time with customers (even just allowing employees to include profile photos of themselves on their helpdesk emails), losing the jumpsuit-like uniforms, and listening to employee feedback are just a few small steps they can take to ensuring their employees feel comfortable on the job.

Then it’s up to us, the consumers, to do the rest. Practicing empathy, acknowledging our own biases, and getting into the habit of reading the fine print (rather than relying on finding out what’s in the metaphorical or literal contract after the ink has dried) are all ways we can reprogram ourselves to be better customers, and therefore experience what we perceive to be better customer service.

There are exceptions to every rule of course, and there are plenty of situations in which customer service is completely out of the customer’s control, such as in the ride-sharing industry. It’s not always the right thing, or the safest thing for that matter, to be overly polite and forgiving. There are always scenarios in which an employee is overly hostile or even discriminatory against otherwise innocent customers. But for most day-to-day interactions, whether with a bank teller, a server, or a cashier, the most effective way to walk out feeling emotionally satisfied is to practice radical acceptance and empathy.

Rewiring ourselves to accept what we may initially believe to be a lower quality of service is no small task; in a society that perceives the entire shopping process to be a form of consumption in and of itself, we’re burdened with the task of relinquishing some of our control over our own purchases. As Americans who value property and ownership, this can be a tall order, but in doing so we are not only empowering ourselves to feel more satisfied in our experiences, but happier and more content overall.



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