Man shouting with chalk speech bubble

Help Me Help You

Man shouting with chalk speech bubble

During my senior year of high school, I went to work at the neighborhood Blockbuster Video to earn some spending cash. While I’d had jobs before, I had never been in the “front of the house,” out amongst the people, and I figured it’d be a nice change from the quiet monotony of the golf course cart barns where I’d previously been employed.

Boy, was I wrong.

Dealing with customers was about as much fun as turning and coughing for my doctor. Everybody was unhappy—about everything. Late fees, lack of inventory, the annoying overhead movie clips that played repeatedly (okay, that was my complaint)…the whining never stopped. It got to the point where I looked forward to my closing duties—which included making sure that every box cover was centered in front of the tapes behind them —because it meant that the insanity was on the other side of the store’s locked doors.

And it was in those moments, crawling from shelf to shelf on my hands and knees, with the clock ticking well past midnight, when I came to the following realization:

I hated people.

Not my friends and family…I still liked them. It was the paying public I couldn’t stand— the people who yelled at me for asking to see their ID; the people who walked into the store three minutes before we were set to close; the people who left movies in any random spot, knowing that somebody else (me) would clean up after them. These people were rude and thoughtless and unreasonable, and putting up with them turned my view of my fellow man decidedly cynical.

That’s what can happen when you work in customer service. Built on the foundation that the “customer is always right,” the customer-employee relationship is one of the most unequal, lopsided dynamics around, right alongside Viagra-ED, Chris Hansen-potential pedophile and wife-husband. The normal laws of human interaction don’t apply. Because the customer is so valued, they have, in the words of George Costanza, “hand,” meaning they can do and say whatever they want.

When you think about it, the business world is a lot like the ocean. Both are environments that are driven, in large part, by the behavior of their dominant inhabitants. In the business world, that’s the customer. In the ocean, it’s the shark. Each sits atop their respective food chains, and what they consume sets the course for everyone and everything below them.

Which means that those of us in customer service are the equivalent of the seal—the helpless mammal on which the sharks feed.

I’ve never been more aware of my place in this hierarchy than several years ago when I was working for a large sports marketing firm. The first thing my supervisors taught me was to service the client, service the client, service the client. Like location in real estate, that’s what it was all about, and it was a nonstop task.

(Of course, the second thing they taught me was “CYA”—Cover You’re a$$—so if the client was not properly serviced, I’d be in good position to blame somebody else. Gotta love Corporate America!)

As an Account Coordinator, I was part of a team that helped organize owner-loyalty golf tournaments for a leading automotive company. We did this all across the country, but our event in Washington, D.C. one year was especially memorable.

After securing one of the city’s best golf courses as the host site, we lined up a great food menu, along with a bunch of gifts to be raffled off. And before too long, we reached our capacity of RSVPs.

But on the day of the event, we had a number of no-shows. And our client wanted to know why.

What ensued was a fast-and-furious string of emails, as the higher-ups tried to figure out what had gone wrong. How could this have happened? What mistakes were made? Operating under the notion that no idea was too foolish, the client even suggested that we analyze traffic patterns to see if that had been the issue.

Reading through it all, I didn’t appreciate the implication that we hadn’t done our job, so I jumped in and defended our work. I explained that we’d secured a top-notch golf course, we’d promoted the event well enough to fill the available slots, and we’d given the golfers who did show up a fun day.

What more could we have done?

I concluded by saying that while it was worth evaluating our efforts, there’s not always a logical explanation for everything that happens. Sometimes you just have to chalk it up as “one of those things” and move on.

Not surprisingly, my rebuttal was not well received, and honestly, I’m lucky I didn’t get fired. I had crossed an un-crossable line, and I walked away from the experience with the understanding that what I thought didn’t matter…all that mattered was what the customer thought, and I had to cater to whatever that may be.

Ever since then, I’ve toed the company line for every company I’ve worked. I check my beliefs at the door and approach the job with the mindset of a second-class citizen. I’m here to serve.

It hasn’t always been easy, though, as there are all types of people with all types of personalities. I aim to please, but there are times when I want to tell some of them to go have an inappropriate relationship with themselves, or let them know that I’ll forever hold a grudge for the 20 minutes and 40 blood pressure points they cost me.

But then I remember my place on the food chain.

Look, I’m not saying people should never voice their displeasure. I know how frustrating it can be when you spend—or are trying to spend—your hard-earned money on something, and it turns into a headache that you didn’t ask for. I have waited nine hours for a cable guy who never showed. I have repeatedly screamed “OPERATOR” into the phone until the automated answering system finally connected me with an actual human being. I have been shorted an order of McDonald’s French fries.

And I love McDonald’s fries.

But I have also recognized that simply paying for something doesn’t give you the right to treat people poorly. That money in your hand isn’t a license to be a jerk. In most cases, the people on the other side of the counter are trying to do their best. They’re not purposely putting you off or deliberately yanking you around, so why not give them a break?

Wouldn’t you want someone to do the same for you?

It’s all about respect, and everyone deserves to be treated in a dignified manner. Unfortunately, though, not enough people share this view. They’re too hurried or too selfish or too wrapped up in themselves to consider the feelings of somebody else.

But that needs to change, because somewhere out there is an innocent teenager, wearing a blue polo shirt and a nametag, and he hasn’t yet been jaded by the world around him.

You don’t want him to end up like me, do you?

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