Friday, July 11, 2008

Customer Service - From Both Sides of The Desk

Something happened today that has me thinking about customer service. It's rarely a topic I address, since (and I realize this sounds a bit harsh) you either provide excellent customer service, or you don't. If you don't, there's something wrong with your organization, and you need to deal with it. 'Nuff said.

Now, I say this as someone who has managed people in various capacities (Dunkin Donuts and Coldstone as well as libraries), and to be quite honest, excellent customer service really looks the same everywhere, whether you're at a reference desk or schlepping deep-fried dough and coffee across a counter. It's a smile, a genuine interest in helping your customer/patron/whomever, and a collegial atmosphere that prevents an occasionally tedious job from becoming horrible. A good work environment usually leads to better customer service.

The reason I'm thinking about this is that I've been looking for a second job. (No, not leaving MPOW, love it there, but things at home are a wee bit tight.) I've applied around town in the past few days and not thought about it much. When I worked on my MLS full time, I also worked a full time and a part time job; the past few years of having only one job has felt sort of like a vacation. Today I worked up the nerve to apply at my gym, where I know they're hiring for the front desk position (and the gym is open 24/7, so I can get some hours that don't interfere with librarystuffs). Thinking about it, I was struck by the fact that every single employee who works at this gym is always friendly. The front desk greeting is *always* enthusiastic, and the personal trainers, salesfolks, and everyone else chat with each other as they pass, give encouragement to those of us struggling under our personal trainers' tutelage, and generally appear happy to be on the clock. That's what gave me the nerve to apply to work where all the beautiful people are, really - it seems like a great environment. (Not to mention that it is far healthier than flipping greasy burgers.) And there's nothing that makes me happier than a good work environment - it's very attractive. On the flip side, there's nothing that makes me want to throw myself in front of a bus more than a bad work environment. And I'm not much willing to sell my soul on that count - it turns me into sort of a shitty person in a permanently shitty mood. (Luckily, I know myself at least this well.)

A second encounter really had me appreciating the idea of customer service - but not just the kind you see behind the counter. I frequent a nifty restaurant called Qdoba - it's a chain, specializes in Mexican, and everything is made fresh on the premises. It's wonderful. And since it's right down the road, I get in there a few times a month. They don't have much turnover (which amazes me, after my experience in chain restaurants), so I know (in the way you know friendly strangers) Lindsay, the young woman who is always smiling and asks about my day, as well as the young guy who wears glasses with yellow lenses, his visor, and a huge smile, even at the busiest lunch rush and in front of the crankiest customers. I chit-chat with whomever is fixing my burrito, and they send me on my way with scrumptiousness in a bag. A good deal.

When I went in yesterday for an application (okay, and for the chicken soft tacos), I chatted with Lindsay, who beamed when I asked for an app, enthusiastically said she'd look for it when I returned it and send it with a recommendation to her boss. I didn't think too terribly much about it yesterday, other than to be gratified that she was so all-fired nice. When I went back this evening to turn in the app (oh, god, okay *and* for the steak soft tacos), Lindsay and a couple of the other behind-the-counter folks I recognized were there. She said she had told her boss about me and to be looking for my application, and they all seemed genuinely excited that I'd applied (to the point of saying they looked forward to working with me! Yay!)

To be honest, there was no need for them to be enthusiastic about anything. I fully expected them to take the paper, toss it into some back office, come back, bag up my food, and send me along with a smile. Maybe that's what I'm so impressed by, a team willing to go above and beyond for no apparent reason other than that they enjoy their work and want it to reflect well on them. It calls to the blue collar roots my dad planted firmly in my soul (not that rich folk don't also take pride in their work, of course). It is a *choice* to decide to recognize the faces that come in on a regular basis - I know, I've been there. It takes even more effort to be cheerful when you're sweating your ass off because you're roasting the chicken and toasting tortillas even as you're serving because you're short-handed. And any place that can cultivate that kind of service in its team is a place I wouldn't mind spending some hours of my time.

The other thing that made me think of customer service from the customer's side is this: if I hadn't engaged the staff on my admittedly frequent visits, if I hadn't made an effort to be friendly, if I hadn't commiserated, rolled my eyes, and made fun of the customer before me who was an assmonkey for no reason to the staff, would I receive the sort of friendly greeting I get? I don't know. Perhaps they're just that good. But it takes something else for them to remember me as the 'book lady' and know my favorite dishes and to make me feel like an individual. And as someone who has worked a service desk in multiple industries, I know that a pleasant customer who is also a regular is a pleasure to work with. I think in our haste to train ourselves into providing great customer service, we often forget that the customer has a little responsibility to be nice, too. At worst, it doesn't hurt anyone. At best, you develop some shallow friendships that may come in handy later.

So, remember to be nice to the overworked, overheated person who is fixing your burrito, and to the person who gives you an enthusiastic greeting at the door when you walk into the gym. or Wal-Mart. Or wherever. I promise they're not being paid enough to be that sweet to you - that's pure effort on their part, and you should appreciate that. They are improving your day with simple, genuine niceness. Be kind and offer the same. It costs you nothing, and it might surprise you how pleasant it is to simply be nice.

Perhaps this is only a revelation to me because my default mode is 'relatively crabby.' (Unless it is early morning, when I am actually in 'speak to me and die' mode.) Maybe it's because simple manners seem so rare nowadays when folks throw their venti latte mocha whatcha-have back over the counter while still yammering on their cell phone and ignoring the human serving them. Either way, it's been a breath of fresh air, and I'm rededicating myself to practicing my smiling more for those I help.


C Rader said...

It's funny how we seem to be on similar thinking wavelengths. I just finished a customer service interaction with my eye doctor's office that had me fuming all month, and ready to be angry and pissed off (with cause) and yet by the end of the last visit was ready to write a letter commending the technician who worked with me.
I am always hypersensitive to customer service issues and it was instructive that all it took to turn my experience around was an acknowledgment that an error had been made.
I was sure there was no way I could be satisfied, but I was wrong, all it took was a sincere admission of the mistake and an apology.
I don't quite agree that either you have good customer service or you don't as an institution, as there are always grey areas, but I do agree that it is always better to serve the happy patrons than the ones having a bad day, although I do try to ease the way for the bad day ones too. Free copies go a long way in some circumstances...).
I deal with poor customer service simply by not visiting the place ever again. A local bakery screwed up an order for a party we were having, didn't do anything to help us out of the jam they put us in, ergo, that bakery is off the list. Places that have great customer service I keep going back to. There is a great coffee shop near my last library that I as a regular at for 3 years. Three years after moving away, I came back for a visit and was greeted by the owner, by name. I LOVE that place. Good luck with the second job hunting!

Joshua M. Neff said...

Whenever I have to go to the DMV to get a license or car registered, I'm always as nice as I can be to the people I have to deal with. This gets a response that is pleasantly surprised at least, sometimes even ecstatic and greatly relieved. The people at the DMV don't make policy, they're just doing their job, and in return, they generally have to deal with cranky, crabby, rude people. But being nice to service people almost always gets a much better response than being crabby does.

Laura said...

Well said! Good luck with the job hunt! I hope you find a place you enjoy working.

Ramana Rajgopaul said...

I loved reading your post. I am obsessed with customer service or should I say, the absence of it in most situations. I spent a life time putting in customer service cultures in four different organizations that to-date are successfully following the culture set up years ago. They are naturally leaders in their respective niches.

With some recent bad experiences, I have decided to start blogging about it and invite you to visit my blog and I would also really appreciate and be grateful for your comments if you have any to offer.

Anonymous said...

You have such a positive attitude: lots of people would be bitter at having to get a 2nd job in addition to their chosen profession. Incidentally, I've had my share of soul-sucking bad jobs. Any recommendations on signs to avoid?

Best of luck!

Colleen said...

@CRader - yep, and that is, to me, the obvious importance of good service. Folks just won't come back. And good service means owning up to mistakes - even just acknowledging them in a semi-sorry way can go a long way to helping people get over it.

@Joshua - Ha! I laugh, because I'm the same way at the DMV. I mean, you already know these people put up with the most aggressive and annoyed people, and it costs you nothing to be nice to them. In my experience, they're so delighted at you asking them how they're doing and smiling that they go out of their way to help you through the maze.

@Anonymous - nah, not bitter. Slightly miffed, perhaps, that all of my education doesn't mean riches *grin*. The way I was raised, having only one job was a luxury, so that helps mediate any bitterness. As for recs on signs to avoid soul-sucking jobs, I have a few. First: frequent the place before you ever apply. You'll get a feel for the employee culture (are they generally happy & friendly, or cranky & bitching about work?). If you have the time, you can also get a feel for what the turnover is - any place with high turnover in employees is likely not somewhere you want to work. Other than that, I recommend not volunteering for hours you know will make you an exhausted wreck (because then you'll be no good at *either* of your jobs). This is my mini-checklist; I'm sure there are other things I think about; I'll have to ponder that some.

deepening said...

As always, well and thoughtfully said! I posted a half=refomred rant on the topic a week or so ago, and have had a better one rolling in my head for a month or so.

But you say it better. I especially like the way you turn the responsibility back on the customer. The customer may or may not always be right, but being an ass is *never* the way to go!

Also, I wish your job would pay you more. I get so sad about the depths to which professional masters level salaries sink! I wonder if you have an opportunity to negotiate more at reappointment time? Or what they would do if you had another offer in hand with a livable salary attached to it?

Colleen said...

@deepening - I'm sure they would pay me more if they could - my library dean is awesome. But, as you know, universities in general are in pretty dire straits, and here in TN it's pretty damned awful. There's no $ for raises, but apparently there is a pool of cash to *keep* faculty, so if I showed up with a job offer they'd likely bump my salary in response.

I have a moral dilemma with that, though - I wouldn't be applying in good faith, since I'm not interested in leaving my current job, and that reeks of assish-ness to me, especially given teh cost of running a search, and the fact that I consider myself a pretty good candidate, and might actually get interview offers. It'll be the last route I consider, and only after I get tired of the 2nd job thing, once I've got one. A shitty system, to be sure, but the way my current uni works, the only way to bump up your salary.