Planes have been held for me. Librarians at two different branches have invited me to parties at their homes. Without asking, I have been upgraded to business class, got a 50% discount on a hotel room, and got a free room upgrade two rungs nicer than what we paid for. I’ve been hugged by clerks at two stores in the same day. At least a dozen baristas know not only my drink, but my cup, and they often have my order ready before I have a chance to pay. Sometimes they undercharge me or give me freebies. Believe me, you want to know all my secrets.
A coffee shop is a laboratory of human behavior. Hang around long enough, even in one afternoon, and you’ll see the complete gamut of introversion and extroversion, study habits, flirtations, arguments, parenting styles, gait and posture, facial expressions, body language, vocal tones, grooming and hygiene, and of course, manners. That’s why I go. I can certainly make my own tea at home, and I usually do, but there is no substitute to eavesdropping for a budding novelist. Unfortunately, most of the vignettes that capture my attention involve rude, entitled, or completely mystifying shabby behavior.
The woman who shouted at the entire staff at top volume, then walked away and came back to do it again a total of three times. In front of her small child. Over a $4 drink that was replaced.
The woman who shouted throughout the store, on her path out the door, that the barista who didn’t put on the caramel drizzle was deliberately mean to her child. “YOU NEED TO BE NICE!”
The woman who insisted on four Frappucinos being remade because the whipped cream didn’t go to the very top of the lids, then demanded that it be squirted down the straw hole.
(Why does it always seem to be women?)
I’ve also seen a grown man lay his head on a countertop, cry, and beat his fist because he didn’t want to pay the fine to retrieve his dog that was picked up by Animal Control. Similarly, I’ve seen a man shout loudly enough to clearly reach the back wall of a large open-plan office building because he didn’t want to pay his property taxes. I’ve seen a man walk into a store with his family and loudly demand a personal shopper because “we don’t have much time.” At Sax Fifth Avenue? At Nordstrom? No, at Ross Dress for Less.
There are people who seem fixated on bad customer service. They seem to have a persecution complex over why they can never get their needs met. You know, the type that are always sending their plate back at restaurants. We have a joke about this. You didn’t get “bad customer service.” You got “BAD CUSTOMER” service! Lack of manners and protocol can turn what should have been ordinary, and could have been fantastic, into something stressful and disappointing. The sad part is that these people have no idea that they are creating their own worst nightmares.
My husband and I live in Easy World. Part of our bond is that we are both cheerful people who like chatting up taxi drivers, hotel clerks, waiters, cashiers, or anyone else we meet. I mean, the reason we got to know each other is that he always makes a point of befriending the office assistants wherever he works. (Luckily I was a special case amongst my tribe). We glide along getting that extra-special treatment that money can’t buy, because we make ourselves easy to please. We’re good customers. In fact, just a few weeks ago we were told, “You guys are the best customers we’ve had in a month!” – based on our conversation, not our purchase.
It’s a game. I started playing it when I was about 8. The game is, “Can I get this person to give me a genuine smile?” Usually all you have to do is smile at them and they smile right back. I’ve seen the crabbiest-looking faces completely transformed by bright-eyed, beaming grins. The other thing is to never, ever miss a chance to say Thank You. I want to be the nicest, most memorable transaction of someone’s day. I may be the only person to have held a door for someone, made eye contact with them, smiled at them, or said Please, Thank You, You’re Welcome, or even Hello – maybe today, maybe this year. Working in social services taught me that there are more lonely, hard-up people in the world than you would ever guess. Manners cost nothing. Manners are the happy way of doing things.
Another key is to have appropriate expectations. When you’re in a hurry, you go to certain places. When you want a special atmosphere, you go to different ones. You have to start out with a realistic picture of what various employees are empowered to do. The person on the other side of the counter or the other end of the phone line is your ally, not your enemy. Anyone who has ever worked in retail or food service or phone support knows this down to the marrow. Start out with patience and sympathy. In certain areas, such as airport ticket counters, you will often be the only nice, patient customer. Ask my husband about his last trip to the DMV and how he got waved into the appointments-only line. The expectation is that we will have a standard experience, with standard service, at a standard price, for that venue. Anything better = YAY! If something goes wrong, the expectation is that it was an accident, a mistake, or something that started further up the line. The waiter is not the one who overcooked the food; the cook is not the one who forgot to put in the order for your fries. The way we handle issues is to 1: apologize for the hassle, and 2: point out the issue matter-of-factly. Like this: “I’m so sorry, I asked for no cheese but this has parmesan.” I imagine myself in the position of the waiter who has to deal with me twice even though I may not be seated in his section and they may be in the weeds and down two cooks. I do feel bad! It gets handled. The more gracious I am, the more gracious they are. This helps in a way that being a big tipper doesn’t, because they don’t know that about you on your first visit.
Once I stood in line at the post office. A woman cut to the front of the line and started bawling out the available staff, making a huge scene. It turned out she was there to do something involving a locked office, the key to which was in possession of the manager, who was not in the building at that time. She had come at a time that was not within the window of availability she had been offered over the phone. What started out as one individual’s problem, perhaps exacerbated by inefficient management, thus became multiplied by two unempowered employees (one to attempt to placate her, the other to scramble around the back) and a dozen innocent bystanders. The rest of us did not deserve to be kept waiting by this person’s problem. She may or may not have experienced bad customer service – come on, it’s the post office we’re talking about – but she had no right to cause bad customer service for others. There is a mathematical formula here. “Am I making $100 of stress out of a $4 beverage which will be replaced anyway?” “Is five minutes of my time equal to (5 minutes) x (12 people)?” “Is this a shouting-in-public issue?” (Crime, fire, shark attack?) Get back in line and wait your turn, lady.
Whenever the topic of bad customer service comes up, someone will always leap forward with an anecdote about a horrible waiter or rude clerk. More often than not, it sounds to us like this person is a bad customer, getting the same treatment that bad customers always get. “Bad customer” service. The hypothesis can be tested quite simply. Start behaving sweetly to service people, like it’s their last day on earth or you just found out they saved a service dog from a burning building. Watch what happens when you decide to live in Easy World and doors start being held for you.
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I've been working with chronic disorganization, squalor, and hoarding for over 20 years. I'm also a marathon runner who was diagnosed with fibromyalgia and thyroid disease 17 years ago.