I’m not the kind of person you would expect to be working in customer service. I’m painfully shy, a little bit lazy, terrified of the phone and easily annoyed. Yet I love working in customer service. I’ve worked in food service, childcare and client services, and even though all those jobs occasionally drove me crazy, I would not trade in those experiences for anything.
Even though I always vow that I’ll never work in customer service again, I often find myself scrolling through Craigslist, looking for a new job in a restaurant or a store. For me, working in customer service is an addiction. I thrive on the stress and anger that go along with dealing with demanding customers. But dealing with those customers has taught me a lot about the world. It turns out that working in customer service is a wonderful lesson in how to be a decent person and a hard worker. Here’s what I’ve learned along the way:
1. It’s probably not your fault.
This is the most important thing to remember when working customer service. Over the years, I’ve had customers yell at me for things that happened when I wasn’t there—prices, company rules and business hours. Even though I know there’s nothing I can do about any of those things, I’ll take what customers say very personally and start feeling guilty. It’s ridiculous, and I constantly have to remind myself that things are not my fault. I said everything I was supposed to say and did everything I was trained to do.
Sure, sometimes things were my fault, like when I forgot to bring over someone’s drink order and accidentally skipped a name on the call ahead list. But it wasn’t my fault when the person working before me forgot to write down a reservation or when the restaurant ran out of the soup of the day. Yet when customers yelled at me for those things (and I’m not exaggerating; they raised their voices and yelled at me), I would feel like I messed up and dragged that guilt around with me for the rest of my shift. Now I know that when a customer complains, I need to tell a manager right away so they can deal with it.
2. Don’t cry, but if you’re going to, excuse yourself.
Have you ever walked into a restaurant where the hostess greeting you was forcing a smile while tears slid down her face? If so, it’s possible I was your hostess and I’m very sorry about that. Working customer service can be stressful, and tensions often run high between employees. One night I walked to the kitchen to grab some water, and I overheard two waitresses complaining that I was a bitch for seating people in their sections so close to the end of the night. It was my first time working the closing shift, I was tired and suddenly I was feeling attacked by two girls I barely even knew. Normally I’m good at holding back tears until I’m alone, but I couldn’t handle it that night. I stood at the hostess’s stand organizing menus and crying. Once I finally calmed down, my mom walked through the restaurant doors to drop off my car keys, and just like a little kid, I lost it the second I saw my mommy. The tears were back, and after I hugged my mom goodnight, I had to sit in the bathroom for a few minutes until I calmed down enough to go back to work. I’m all about crying to work through emotions, but there’s a time and a place for that. And your job is most definitely not the time or place.
3. Don’t ignore someone, no matter how exhausted you are.
I never ignored customers when they walked into the restaurant. I could be cleaning a table in the back, but if someone walked in, I’d jump up and run to the door. But one night, I was really tired. My feet were swollen, and I decided to sneak in a quick break by sitting in a booth as I cleaned the table. It was the first time I sat down in hours, and it felt so good. I saw an older man and a little boy walk into the restaurant, but as I slowly started to stand up, I watched them grab their own menus and seat themselves. They did my job for me, so I went back to sitting and acted like I saw nothing.
Later, a waiter come up to me and said, “I think the guy at table 51 is Danny Glover.” I laughed at him, because why would the star of Lethal Weapon be in Pennsylvania on a Saturday night with a little kid? As it turns out, it was Danny Glover. He spent the afternoon at a nearby amusement park with his grandson, and they were just grabbing a bite to eat before heading home. He was super nice to us and agreed to take a picture with the staff after he finished eating. I felt so bad! I ignored him as he walked in, and he ended up being so cool. And that is why you greet every customer. Even if they’re not famous, they’re probably a nice person who deserves, at the very least, a smile. It doesn’t matter how tired you are, when you’re on the clock, you need to do your job.
4. Befriend the people around you.
Not only is it important to have someone you can vent to who understands exactly what you’re talking about, but befriending a coworker makes a job much more enjoyable. I’ve been at my current customer service job for over a year, and it took a long time for me to make friends. That was mainly because I only worked twice a week, but now that I’m there nearly every day, I’ve grown to love the people I work with. We’re all stressed out about the same things, so we know when someone’s in need of an Elton John sing-a-long or a Whitney Houston dance party. Together, we’ve cried, celebrated and shared a plate of the best french fries ever. Sure, there are the occasional arguments, but we all respect and care about each other. It definitely makes a stressful job much easier.
5. There’s nothing creepy about remembering someone.
I’ve discovered that people love being remembered. I’m pretty good at recognizing faces and names, but I often play dumb out of fear of scaring other people. But one of the rules of customer service that many of my bosses have emphasized is to remember the customers. There was a woman who came into the restaurant every Saturday evening with three other people and requested to sit in Veronica’s section. One week, as soon as they approached the hostess stand, I told them Veronica wasn’t there and asked if they had any other seating preferences. At first, the woman was stunned and didn’t say anything, but then she smiled and said she couldn’t believe I remembered her. I think she spent a lot of time flying below the radar, so it was a welcome change of pace for her to be memorable. As another person who flies below the radar, I understood how she felt. I’ve had the same experience at my daycare job. I know the names of all the kids, parents and nannies who come in, and they are all so thrilled to be greeted by name. Not once has someone seemed creeped out by the fact that I remember them.
6. Keep your cool.
I’ve snapped at work before. I was the lead hostess on a busy night, and another hostess who had been there all day asked me if she could leave. Now, I admit that I was in the wrong in this situation, but in my defense, I was completely stressed out and on edge. There were several parties waiting to be seated and no open, clean tables because the busser on duty was socializing instead of working. So I snapped. I believe I said something along the lines of, “You can go home as soon as Tori stops talking to Joan and does her f***ing job.” Tori heard me, and she declared me her enemy. She spent all subsequent shifts we worked together standing behind me and glaring at the back of my head. It was unsettling and made for a very frightening work environment, and that all could have been avoided if I kept my cool and just casually asked Tori to go clean the tables. Instead, I made it painful for everyone and added to the stress of the evening. Customer service jobs can get hectic and put all employees on edge, but that’s no excuse to snap at anyone. When you have a problem with a co-worker, talk to them about it privately, it will make things easier for everyone.
7. Every job is your job.
I was hired at a daycare center to take care of the kids. That’s it. Yet the other week I worked as a concierge at the front desk in the daycare’s building. Am I trained to be a concierge in the building? No, but someone asked me to help out for 15 minutes, and I just shrugged and stepped behind the desk. Even though I only work in one department in a major company, I will do every job in any department. I’m not on the housekeeping staff, but I will clean up any trash or misplaced items I see around. And I’m not on the reception team, but I direct confused customers on where to go or who to contact. I had the same outlook when working at a restaurant. My job was to seat guests and bus tables, but I also helped serve beverages and take to-go orders. As long as you know what you’re doing and won’t shame the company you work for, there’s no reason not to help out other workers or departments. Your primary duty is not to do the job you were hired to do but to help customers.
8. In general, people are very nice.
The majority of customers are great! Unfortunately, those great customers are more forgettable than the difficult ones. The nice customers do exist, and they’ll often leave a generous tip or a sincere thank you note. They just don’t cause emotional scarring like the difficult ones. But the key to surviving customer service jobs is to remember that there are a lot of really nice people in this world, and they can walk through that door at any moment.
Featured Image courtesy of CBS