Customer Service (Or: Just Be Nice)

Traveling across China in the early 1980s when Communism prevailed, I learned that “customer service” is really more of a Capitalist expectation.  The response to a request for just about anything was usually one word that sounded to me like “Mei-o” – a purposely ambiguous answer that essentially meant something like, “Go away, we don’t have any, just f-off”. This was a stark contrast to my life in Kyoto where customers in the teeniest corner shop are treated like celebrities,  with deep bowing and an abundance of “Domo Arigato”s sweetly offered for even the smallest purchase.

I have worked in the same bookstore now for more than 15 years. I like it. I appreciate the unexpectedness of every day, my encounters with different characters. I love what we sell and meeting new people, seeing the regulars, many who have become my friends. I love talking books on a daily basis.

Some days can be tough though, especially during this busy holiday season. Customers can be harried, impatient when we’re short handed or frustrated by someone who is new and not up to speed yet. Yes, even book people can be rude and sometimes downright mean. I try and swallow it.

This morning, I went shopping in my local grocery store. I ventured out early hoping to beat the hordes but even at 7:00 AM the place was hopping. Besides being less than 5 minutes from my house, this store stocks locally sourced produce and prides itself on great customer service, and in the long time I’ve been shopping there, they’ve always delivered it. Except this morning.

I just wanted to know where the lobster tails were. After all, there was a huge sign indicating they were on sale – but only crab legs and shrimp packed the freezer – nary a lobster tail.

“Excuse me,” I stopped a man nearby who looked managerial in his white coat. He gave me an annoyed look as I asked him, ”Where are the lobster tails?” then swooped his arm dramatically towards the sign with a look that said, “Duh?!”

My usually low blood pressure soared but I calmly responded, ”There are none there.”

This past week I spent more than 50 hours on my feet, helping customers. Now maybe he has too, and maybe he’s pissed off about the over-fishing of the world’s oceans? Hey, I feel great solidarity with my comrades working in stores – especially at this time of year – but I really had just asked the question, no attitude.

He flipped behind a few frozen shrimp bags before calling to one of his minions to get the lobster tails.

“I guess I’m not so stupid after all, eh?” I said as I walked away from him. I just couldn’t resist throwing a barb at him. Why couldn’t I just leave it? Why am I even writing about it now? It was momentary and he was flip. I certainly have been guilty of that. But I’ll be even more careful now because it doesn’t feel good to be on the receiving end, no matter what side of the proverbial counter you are on.

I won’t say I’ve never been snarky at work – but over the years in the business I’ve gotten better at controlling the impulse of a snotty retort. Because who knows what’s up with them? And maybe I can make things better by instead being kind and apologetic if things aren’t going right for them, in our store or in their life. I really believe that and try to be nice. Period.

That’s why, after my own long week of holiday retail madness, this guy’s rudeness stung.  Those lobster tails better be good.

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4 Responses to Customer Service (Or: Just Be Nice)

  1. Re: China. I used to find the same thing in Communist countries, and came to the conclusion that it was just because they had no investment in the store or company they were working for. They wouldn’t get fired whether they were great or dreadful, so why bother? That’s not true in America, but I know it takes a lot to stay on your feet all day and still be patient at the end of it. So, good for you!
    PS: I love the smell of bookstores almost as much as the books…:)

  2. Lea Sylvestro says:

    Oh yes….I would have felt hurt by that flippant response too….and absolutely needed to voice a comeback. You are so good to do the mental dance in putting yourself in his shoes. I would have felt a little off, a little hurt for a while. Such a good reminder of the reverse…what a difference it makes when someone is particularly kind or cheery…ripples….XO Hope the lobster tails are delish!

  3. DALMA HEYN says:

    I know someone who responds to rudeness like his by whispering to the offender, in very worried, confidential tones, “You know, sir, you really should consider another line of work. You don’t look well. This job is clearly making you terribly ill.”

  4. Jacque Masumian says:

    I could really feel in your writing the sting of that encounter. So upsetting and hard to shrug off, but you managed to do that.

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