Customer service is not necessarily about efficiency. It is not necessarily even about getting a problem solved—although that certainly is a nice bonus when it happens.
Customer service is about treating the customer like a person.
First case in point: Two young clerks, on different days, at the same store. Both of them were undeniably competent. They rang up my purchases and processed my debit card with quick efficiency that got me through the checkout line with commendable promptness. Yet I wouldn’t give either of them a passing grade in customer service.
The young woman said all the things she was probably supposed to say—hello and did you find everything and please sign here—but with no more courtesy than a robot would have shown. Her only sign of humanity was her response when I asked her if she had already put the receipt into the bag with my purchases. Her “yes” was impatient, with a touch of eye-rolling “duh—of course.” Not being her mother, I didn’t appreciate her tone.
The young man, a few days later, simply didn’t talk to me at all. No greeting, no acknowledgement, not a word until he printed out the credit slip and said, “I need you to sign this,” with utter disinterest. I was tempted to sign my name “Darth Vader” just to see if he would notice.
Second case in point: An equally young clerk at a different store, who said “hello” and “did you find everything” as if he meant them, who looked up a missing price with a “no problem” attitude, and who joked about having only 17 minutes left on his shift—“16 and a half, now.” We were both smiling as I left.
Third case in point: I called an airline to find out whether they had any sort of emergency fare that might help out one of my friends who needed to get home after having a vacation interrupted by emergency surgery. I was, of course, answered by an automated system. Holding firmly onto my patience by its back hair, I made my way dutifully through the menu of choices until eventually I was connected to a living, breathing human being. No, she told me, there was no such fare.
It wasn’t the answer I wanted, though it was the answer I expected. What I didn’t expect was her warmth. “I’m so sorry,” she said, sounding as if she meant it. “We probably should have that type of fare, but we don’t. I’m really sorry I can’t help you.”
By the time we ended our brief conversation she was passing along her best wishes—sincere ones, I am convinced—for my friend’s swift recovery. Even though she couldn’t do anything to solve my problem, she responded to me as one human being to another. I felt treated with consideration and respect, so I hung up the phone with a positive impression of the airline in spite of the negative answer.
Of course, I don’t expect to exchange life stories or meaningful conversations on a customer service phone or in the supermarket checkout line. I understand that greeting customers must become formulaic, routine, and largely mindless: “How are you today?” and “Did you find everything you needed?” and even the dreadfully clichéd, “Have a nice day.”
It just seems to me that extending courtesy and warmth must make a sales clerk’s job much more enjoyable as well as pleasing the customers. It doesn’t take much, just a brief acknowledgment that there’s another human being on the other side of the counter.
There’s nothing wrong with clichéd conversation, especially if it’s offered with a genuine smile. Because there’s another cliché involved here. The one that says, “The customer isn’t an interruption of your job; the customer is your job.”
Have a nice day.