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.

General

  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.

Telephone

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).

How to be a good customer

Since we may or may not be soon emerging from lockdown, here are some friendly reminders on how to behave when you’re on the side of the counter that the cash register isn’t. Of course, you should always practice these whether you’re interacting with customer service in person, online, or by phone. 

I’ve been doing a lot of customer service again recently in two different jobs with very different customer bases, but the issues all boil down to the same things. Now, a lot gets made about whether a business has good or bad customer service, and that’s how it should be. If a company provides things to the public, then it’s on them to make sure that the public has their questions answered and needs met.

But, sometimes, customer service can only be as good as the customer, and I’ve seen many a bad online review ripping on some company’s customer service that, in its own internal vagueness and clear misinterpretation, turns out to be proof of its own opposite. That service wasn’t awful because the employee was bad. It was awful because the reviewer was a bad customer.

My current perspective is from two POVs. My day job is with a small company that provides a professional service to people, one that’s very important and necessary to them, is often time-sensitive, and involves a lot of complicated and legally mandated stuff which can often be totally incomprehensible to the layperson.

My side gig is at a live theater, mostly running the box office but sometimes taking over as house manager, which means running the theater and supervising the ushers as well (and sometimes it’s both jobs at once, oh joy!). This theater has two venues in it — a large 360 seat main stage, and a smaller 99 seat performance space. The company I work for has the smaller space.

So I’ll call them DJ (for day job) and Theater from here on out to distinguish. My distant past customer service gigs were for a webstore selling stuff for a minor celebrity, so I’ll call that eTail. Finally, way back in college and just after, I did the obligatory working in retail shtick, for both a major (now defunct) kind of Target-like (but not them) store, and a family owned chain of pharmacies. Well, chain of two back then. It’s a lot bigger now. I’d call the first one Hell and the second one Really Fun, but they probably aren’t going to enter into this. If I do refer to them, they’ll be simply Retail.

Damn. “Retail” is one of those words that looks like it’s spelled wrong the more you think about it, and it sounds more like a veterinary emergency procedure than anything else. But I do digress. Anon, here are some hints and tips to help you be a better customer; and there’s a funny thing that happens when you do this. You get better customer service.

Be prepared

This applies whether you’re making a phone call, going to a store for a specific product, or going to a live event. Gather your information, write it down or memorize it, and try to anticipate the questions you’re going to be asked. For example, if you need a particular toner cartridge or replacement water filter or other whozits or whatsamajiggy for your jimjang, check your manuals or look at the old ones or search online, and get those part numbers. Barring that, at least get the model number of the thing you’re sticking it into and the name of the thing you’re sticking into it. “I need a toner cartridge for a Balzamo BR-521 laser printer” is a lot more helpful than “I need the thing you stick into a printer so it can print.” Hint: depending on the type of printer, that can be anywhere from one to five different things.

If you’re going out to see a show, then take a moment to learn the exact title of that show. Also, it’d be nice if you’d take a moment beforehand to check out the venue and see if they have multiple shows at around the same time. In my Theater job, I can’t count the number of times we’ve had audience wander over to my box office instead of the clearly marked mainstage Will Call, and initiate a conversation that goes like this:

Them: “I have tickets for the show.”

Me: “Which show?”

Them: “Um… the 8  o’clock show.”

Me: “We have two shows at 8. What’s it called?”

Them: (Blank stare.) “Um… something?”

By the way, as soon as they say “8 o’clock show,” I know they’re here for the mainstage, because our audience always knows the name of our show.

The other rather amusing bane of my existence on the unprepared front? There’s a movie theater across the street and a block south of us. Now, we happen to be in a building that was built as an Art Deco movie palace in the 1920s but has been a live theater since the late 1990s, and it’s even got the name on it, which is not the name of the movie theater at all.

The other one doesn’t even look like a movie theater either. It does have a huge sign with its name on it but, unfortunately, it’s conveniently blocked by a badly placed tree that the city really needs to move. Of course, buildings have street numbers for a reason — and yet, I can’t tell you how many times I’ve had people rush in, come up to me, and say, “I have two tickets to (latest stupid comic book movie.)” Sure, you do, but not here.

Meanwhile, if you’re calling my DJ or any similar sort of entity, take a moment to write some notes to yourself. Be prepared to answer these questions or just state these things simply. “I’m calling because… (thing),” thing being you have a question, you got an email or letter from us (please have it in front of you), you want to know the status of something, you want to confirm something, you want to talk to a specific person, you’re returning a call from (person), or something else. Your life and mine will be a lot easier if you start out with simple and specific. If you have a question, then elaborate slightly. “I have a question” is useless. “I have a question about… (specific thing)” is much more useful.

Your opening should be no more than “Hi, (statement),” and that statement should be a single sentence covering one of the above. The exception is the statement, “I’m not sure what I need to ask,” which is fine, more on which in a moment. The point is, if you give me a clear, concise, and succinct statement, then odds are about 95% that I’ll know what to ask you, what to tell you, or how to direct you next to make the process go quickly for both of this. And this is even true if you tell me you don’t know what you need to ask for, because then I can go through all the above and find out whether you got a call or email or are a new referral or just have a question about something.

Fast example: “Hi, I got an email with the subject line, ‘We need to update your zoiberflaster.’ What’s that about?” Ooh, a specific. And, in this case, I’ll probably know about the email, will pop open a spreadsheet, and say, “I can help you with that. What’s your last name?” I look up the info, ask you a question, get an answer, boom, done, quick.

Or, “Hi, I got an email from (person).” Also cool. “Great, let me see if they’re available. And, your name?” Boom, boom, done. Yay!

Compare and contrast to:

Them: “I got an email from you.”

Me: “Okay, about what?”

Them: “Oh, I don’t know. It’s on my computer, and I’m on my phone.”

Me: “Do you remember who sent it or the subject?”

Them: “No.”

Me: (Silently mouthing curse words). “Can you find the email right now, or would you like to leave a message and we’ll call you back?”

Remember: If I didn’t send the email, I can’t just magically open Outlook and see who did. Email doesn’t work like that unless you’re an admin. (Hint: 99.9% of people who will answer the phone are not.)

Other things you should not do: Launch into a monologue and not let me ask you anything, which happens far more often than not. And sorry, but, “Hi, I’m (mumbles name) and (five hundred word autobiography with no pauses)” does neither of us any good because once you’re done I’m just going to have to ask you to repeat the important parts, which I didn’t get because they were the lost croutons in the word salad you just served up without letting me get a fork in.

And be prepared continues beyond that first exchange. Please have everything I’m likely to ask a question about written down and in front of you. Always. Hell, if you have to write a script for yourself on what and how to ask, go right on ahead. I will not judge you if you sound like you’re reading stuff to me provided that it’s the right stuff. I’ve had to train myself to do this when making these kinds of calls, and it’s worked wonders.

When you’re calling any business entity you have an account with, have that account number right in front of your face. The way things are set up, just saying, “Hi, I’m Betty Smith at 1234 Main Street” won’t cut it, because just about anyone can go online and find out that this is Betty Smith’s address, which could lead to all kinds of mischief, especially if John Jones across the street decides he hates her and gets his wife to call up the power company, pretend to be Betty, and get the electricity shut off.

That’s why you can’t do things like that without knowing that the account number is whatever ridiculously long and complicated thing is printed on your bill or statement or policy or wherever.

Listen and focus, my eyes are up here

On the phone, this most frequently manifests itself as people trying to go on and add extraneous information while I’m trying to ask them a question or give them an answer, so serves as a corollary to number 1: Ask your question, then shut up and listen. I often get people on the phone who will keep going on when I try to ask them something which would make their babbling unnecessary. When you’re calling in, try this trick. Speak one sentence, then stop. The rep on the other end will either explain something more or ask you for something more. Either or, pan comido, easy peasy.

In real life at the Theater, it’s a bit more frustrating, because I’ve frequently had customers who engaged with me to want to buy tickets, but then they’re suddenly texting on their phone or chatting IRL with the friends who came with them. This is the reverse of that bad customer service move I’ve seen happen in retail checkouts, when the clerk ignores the customer to have a conversation with another clerk or to text on their phone, and it’s just as annoying. You’re here to complete a transaction, IRL, and it’s gotta happen with me, so focus and pay attention to the guy you’re talking to, because I’m going to be asking you questions in order to complete the transaction. How many tickets? How are you paying? What’s your name? Should I email you a receipt? Yeah, if you’re yapping to the other Karen you brought with you, I can’t do my job without being rude and interrupting that shit.

Starting out angry never works

It’s a cliché but it’s true: You catch more flies with honey than with vinegar. If you start any customer service transaction in full-on loaded for bear mode, you’re not going to get very far for one simple reason. The first person you deal with isn’t going to be all that inclined to help you, and when you become too demanding and unreasonable, they’re just going to kick you up the food-chain, but you’ll have no pull at all and won’t be any threat to the first, because the second level is going to quickly realize what they’re up against. Why? Because the first level who referred them is going to say, “Hey, Jerry, this person on the line is total nut-bag who demanded to speak to a supervisor, but I already explained X, Y, and Z.”

Jerry will sigh, roll his eyes, briefly empathize, and then say, “Okay, got it,” and will proceed to cut this customer off at the knees.

In customer service circles, people like this are known as Flaming Assholes, and they are the ones that give all of us at every level great joy in applying all of our policies and rules in the most legalistic way possible. Hint: If you approach us nicely, treat us like people, and are polite and deferential, then you are probably going to get more than you asked for if it’s a case of something didn’t quite go right — disappointed with this thing but nice about it? Bam! FREE STUFF! But if you fly in like Queen Bitch/Captain A-Hole on Steroids, basically slapping down the help from the get-go, then you’re going to get nowhere and nothing, and every last clause in the fine print is going to be used to shut you down.

No, you’re not always right

The phrase “The customer is always right” was coined a hundred and ten years ago, in 1909, by Henry Selfridge, founder of Selfridge’s Department Stores, but you have to look at it in context. British society at the time (and even now) was very class conscious, so of course the lowly classes who worked as shop girls and stock boys could not possibly know more or be more correct than the rich fops and knobs who shopped there. It was also a marketing slogan with snob appeal.

In reality, though? Nah. In fact, in my experience over all those jobs, I’d say that customers maybe bat about .250 when it comes to getting it right, if that high at all. In any case, refer back to the sugar/vinegar paradigm. No, you’re not always right, and in particular when dealing with things like my DJ, you’re probably about 95% guaranteed to be wrong if you’re just guessing. We told you a thing for reasons, you probably didn’t remember it or write it down properly, please don’t question us when we tell you that thing again. Thank you. We’ll gently correct you and steer you on the right path if you’re nice, and leave you to figure it out on your own if you’re not.

Be aware of the signals I’m sending

One of the things I enjoy about customer service with people is when I can converse casually, connect on a little deeper level, and swap jokes or empathize, as necessary. But I can’t always do it. It depends on current workload.

On the phone, I’d hope it’d be obvious from whether I’m being casual or terse. In person, especially at the Theater, it should be obvious by whether there’s a line of people standing behind you.

So… if you call up and I sound brusque and business-like, play accordingly, and don’t try to lighten it up with jokes or make conversation. On the other hand, if I seem a bit chatty or jokey, then by all means engage, because it means I’ve got time for that and, believe me, when I can get chatty and show personality with a client, it really does make my day better. But if I don’t, please don’t take it personally.

Likewise, in person, if it’s a slow night, then feel free to make bad Dad Jokes (trust me, I’ve heard them all), or start a conversation, or whatever. But, again, if the lobby is more crowded than the International Terminal at LAX the day before Thanksgiving or I seem otherwise occupied, please just do your business, smile, and go. I won’t take it personally! (Exceptions, of course, for all the regulars I’ve gotten to know, but, ironically, they already know not to take up my time if it’s nuts.)

Never try an end-run — we will block you

This one is a common trick tried by sales people, but self-important clients try it too, and I only run into it on the DJ. The conversation typically goes like this:

Me: “Hello, (company name) this is (me), how can I help you?”

Them: “Yeah, I want to talk to (boss).”

Me: “Can I tell him who’s calling?”

Them: (First name). [Never last name; alarm bell]

Me: “And your last name?”

Them: “He knows me.”

Me: “Right, but I still need your last name.”

Them: [Huffy] (Last name.)

Me: [Looking up in system, finding nothing]. “So what is this regarding?”

Them: “Is (boss) there or not?”

Me: “What company are you with?”

Them: (Names company that I quickly google; it’s a sales call.)

Me: “Okay, let me check.” [Put on hold, count to ten] “Sorry, he’s on the line right now, can I get your name and number?”

Them: [Either] (Name and number) or “No, I’ll call back.” Either way, circular file.

Seriously, sales dudes (and it’s always dudes; sales dudettes are honest), if you want to get through, try this: “Hi, I’m (name) from (company) and have this (product) I think your boss might be interested in to increase his sales. Can I talk to him?”

My reply, “No, because it’s busy season, but please give me your info, because if it does increase his sales, he would definitely be interested.”

And see how that becomes a win-win?

The self-important client version follows the same first few steps, until I have enough info to explain to them how what we do works, and that’s usually enough to mollify them and assure them in a positive way that they are not special and don’t get to jump the line just because they called us before we called them.

The golden rule applies here too

Simple, but stupid. Do unto others. So, whether you’re calling customer service or working customer service, treat the person on the other end of that communication the way you’d want to be treated on yours.

Patience is a virtue that can be necessary whether you’re a customer or customer service, but patience can be very easily tried if either the customer or the service — or both — is bad. Whichever one you are, try to be you best.

Image source: Alpha Stock Images, http://alphastockimages.com/