Monday, December 27, 2010

Help Me Help You

During my senior year of high school, I got a job at the neighborhood Blockbuster Video in hopes of earning some spending cash. Considering all of the places I could’ve worked, I’m not really sure what led me there, though. The pay was minimum, the hours were not, and at least once a week, I was on the clock until 3am, cleaning up the disaster zone that was the store on a Friday or Saturday night.

Fortunately, it wasn’t all negative. I did get free rentals, and because there was a McDonald’s right across the street, I had an excuse to eat chicken nuggets for dinner far more often than my mother would’ve liked. Plus, I was also given one of those cool titles that make you sound much more important than you actually are:

Customer Service Representative.

While I’d had a couple of jobs before, this was my first experience in the “front of the house,” out amongst the people. My thought was that it would be a nice change of pace from the quiet monotony of the golf course cart barns where I’d previously worked.

Boy, was I wrong.

It didn’t take long for me to figure out that dealing with customers was about as much fun as turning and coughing for my doctor. Everybody was unhappy – about everything. Late fees, lack of inventory, overpriced rentals, the annoying overhead movie clips that played repeatedly (okay, that was my complaint)…the whining never stopped. It got to the point where I couldn’t wait to do my closing duties – which included the tedious task of making sure that each and every box cover was perfectly centered in front of the tapes behind them – because it meant that all of the insanity was on the other side of the store’s locked doors.

And it was in those moments, crawling from shelf to shelf on my hands and knees, with the clock ticking towards an ungodly hour of night, when I came to the following realization:

I hated people.

Not my friends and family…I still liked them. It was the paying public I couldn’t stand – the people who yelled at me for not renting to them because they had no ID; the people who talked down to me like I was a child; the people who walked into the store three minutes before we were about to close; the people who would just drop a movie they didn’t want in any random spot, knowing that somebody else (me) would clean up after them. These people were rude and thoughtless and unreasonable, and putting up with them, even on a part-time basis, turned my view of my fellow man decidedly cynical.

That’s what can happen when you work in customer service. Built on the foundation that the “customer is always right,” the customer-employee relationship is one of the most unequal, lopsided dynamics around, right alongside wife-husband, Viagra-ED and Chris Hansen-potential pedophile. The normal laws of human interaction don’t apply. Because the customer is so valued, they have, in the words of George Costanza, “hand,” meaning they can do and say pretty much whatever they want.

When you think about it, the business world is a lot like the ocean. Both are environments that are driven, in large part, by the behavior of their dominant inhabitants. In the business world, that’s the customer. In the ocean, it’s the shark. Each sits atop their respective food chains, and where they go and what they consume sets the course for everyone and everything below them.

Which means that those of us who work in customer service are the equivalent of the seal – the helpless mammal on which the sharks feed.

I’ve never been more aware of my place in this hierarchy than when I was working for one of the largest sports marketing firms in the country. The first thing my supervisors taught me was to service the client, service the client, service the client. Like location in real estate, that was what it was all about, and it was a nonstop task. Even during the summer, when our office closed a few hours early on Friday afternoons, someone had to stick around in case some sort of “marketing emergency” popped up.

(Of course, the second thing they taught me was “CYA” – Cover You’re a$$ – so if the client was not properly serviced, I would be in a good position to blame somebody else. Gotta love Corporate America!)

As an Account Coordinator (another one of those misleading titles), I was assigned to help organize and run owner-loyalty golf tournaments for a large automotive company. Basically, our client wanted to thank their best customers for buying a bunch of cars, so they would invite them out to a high-end country club for a day of free golf, food and prizes, and it was our job to make it all happen.

And that’s exactly what we did when we were told to set up a tournament for the Washington, D.C. area. After securing one of the city’s top golf courses as the host site – it was where the local PGA Tour event was played – we lined up a great menu for lunch and dinner, along with a number of gifts to be raffled off. And before too long, we reached our full capacity of RSVPs.

But on the day of the event, we had a number of no-shows. And our client wanted to know why.

What ensued was a fast-and-furious string of emails between higher-ups, as everyone tried to figure out what had gone wrong. How could this have happened? What mistakes were made? Did everyone get the memo about the TPS reports?

Operating under the notion that no idea was too foolish, the theories and suggestions got more ridiculous with each exchange. At one point, the client wondered if it’d be worthwhile for us to analyze traffic patterns to see if that had contributed to the lack of attendance.

Reading through it all, I couldn’t believe how absurd and drawn-out the situation had become. I also didn’t appreciate the implication that we somehow hadn’t done our job properly. I knew the smart move would be to just keep my mouth shut and play along, but I couldn’t hold my tongue any longer.

So I jumped into the email chain and defended our work. I explained that we’d selected a top-notch venue, and we’d promoted the event well enough to fill all of the available slots. We’d been on top of communicating the details to the participants beforehand. We’d executed the logistics of everything effectively. And we’d given the golfers who did show up a great day. What more could we have done?

I concluded by saying that while it was worth evaluating our efforts when something wasn’t perfect, there’s not always a tangible, logical explanation for everything what happens. No matter how hard you try, there are some things you just can’t control. Maybe these no-shows got tied up at work or had to pick up their kids or had a last-minute change of plans. Sometimes people don’t show up, and you just have to chalk it up as “one of those things” and move on.

Not surprisingly, my rebuttal was not well received, and honestly, I’m lucky I didn’t get fired. Things got smoothed over with the client, but the manager of my account didn’t talk to me for about a week. I had crossed an un-crossable line, and I walked away from the experience with the understanding that when dealing with the customer, my opinion was to be kept to myself. It didn’t matter what I thought….all that mattered was what the customer thought, and it was up to me to cater to whatever that may be.

Ever since then, I’ve toed the company line for every company I’ve worked. I check my beliefs at the door and approach the job with the mindset of a second-class citizen. I’m here to serve.

It hasn’t always been easy, though, as there are all types of people out there with all types of personalities. I do my best to validate their feelings and assure them that their concern will be attended to and rectified, and then I hold on for dear life. I can typically suppress my thoughts enough to fake my way through – even if I think they’re an absolute whack job who needs to find something worthwhile to worry about.

But we all have a threshold.

When someone keeps pushing and poking, grinding away at something that’s already been beaten to death, I can only hang in there for so long. The what-else-do-you-want-me-to-say aggravation wells up inside, and I want to tell them exactly how I feel. I want to point out how irrational they’re being. I want to make it clear how little I care. I want to remind them how unbecoming it is to display the patience of a four-year-old. I want to urge them to go have an inappropriate relationship with themselves, and I want to let them know that I will forever hold a grudge for the 20 minutes and 40 blood pressure points that they cost me.

And then I remember my place on the food chain.

Look, I’m not saying people should never voice their displeasure. I know how frustrating it can be when you spend – or are trying to spend – your hard-earned money on something, and it ends up turning into a headache that you didn’t ask for.

Because, like Cy Sperling and the Hair Club for Men, I have not only worked in customer service, but I’ve also been a client.

I have sat in restaurants wondering if a server would ever stop at my table. I have waited nine hours for a cable guy who never showed. I have repeatedly screamed “OPERATOR” into the phone until the automated answering system finally connected me with an actual human being. I have been shorted a supersized order of McDonald’s French fries.

And I love McDonald’s fries.

But I have also recognized that simply paying for something doesn’t give you the right to treat people poorly. That money in your hand isn’t a license to be a jacka$.

In most cases, the people on the other side of the counter are trying to do their best. They’re not purposely putting you off or deliberately yanking you around, so why not give them a break? Wouldn’t you want someone to do the same for you? For your friend? For your child?

Besides, it’s entirely possible that the unsuspecting person you’re complaining to didn’t even have a hand in screwing up whatever it is that got screwed up…they’re just the unlucky one who answered the phone or drew you in line. So being rude to them only puts them on the defensive, thus making them all the less likely to go out of their way to help you.

But it’s not just about getting what you want…it’s about respect, and everyone, from the grocery bagger to the waiter to the airline rep to the DMV agent – yes, even the DMV agent – deserves to be treated in a dignified manner.

While I wish everyone would take this approach, too many still don’t. They’re too hurried or too selfish or too wrapped up in their own worlds to stop and consider the feelings for anybody but themselves.

But that needs to change, because somewhere out there is an innocent, idealistic teenager wearing a blue polo shirt and a name tag, and he hasn’t yet been jaded by the world around him.

You don’t want him to end up like me, do you?

About Me

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"It's not a lie, if you believe it." Those were the words of one of my generation's great sages, George Costanza, and the more of life I experience, the truer they ring. And while I still haven't found what I'm looking for, the search for my own personal "truths" is never-ending. Care to come along for the ride?