The dignity of customer service

Photo by Ricky Brigante

When I started my first job as a supermarket clerk, I dreaded going in. I needed the money to feed my weed and D&D habit though, so I gritted my teeth and dragged myself to work every Saturday. After a few weeks something strange happened – I found myself enjoying my time behind the checkout!

I'd grown up with the idea of any kind of service job as shameful and embarassing. In Britain, there were still a lot of holdover attitudes from the Downton Abbey days of servants and lords. Somebody working in a job where you had to do things for people off the street risked losing face and descended down the class hierarchy. The usual defense was surliness; "You're looking down on me? I'll show you I'm not at your beck and call!".

I was lucky enough to be at Tescos, which in the early 90's was the scrappy upstart of the supermarket world, and their killer advantage was a different approach to customer service. As my supervisor patiently explained to me:

"The women you'll see have just spent an hour dragging screaming toddlers around the store after a full day of work. They'll likely be in a foul mood by the time they reach your checkout, but don't take it personally. They're so focused on their own worries, they don't even see you! If they lash out, just listen to them patiently, and let them know they're being heard. They take their cues off you, so if you react calmly instead of being upset, most of them calm down too. And if you take the high ground and smile sweetly, you don't give the few nasty ones the satisfaction of getting to you. This is the hardest part of your job, so take pride in doing it well."

It was never an easy job but I found there was a real dignity in it, once I treated good customer service as something I could take internal pride in, rather than being shameful and servile.

I've been thinking about this a lot after reading Andrew Sullivan's posts on the subject. He's made the same journey from Britain to the US, and shares my joy in the American dedication to good customer service. A lot of his readers don't agree, complaining that it's soul-violating to be forced to "treat callers like royalty". I'm not trying to romanticize any entry-level job, but a professional attitude to customer interactions was the best armor I had against the emotional assaults that the general public inflicts. It gave me good boundaries so I could approach awkward customers as a problem to be handled, not a reflection on my own self-worth.

This became especially important once I moved to Manchester, and to pay for college spent a year working at an infamous chain called Kwik Save. It was known for its "No Frills" brand, and everything about the store lived up to the slogan. Even box cutters were precious items given to honored employees, while the rest of us improvised using keys or pens to poke through the sticky tape. Management also embraced a distinctly old-fashioned approach to customer service – "The people who shop here are scum, we have to treat them like scum" as the manager Mr Albinson put it!

I kept to my Tesco training as much as I could, but I found being in an environment of bad customer service was far more soul-destroying than my old job. Employees would argue and even yell at shoppers, and they'd get sucked into all sorts of petty disputes. Everyone left work a lot more upset than they ever did at Tescos. Losing the shield of professionalism made the inevitable friction with customers far more soul-destroying than it had to be.

That all means that articles like Timothy Noah's leave me hopping mad. A close member of my family is a long-time Pret employee, with multiple awards for great customer service (which are good chunks of cash, and shared with the whole team), and he's not been brainwashed by a cultish corporation. He's a good guy working a tough job, and part of it is treating customers extremely well. Sure, Pret employees may not be allowed to have an off day, but only in the same way that they aren't allowed to drop the sandwiches on the floor. Doctors, lawyers, and anyone who has to deal with the public has a work persona they need to adopt to effectively do their job. It's patronizing to assume that clerks and servers aren't making the same kind of tradeoffs as people in more prestigious professions.

Expecting everyone who wants to give you money to deal with your emotional baggage is a luxury few of us can afford. There are a lot of genuine problems out there, like the awful working conditions that many service employees have to suffer, but most companies that care about employees appearing happy have figured out that treating them decently is a big help. Don't take away the dignity of great customer service givers by assuming they're silently suffering as they smile, and need your protection. They're secure on their side of the professional barrier, and the most helpful thing you can do is give them the respect they deserve.

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