Momentous Monday: How to give good service

Also known as “Titles that sound dirty, but aren’t.”

A while back, I reposted an article on how to be a good customer, figuring that, since people in a lot of places have spent the last year and change away from most of the businesses they used to regularly frequent, they may have forgotten how to customer.

But it works on the other side of the register/desk/window/counter/whatever as well. Giving good service to good customers will just make everything a lot more pleasant.
Oddly enough, during the first couple of months of pandemic lockdown, it felt like everyone had been on their best behavior. Well, not counting a few insane Karens, of course. On the bright side, one of them did inadvertently make Starbucks Barista Lenin Gutierrez a lot richer.


  1. It’s a clichéd business adage, but only because it’s true. A customer isn’t an interruption of your job. It’s the reason for your job. Yes, you may be stuck restocking shelves when someone asks for help, or doing office paperwork when the phone rings, but look at it this way: It’s not an interruption of your work. It’s a valid break from what you were doing, so do it with a smile and focus on the customer.

And, trust me, a lot of customers actually are aware of having caught you in the middle of something else, and at least in a real-life setting, I think that people, particularly introverts, have an aversion to asking for help unless they absolutely need to, so if someone approaches you in a retail setting, they probably really have looked everywhere already.

Think of it as an opportunity to play detective and solve their problem — a mini Sherlock Holmes adventure as it were or, if you prefer more noir fare, instant Philip Marlowe or Sam Spade.

  1. Greetings are important. Always ask a customer how they’re doing, make eye-contact (unless you’re on the phone) and — the most important part — listen to their answer, and answer any questions that they ask. If they don’t seem like they want to make small talk, don’t push it on them, but don’t avoid any chit-chat, either.

I have an interesting story from the customer side of it from the early days of lockdown. I went to the Rite Aid next to where I live as I’ve done for as long as I’ve lived here (that’s a long time), and checked out with one of the clerks who I’d see regularly. It was a particularly low point because I didn’t know yet whether I would be getting unemployment after both of my jobs had gone away.

So, I put my stuff on the counter and he started ringing it up and he asked, “How are you doing?” I started to answer, “Fine” — you know, the automatic thing everyone is supposed to say.  But, instead, I said, “You know what? Not really fine, everything kind of sucks right now, doesn’t it? How are you doing?” And this led to a short but fairly personal conversation on what was going on in each of our lives, and ever since then, whenever we’ve seen each other in the store, despite being masked, that connection is there.

Oh yeah… when a customer asks you how you’re doing, The answer is always, “Great! Thanks.”

It’s really kind of like having found that moment in the foxhole of bonding with someone from half your country away while the bombs are exploding overhead. Of course, one of the things I remember most strongly from my childhood is that my parents were on a first name basis with a lot of the checkers and department heads — liquor, meat, deli — at our local grocery store, which was a Vons.

Sorry, Vons, I’m a Ralphs guy now, despite having gone to LMU.

  1. Give specific and detailed answers to the original question, and options if you can’t fulfill the request right now. If it’s a person in a store looking for an item that’s not on the shelves and it isn’t in stock, look up or ask someone who knows if it’s on order or can be ordered, and when it’s likely to arrive. You can also offer to contact another store to check if they have it, although don’t be surprised if the customer declines this offer.

If it’s some question about a service your company provides that you can’t answer right now, then tell the customer exactly what you’re doing. If you’re taking a message, tell them who it’s for (by name) or whether you’ll be calling them back, and give a time-frame.

A lot of customers seem to assume that if they call you at three o’clock on a Friday, they’ll hear back before five that day — but we all know how likely that really is.

And do your coworkers a favor — no matter what they’re doing, there are only two acceptable answers when you can’t get ahold of them immediately — they’re on the phone right now, or they’re unavailable. Only use the phone reason if it’s absolutely true. Use “unavailable” for everything else.

Sure, you may know that Cathy from Accounting is currently in the loo, taking her massive morning coffee dump; or that the CEO and President are touring an old college friend around the office; or Steve in IT just couldn’t be arsed right now because he’s hungover as fuck.

All of these things, along with lunch, in a meeting, or whatever, are considered (say it with me) “unavailable.” The only alternate third answer is if someone is on leave of vacation, but presumably someone is handling their duties for the moment, so then you can say, “Barbara will be out of the office until [date], but Samantha should be able to help you with that.”

This gently keys your customer into the fact that they might be getting someone who probably doesn’t know everything Barbara does so they may not get resolution today, or (if they’re lucky) Samantha is Barbara’s direct report, and did the same job for ten years prior to getting promoted.

But it’s probably the former.

  1. If your business involves writing emails, then for fuck’s sake, leave your Business English 101 at the door and write like a human. And this doesn’t just involve avoiding jargon — in my business, I could stuff my email with as many AEPs and MAPDs and PDPs and Med Supps and HIPAAs and whatever and only people in the industry would understand.

That does no one any good, but the other part of it is avoiding like the plague that “nobody gets the blame” bullshit use of passive voice that is way too common, particularly in memos from higher-ups and the HR department.

“It has been decided that…” Really? Decided by whom? Or, an old favorite of collection agencies (and I used to do collections, so know this one intimately): “It is imperative that…” It’s a bullshit scare phrase that means nothing because it’s a statement that comes without a consequence.

“It is imperative that you call us immediately.” Or then, what?

The non-passive and meaningful version would be something like, “If we do not hear from you by [date], then we will [specific action].”

See the difference? Likewise, for the first one, “The Board of Trustees has determined that…” is one option. So is “I [upper management in one department] have decide that…”

It identifies the person or persons doing it, and also assigns weight to it.

When you’re dealing with customers, this is kind of imperative. And yes, that was intentional.

Now, this doesn’t mean that you have to go totally informal in your emails, like you’re posting to social media, and you should still avoid contractions. What it does mean is that you should take a more casual and familiar tone. Use “I/We” and “You.” Write in clear and complete sentences.

And for dog’s sake, if writing emails is a part of your job, invest in learning spelling and grammar, and how to express yourself coherently. I can’t tell you how many customer service emails I’ve gotten that read like somebody tossed a dictionary into a wood-chipper and caught the results on flypaper.


Find your “telephone voice.” Yes, this is a thing — Tim Curry even based Frank-N-Furter’s unique pronunciations and elaborately diphthonged vowels on a combination of the Queen and his mother’s own telephone voice.

And I don’t mean speaking like some posh person who over-enunciates. Rather, speak slowly, clearly, and in an upbeat tone, and try to smile when you answer.

I know that I have a telephone voice because, back in those days when we actually spoke to friends on the phone, more than a few of them who were talking to me that way for the first time (instead of in person) remarked, “Wow. You sound really different.”

What they really meant was, “I can understand you.” Of course, IRL, I have this weird funky mongrel accent that combines Southern California lazy-mouth with my grandmother’s Kansas twangy flat Midwest and my mother’s Scranton exurb syllable-dropping, vowel-bending mélange.

Fun examples of the latter: She pronounced the words Saturday and towel as “Sirdee” and “tal,” and a dog was a daag. And there were others. Since she was the one at home during my formative years, boom — me talk weird.

Except on the phone. Well, and onstage, too — but I think they’re connected. When you’re on the phone, you’re really just performing, so own it.

My greeting shtick at work now involves twelve words, divided 4-3-5. Or, if you want to go by syllables, 9-3-5 — three iambs, beat, one anapest, beat, dactyl, trochee. And yes, I do it in a sort of sing-song, but always smiling.

On top of the phone voice — which should be slower than your normal speaking voice, as well as more carefully enunciated and in a deeper register than you normally use if you can manage it — all of the rules on specifics apply, but more so.

Always inform the customer of exactly what you’re going to do, whether it’s taking a message, putting them on hold until you get back to them, checking to see if someone is available, or offering to transfer them to someone’s voicemail.

And if you’re going to transfer and someone says “Yes, but give me a second,” then go back and tell the caller, “[Person] will take your call in just a moment or two.”

Finally, always, always, always confirm the spelling of names and phone numbers, and never be afraid to tell someone, “I’m sorry, I didn’t understand that. Can you repeat it again, please?”

I can’t tell you how many times I’ve had someone tell me that their name is, “[Corgi farts into a blanket],” so I’ve gotten quite used to asking them to repeat it until I can at least get it phonetically.

Clerk/Checker Specific

Finally, we come to those stores where we’ve been standing six feet apart and then staying behind Plexiglas shields as we buy our stuff. And while our checkers have mostly been doing phenomenal jobs, when they haven’t been infecting or killing staff, there are a few giant pet peeves.

Number one is this: If I pay with a debit or credit card, don’t go shoving the damn receipt in a bag. Put that mofo in my hand, or at least extend it toward my fingers for a no-contact exchange, because I’m going to need that to go balance the books.

Number two, although who knows when this one will apply again, since coins went away in the before time in the long, long ago… but if you’re counting out someone’s change, here’s how it works: Coins in the hand first, bills on top.

This became a lost art form once registers started doing the math, but FFS do the physics. Metal slides off of paper, and it just makes it tons harder for someone to quickly stuff the bills in their wallet or wherever and then pocket the change.

And why did registers change it? Well, once upon a time, checkers could math, and it was the only way to assure the customers that they weren’t getting short-changed.

So, for example, I spend $7.31 at the store and give the clerk a ten. She counts out the change like so — drops two quarters, a dime, a nickel, and four pennies in my hand, and says, “$7.31 and 69 cents is eight…” then either counts out two singles or plops a paper Jefferson on top of the change and says, “And two is ten.”

Of course, even though two dollar bills are still legal tender, don’t be surprised if you get shit for using one, on either side of the transaction.

Image: Daderot public doman via Creative Commons licence (CC0 1.0).

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