Daily #36: Customer service

Today, I went to get lunch, and received the wrong item. I wanted to discuss the expectations placed on customer service staff.

My stance is not an unpopular one in this day and age: I disagree with the notion of ‘the customer is always right’. This way of thinking is becoming more and more common, especially in younger generations.

I’ll quickly walk through today – for the record, I’m pescatarian and have never eaten any meat other than fish. I went into a chain coffee shop and paid for a mozzarella and tomato panini. A short time later, it was handed to me in a bag after being toasted and I went back to work. When I opened the bag, it turned out that I’d been given someone else’s panini that contained meat. It being cold outside, I was annoyed at having to return to the coffee shop, but I needed lunch and I’d already paid for it.

Upon returning, the staff were immediately apologetic. They’d tried to flag me down but I tend to powerwalk everywhere (especially when it’s cold), so I’d been gone by the time they realised the error. The offending sandwich was whisked from my hands, and they immediately made me a new one of my choice despite the growing queue. They also filled out a loyalty card and gave it to me with my replacement food, entitling me to a free hot drink.

All in all, I was satisfied. The inconvenience to myself was repaid by way of a free drink, and I didn’t have to wait any longer than necessary to receive my replacement. They acknowledged their mistake, and I got lunch.

My politeness is partially caused by not wanting to cause a scene, as some customers might – but I like to think it’s primarily due to me respecting the staff as human beings. I’ve worked in retail, but only for a short time – an angry customer was enough to completely throw off my day, and I’d feel belittled by those people.

To an extent, it’s a cultural phenomenon – for instance, I’d expect people used to the service industry in the USA to hold service staff to a far higher standard than we tend to here in the UK. The tipping culture in America is (in my opinion) ridiculous, and sets a very high standard for customers. Here, waiters and waitresses are paid at least a minimum wage by their employer, and only receive a substantial tip if their service is exceptional. In the US, a 10-15% tip is the norm, regardless of the quality of service. In some cases, it creates a toxic exchange in which the server feels entitled to a tip that the customer doesn’t feel they deserve.

I feel like, in my scenario earlier, I could have received more if I’d made a fuss about it. My coworker wanted the erroneous sandwich for himself, but I took it back to the coffee shop and let them replace it. As a vegetarian, I could have claimed emotional distress, pretending I’d taken a bite of it. An outburst like that may have earned me more free food, or a full refund on my original transaction.

But that just wouldn’t be fair. Expecting normal people, who are absurdly busy, to get everything right every time doesn’t make sense. Some people who work in office or executive jobs ‘look down’ on those in the service industry, but the reality is that their job is more physically and mentally tasking than most. When you’re behind the scenes, mistakes can be easily fixed or covered up – but on the front line, they’re immediately obvious. Causing a scene is almost never the right thing to do.

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