How I Gained More Respect for Those in Customer Service

September 2, 2013

Signs: Concierge on Duty

“Every encounter at an airline starts with the customer’s attitude,” she said. “If a person comes on all demanding or confrontational, I will do everything in my power to make sure they don’t get their way. If someone’s a dick, I will get on the radio and word will spread and everyone at this airline will line up behind each other to shut that person down. It’s the same wherever you go.”
– Chuck Thompson, Smile When You’re Lying

I honestly don’t know what did it. I’ve worked as a host for $8/hour. I’ve dealt with disgruntled customers in hotels (fishing lodges, anyway). But even after these experiences, I still tended to get frustrated when my food would take longer than what I deemed necessary at a restaurant; I actually considered withholding a tip for service that was no one’s fault. No one at all.

My behavior aside, I don’t believe it was any job I held or any service I received (or lack thereof) that made me become more aware of how I treated those in customer service. Rather, it was witnessing just how nasty paying customers can be to those waiting on them for minimum wage.

I get it. You paid for your food, you’re hungry, and you want it to be here NOW. You’re confined to a narrow metal tube with dry air and passengers way too close for comfort, and you can’t even extend your legs: aren’t you entitled to the drink you want?

Well, there’s the rub: entitlement. You feel you deserve to have everything handed to you because you paid for service. Surprisingly, this goes from the top of the ladder to the very bottom: because some of us have been in five-star restaurants where service is guaranteed to be as good as gold, we expect the same to be true of the diner off the interstate. After all, the waitstaff at both locations work for tips. Both essentially do the same job. But there are still people on this earth who frequent both types of establishments and feel entitled to treat other human beings like crap when their dinner rolls don’t come with garlic butter or they’re forced to endure the pain of a middle seat on an international flight.

I was flying from San Francisco to Newark, left side of the plane. On the opposite side, a few rows back, I overheard one passenger asking to be reseated, as he had a friend closer to the front of the plane. The flight attendant was smiling (not forced), upbeat, and eager to comply, but had to go through a few hoops to reseat him according to protocol. When she came back around after a few minutes, sounding very apologetic and saying she would get to him in just a moment, he just looked right up at her and, in the most condescending tone imaginable, said: “Don’t give me attitude.”

The woman’s face went slack. Without hesitation, the cheer went out of her voice and she quietly spoke: “Ok, you can just stay right there.” As she walked to the front of the aircraft, I overheard the passenger muttering obscenities and complaining to the unfortunate man next to him. He felt perfectly justified in asking for something above and beyond to what his ticket entitled him, and became indignant when the world didn’t bend to his will.

We’ve all had times when we felt like this (but hopefully never acted like that), especially as dirty, tired, thirsty, hungry, sickened, cramped travelers. But as bad as you think you have it (and you don’t), just try to take a breath. Be mindful. Consider being in someone else’s shoes, as cliche as it sounds. The monotony of the existence of those with a lifetime in customer service is beyond anything our entitled brains can ever hope to comprehend. Waitresses and waiters, flight attendants, concierges, ticket takers, cashiers, bus drivers, fast food workers.

By not showing respect to those in customer service, you’re perpetuating the falsehood that their entire purpose on this Earth is to serve you, using every fiber of their being to cater to your every whim. Your soda was too cold? You can’t believe you actually have to complain to the person whose responsibility did not include knowing your temperature preferences.

Frankly, with increasing cost of living in the US and low wages, I think it’s surprising we haven’t seen a full scale riot in the service industry; the recent protests regarding raising the salaries of fast food works are a pretty mellow reaction, considering the stakes. As the average citizen and traveler don’t have control of these numbers, what can you do in the meantime?

Tip, tip, tip

15-20% at restaurants, taxis, bars. Leave a few dollars for housekeeping when you check out of a hotel. Obviously, this comes down to where you are in the world.

Patience and Understanding

The thing is that, of course, there are totally different ways to think about these kinds of situations. In this traffic, all these vehicles stopped and idling in my way, it’s not impossible that some of these people in SUV’s have been in horrible auto accidents in the past, and now find driving so terrifying that their therapist has all but ordered them to get a huge, heavy SUV so they can feel safe enough to drive. Or that the Hummer that just cut me off is maybe being driven by a father whose little child is hurt or sick in the seat next to him, and he’s trying to get this kid to the hospital, and he’s in a bigger, more legitimate hurry than I am: it is actually I who am in HIS way.

Or I can choose to force myself to consider the likelihood that everyone else in the supermarket’s checkout line is just as bored and frustrated as I am, and that some of these people probably have harder, more tedious and painful lives than I do.
– David Foster Wallace


While you may think this suggestion is merely meant to curry favor with those who have the power to significantly improve your experience, nothing could be further from the truth. A drink pushed in the right direction, a fresh cookie, a voucher you’re not using… any one of these things could make the difference between someone in customer service seeing a glimmer of hope in humanity and finding themselves in deeper despair.

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