Sunday, May 9, 2010

"The loudest mouth will hail the new found way"

About a year ago, I was talking to my (now former) manager about a frustrating situation at work. I was disappointed in some of the other managers for not responding to my requests for help in completing a project. He said something that stuck in my brain. "Well, they probably feel confident in your ability to take care of it on your own. Also, this place is a lot like school. The bad kids get more attention." The latter observation implied that, as a "good" kid, I would either need to throw a tantrum to get the consideration I wanted or I'd just have to suck it up and accept the fact that my superiors were too busy with their own work and tending to the bad kids to help me out.

I've tried tantrums, but those aren't really my style, so I've just accepted that jobs really are like school or screwed-up families. At the same time, I've also learned that customer service is a similar game.

I work for a company that takes pride in providing excellent customer service. This is the main reason I wanted to work for them and it is the company tenet (of which there are many - do other for-profit businesses have mission statements?) that I find most compelling. I'm a polite person by nature, so I tend to be good at customer service. I also believe that any line of work is more dignified when you try to do it well. I've worked with plenty of rude customer service people (usually of the sullen student variety) who seemed to think that being polite to everyone, even dumb and inconsiderate people, is a sign of weakness. I disagree. Politeness shouldn't be confused with generosity or even kindness. It can be a guise, and an especially handy one in the act of commerce. I don't care if the customer is actually right or wrong. I only care that they walk away from our interaction wanting to come back. I think I tend to be good at fostering that "want to come back" feeling.

My company helps its employees provide great service by letting us do whatever it takes to make the customer happy (okay, maybe not whatever in the way you're thinking, but I wouldn't be surprised if that's happened; I work with some pretty dedicated nerds). This is a highly valuable tool. Nothing sucks more than having to tell an angry customer, "My manager says I can't give you your money back". I love that I have the latitude to fix a problem, even if it costs the company a little bit of money in the short run.

However, recent incidents have shown me that I tend to give more to the dumb and inconsiderate jerks instead of the friendly, appreciative customers who make my job easy. And that's bothering me.

Without getting into all of the details, I ran into a situation at the end of my Friday when a customer made an inconvenient request to change her order. Meeting this request stressed out several people and extended the workday for a couple of exhausted employees (myself included). The experience left a very bad taste in my mouth and could have been avoided if I had simply said, "No." It was also a situation in which "no" would have been reasonable (we had already begun preparing the order to her previous specifications and she was giving us less than 24 hours notice). But I think I was more inclined to say "yes" because I was dealing with this person face to face and I found her to be very silly and spoiled. I think that sometimes I overdo the excellent service to cover up my true feelings. The more angry I am toward the bad kids, the more I try to be nice to them.

Then there are the occasional customers who browbeat us, or say horrible, day-ruining things. I can usually take silly-and-spoiled in stride, but bullies are a whole different issue. And yes, there is a company policy that encourages us to hand those people over to a manager. But even in the worst of those situations, I've never heard of a manager telling a mean customer to take a hike. Instead, the customer gets what they want plus more. It bugs me that we're giving these people the wrong idea that their actions are justified, all for the sake of giving them that "want to come back" feeling. I don't want them to come back.

In my experience, most customers are better than that. Their requests are reasonable and when they complain, they have a good reason. But the aforementioned instances demonstrate where the great service model begins to fail and the willingness to appease the bad kids becomes an ethical issue. I understand why we try so hard to make our unhappiest customers like us, because if we don't, they will tell every person they know that we suck. But assuming we succeed in making the worst of the bad kids happy, what's the value in accolades from assholes?

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