How to be a good customer

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 any 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/

The only way is ‘Yes, and…’

Improv isn’t just a way for performers to entertain an audience. It’s a way to improve your social and interpersonal skills, which is why taking classes in it can be so useful and why it’s also a valuable tool for people in business. It’s also a great way to create an interactive holiday party or group outing for any occasion.

Okay, shameless plugs are over, but I do believe all of these things about improv because I’ve gone through the classes, I regularly perform in improv shows myself — something I wouldn’t have thought possible just three years ago — and I use the skills I’ve learned in the real world all the time.

And I also get to watch as people regularly fail at those skills. The first of these is a skill described by Keith Johnstone: “Listen like a thief.” What this means is pay attention to everything anyone else in a scene says, because you’re going to need that info at some point to keep the scene going. Listen for names as they are introduced, as well as other “endowments,” meaning characteristics assigned to characters. Did Player A refer to the other player as Aunt Nancy, and wonder why she’s so nervous? Did Player B mention that they’re both waiting for Uncle Ralph to come around with Sunday dinner? Every one of those details creates the character that you might get to enter with, but if you’re not listening intently for every little clue, you could miss something which can lead to the far too common improv faux pas of calling a character established as Nancy by the name Sally, or walking in to a Sunday scene on Tuesday.

Aside from Johnstone’s aphorism, there are two big rules in improv. The first is Make Each Other Look Good. That is, your job is to make sure that you’re doing what you can to support your scene partners and give them stuff to work with. If you walk into a scene and say to the other character, “Hi!” then you’ve given them nothing. But if you walk in and say, “Hi, Mom. Let me help you with those groceries,” you’ve suddenly taken a lot of pressure off the other person by telling them who they are and what they’re doing.

Very much related to this is the concept of always saying, “Yes, and…” to anything that happens on stage. To do otherwise kills the forward moment of a scene. You should never reply to another player’s offer with “Yes, but,” and should absolutely never reply with “No” (with a very specific exception.)

This is one of those examples best taught in the negative, and a common exercise we use to teach it is to improv planning some hypothetical event. For example, say it’s a birthday party. Each person in turn suggests something, and the next person “yes, ands” it. So the first three steps might go like this:

“I want this birthday party to be the best ever.”

“Yes, and that’s why we’re hiring the world-famous party planner Dante of Miami!”

“Yes, and we’re giving him an unlimited budget!”

That party gets pretty cool pretty fast, right? And the scene will just build from there to ridiculous and wonderful heights. Now, let’s see what happens with “Yes, but.”

“I want this birthday party to be the best ever.”

“Yes, but it didn’t go so well the last time you tried that.”

“Yes, but that’s because no one helped…”

And you can feel the energy and momentum fall away immediately and everything gets small. As for “No,” that pretty much kills it instantly.

“I want this birthday party to be the best ever.”

“No.”

And… scene.

It’s not even necessary to literally say “yes, and,” “yes, but” or “no” in order to have the same effect. For example:

“I decided to bring my falcon, Jimmy, to the picnic.”

“Oh my god, he’s beautiful. I’m so glad you brought him.”

And there’s a yes, and.

“I decided to bring my falcon, Jimmy, to the picnic.”

“Did you see the sign that says ‘No predatory birds allowed?’”

That’s a yes, but. It might seem like a no, but it’s not, because it does acknowledge the bird, but just gives a reason for it to not be there. The other player may be able to work around it, but it does throw up a roadblock and add another step. Finally:

“I decided to bring my falcon, Jimmy, to the picnic.”

“What falcon? Are you okay, or did you stop taking your meds?”

And this is a hard “no,” because it doesn’t give the other player anywhere to go.

The one sort of exception to the “No” is this:

“I decided to bring my falcon, Jimmy, to the picnic.”

“No, David. You know allergic I am to birds!”

While this starts with “no,” it doesn’t deny that Jimmy is there. Rather, it’s a backwards “yes, and” that gives to the other performer, because now the person endowed as David knows that he’s got a thing he can trigger your character with, namely a bird allergy — and he has a bird. And since one of the things we love to do in improv is to constantly make it worse — either for our own character or others — this kind of fake “No” is just an enormous gift to give to the other players onstage. “Here’s what my character would hate, not have  at it so can get to play.”

Beautiful, really.

Now keep all of this (or most of it) in mind as we segue to part two: Why and how these skills are so important in everyday life, and especially in the working world, because here’s what I see constantly in Muggleville.

First off, no one listens like a thief. In fact, no one listens. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve overheard as a conversation has started with one person asking a very specific question, only for the other person to have clearly missed all of the details, and then go on to either “Yes, but” or “No” the asker.

Imagine this improv scene.

Player A: “Oh, Mom, I’m so glad you invited us all to this picnic, and my wife, Loretta, is going to be so happy that you did.”

Player B: “We’re not having a picnic. And David, I told you, put that topiary on the other side of the yard. You’re my gardener, you should know better.”

Hard “no” there. And that’s pretty much how it goes — “I didn’t listen to what you just said, so I’m going to respond with whatever I was thinking from the couple of words I paid attention to, okay?”

This leads to a conversation that may be something more like:

Player A: “I talked to so-and-so about buying radio model A, but they really like model B.”

Player B: “If they’re interested in drones, then you should have just taken a message and referred it to Player C.”

Player A: “They’re not interested in drones. What does Player C have to do with this?”

Player B: “Player C handles drones.”

Player A: “I know. I’m asking about radio.”

Player B: “Player C doesn’t handle radio.”

Player A: “So should our customer buy radio model A even though they prefer model B?”

Player B: “(Sigh.) Why didn’t you just say that in the first place?”

Me, on the sidelines: (Head/face/desk). Over and over and over.

Needless to say, there’s not a lot of listening like a thief, “Yes, and,” or “make each other look good” going on during this, either.

To abstract it a bit, try this convo:

“Where’s the bathroom?”

“No, I don’t sell toothpaste.”

“I don’t want toothpaste. Where’s the bathroom?”

“Yes, you can brush your teeth there.”

“Right, but where is it?”

“Why didn’t you ask me that then, instead of about toothpaste?”

“I didn’t ask about toothpaste.”

“Then why did you ask about the bathroom?”

“Where is it?”

“Down the hall two doors, on the left.”

That went nowhere fast, didn’t it? Way too typical of way too many conversation I overhear everywhere.

If this sounds like your co-workers no matter what field you’re all in, consider turning them on to improv one way or another. At the very least, it’ll turn all those work spaces into much safer, saner, and more fun spaces. And remember: You can’t spell “improve” without “improv.” Cheesy, but true.

185 improvisers walk into a bar and the bartender says, “Sorry. We’re closed.” And the improvisers say, “”Yes… and?”