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Monday, December 9, 2013

How Can I Make Your Day?

I've been on both sides of customer service. Like everyone, I've been the recipient. But I spent many years being the one who gave the service. I've worked in banking on the front lines, as it were, both as a teller and in telephone customer service, and I also put in some years in retail. These years of experience have taught me a lot, and given me a different perspective on the whole idea of service than someone else might have. Service is more than just a transaction done with a smile.

If you look up the word service in the dictionary, you'll probably find that the descriptions usually boil down to something about work done for others. And those few words really say a lot, don't they? When you go to the bank or call a toll-free number or drive through a fast-food restaurant, at that moment, someone is working for you. Yes, they are being paid by the company that employs them (unless it is in the USA and they are waiting tables and rely totally on tips, of course), but at that moment they are working for you. 

The way we serve others can say a lot about us, whether it may be true or misleading. And I think that the relationships or interactions we have with those who serve us say a lot about us as well. In every service-related position that I have ever had, I always ended up becoming a trainer. When I was a teller, in my retail sales position, and in telephone banking, I always ended up in the position of teaching others how to do the job. I took this responsibility very seriously, and I took my role in service very seriously, too. And it wasn't because I was trying to be the employee of the month or anything. I just wanted to give others the level of service that I would like to receive. I tried very hard to know as much as I could about whatever I was selling or servicing so that my knowledge could do two things: make my service better, and make things easier or better for my customer. 

This desire I have to know what things are and how they work actually earned me one of the best compliments I have ever received. When I was working for a company called The Body Shop at Cherry Creek Shopping Center, one of the ritziest shopping centers in the Denver area, customers would ask me all sorts of questions about products and ingredients. One evening a gentleman asked me about the function of a specific ingredient in a product we were talking about. I told him, with an air of complete confidence, what the ingredient did and why it was in the product. He told me, also with complete confidence, that he disagreed with me and thought that the ingredient did something else. We had a large book that was always on display in the shop that listed various products, and all sorts of ingredients. It was a great resource for both customers and staff about what ingredients did and where they came from. So I suggested that the gentleman and I look up the ingredient together, and he agreed. It turned out that we were both correct, and we both learned from each other. "Katrina," he said, I have to tell you that you know more about your ingredients than a pharmacist does." At that moment, I thought the compliment was a bit extreme, but he continued, "And I should know, because I teach them." Unbeknownst to me, I was discussing ingredients with a Professor of Pharmacology from the University of Colorado Health Sciences Center! Don't worry, I didn't let it go to my head. But it did feel good for a few minutes!

Something else I learned from all of my years of service is that some people forget that the people who serve them are humans, too. Just like everyone else, they make mistakes. And they may be greeting you with a smile and all sorts of knowledge about products, but they have problems, too. They may have trouble with their health, or kids, or grandparents, or finances. And they are not less than anyone because they serve. That is what people who work in service sometimes see, that customers view them as servants, or as someone who is beneath them, in their worldview. This was something we often saw in the behavior of some of our customers at Cherry Creek. And it wasn't just that sometimes people thought that it was your responsibility to follow them through the shop and carry their purchases around for them. It was the dismissive attitudes. It was the woman who screamed at you when her baby barfed everywhere, and you were cleaning the floor so nobody would slip in it, and she figured you should be cleaning off her shoes. (By the way, I simply told her that my priority was the safety of the other customers, and smiled as I handed her some paper towels.)

Of course, we often got the same attitudes on the phones from our banking customers. And let's face it folks, if you think that the people who are serving you are complete idiots, why would you ever bother calling them? The people who take these calls for banks have to learn and know a lot of things, and sometimes need to check reference materials to make sure that they get it right. And most of the people I worked with were fairly well-educated, including me. One of my favorite, and most memorable calls, came from an attorney with an attitude. She just knew that as a Doctor of Jurisprudence (hey, I know the name of the degree, I have some of them in my family) that she was spending time on the phone speaking with someone far less intelligent than she was. Little did she know that she had hit the jackpot and called someone who had a fairly large vocabulary, but just didn't show it off.

As the call continued, and her tone obviously showed her disdain for me and anyone in my lowly position, it sort of got me riled up. Okay, I was really irritated. Don't ask me for help and assume I'm too stupid to do anything about it, is what I was really thinking. So I let her finish her sentence, paused, and said, "Well, ma'am, in a matter of this nature, XYZ Bank will assume no culpability whatsoever." Dead silence on the phone as I relished the moment. Then, in a completely changed tone, she answered, "You're not stupid, are you?" With complete and honest politeness, I replied, "No, actually, I'm not. Now what can I do to help you with your problem?" The call went great after that. I felt that I had struck a blow for service personnel everywhere, and I'm pretty sure the caller's attitude had taken a change for the better.

So what's this rambling all about? Whether we are giving or receiving service, life is much better all around if we are simply decent to one another. You may be the one person that rescues another person's day. When you drive though the fast-food restaurant and give the person that helps you a warm "Thank you, and have a great evening," you may be erasing the memory of someone who called them a foul name because their store carries Coke instead of Pepsi. And when you are the service person who inspired this post by saying, "What else can I do to make your day?" you may be the only ray of sunshine in someone's otherwise sad and cloudy day. And when you're able to be a bright moment in someone else's day, no matter what side of the transaction you're on, you've truly given them a very special gift.