Necessary Experience

I treated myself today to the most exquisite lunch: guacamole. There was a burrito with it, buried somewhere under my creamy condiment of choice, but mainly I just ate the guacamole. It’s an addiction, much like my need for Starbucks Mocha Frappes, but because its green, I convince myself it’s way healthy and good to indulge.

Anyway, just as I was finishing off the last bit of deliciousness, I overheard a customer at the table across from mine giving her waiter hell. Why was her steak so dry? Was it because it sat under a heat lamp for fifteen of the thirty minutes she waited for him to bring it to her? She paid good money for that food! Did this restaurant not value their customers? Did they want her to stop coming in?

She had more to say (this went on awhile) but I was trying to tune her out. The waiter had no such luxury. Poor guy stood there uncomfortably for what had to be five minutes, listening intently, nodding in sympathy, apologizing profusely. The woman ended up getting a refund of the entire check (she was with three other people who’d already eaten most of their entrees). Frankly, I thought the restaurant would be better off WITHOUT such customers, but that’s just me.

We’ve all gotten a bad meal, had a bad experience at the grocery store, etc. It happens. Some of us will complain, some of us will silently vow never to return. I’m in the latter group. I don’t like to make a scene, I hate confrontations, and I’m deathly afraid of pissing off the people who touch my food. Obviously, not everyone is like me. Some people are not only HAPPY to cause a spectacle, I think they actually go looking for any half-assed reason to do so.

It’s hard to be in customer service, especially when you’re at the bottom of the totem pole. You have no say in company policies, but you’re the one who has to deal with the fallout. Did Corporate decide to order cheaper meat for burritos, or stop doubling coupons at checkout? Did some President of Whatever just raise the price of Wheaties? The ones who make decisions are never the ones who have to explain (and apologize) to their customers. That’s for Minimum-Wage Mary, or Living-On-Tips Lyle. It is the most unappreciated member of the staff who suffers the dissatisfaction of the masses.

Yeah, sometimes the complaints are legitimate. Sometimes they’re about the very employees I’m defending. Are there jerks in customer service? Of course. But that’s for another post.

After I left the restaurant, I kept wondering if the woman who did all the complaining had ever worked for tips. Had she ever had a job telemarketing? Stocking shelves? Pumping gas? If so, it’s been too long. If not, it’s about damned time.

In my opinion, everyone should have to hold down a job in customer service (bottom rung) for at least six months–preferably during the holiday season. This experience teaches humility and generosity. It gives perspective. Here’s some options:

1) Cashier. If you’ve never kissed ass because a can of carrots is ringing 5 cents over the shelf tag and your customer is convinced you are out to rob the common man and make yourself a millionaire (yeah, 5 cents at a time), it’s something you should experience. A cashier has no say in anything except the wattage of her fake smile, and the sincerity of the apology she is trained to make. Even so, every single expectation that wasn’t met from when the shopper got out of their car, to when they hand over the money, is her fault.

2) Delivery Guy. You’ve got ten pizzas to deliver over thirty miles. You’re on the clock, under the gun, and somehow you keep finding yourself behind the slowest of Sunday drivers. Still, you persevere. A yellow light is not a red light. Yield doesn’t necessarily mean stop. 35 mph isn’t THAT much over 25. Finally, you arrive…nowhere. 1116 Elm Street does NOT exist. You didn’t take the order, didn’t write down the address, but it is now very much your problem. In the age of cellphones, it’s pretty easy to make a call and get your facts in order. Unfortunately, you’re wasting precious time and when you finally make your delivery, it’s to a scowling face who refuses to pay full price. Tip is completely out the window, now you’re fighting not to LOSE money.

3) Waitress/Waiter. As with the cashier, the whole of the dining experience is your responsibility. Your customer doesn’t care that you have fifteen other tables because the new waiter never showed, and the manager sent a busboy home sick. If the cook forgets to put your dressing on the side, or you ran out of the soup that was on special an hour ago, watch out. You are the face of the restaurant, and every disappointment is your fault.

4) Telemarketer. Okay, nobody likes these people. They always call during dinner, often can’t correctly pronounce your name, and want you to buy something you don’t need. I’ve done this before. It’s brutal. Did I want to call your house? No. Did I want to read my speech and try to guilt/cajole/entice you into a purchase? I really didn’t. The people doing this aren’t evil. They’re trying to pay their bills. They’re trying to contribute to society. Instead of telling them to go to Hell, it’d be awful nice to hear even an irritated, “No, thanks.”

There are probably a dozen other unpleasant jobs that don’t pay squat but I’m tired, it’s late, and I think you get the idea.

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