Customers and Employees Have Forgotten How to Show Compassion to Each Other
I recently quit my full time job with no direction. Here I am, a week since my last day, and I’ve mostly been catching up on chores and spending time with family. It’s honestly been really nice to make plans with people and not have to decline because of other responsibilities. I spent three years of being in a career that overworked me, required overtime frequently to keep up with the load, and expected me to have personality traits that were not in my genetics. Want to take a guess at what kind of job I had? If you think it sounds like customer service, you’re spot on.
The difference between my former workplace and most other customer service jobs is that the company essentially demands that you treat customers like human beings. I worked for a timeshare giant in the guest services operations where we were required to solve the issues of privileged boomers almost daily. One of the specialties of this timeshare giant (which shall remain unnamed) is getting its employees to treat people like family. For a long time, I was manipulated into thinking this was normal for customer service reps. “How can you create a memory during each interaction?” corporate would prompt us with weird motivational ideas. Or, my personal favorite quote, “Predict the needs of the owner!” Yeah, right. Like I’m supposed to know that Betty and her grumpy teenage granddaughter like to eat crab rangoon based on the floral blouse she chose to wear today.
…it goes against everything that massive customer service corporations have built.
But the thing about this job was that corporate was right. We should be trying our best to treat people like humans and show some sense of authenticity when we interact with complete strangers. I believe this not only because it breaks up the normalcy of meaningless interaction, but also because it goes against everything that massive customer service corporations have built.
All of this time away from work has prompted me to think more about how genuine or ingenuine my interactions are with strangers in drive-thrus, clothing stores, and restaurants. I became extremely self-aware of how inauthentic I was towards customer service reps and decided that was going to change, that I would smile more and start more conversations.
So, there I was in the Krispy Kreme drive-thru. I ordered my donuts and coffee and thanked the person on the other end of the speaker but did not get a reply. As I waited for my turn at the window, I kept trying to rack my brain for things to say to this woman who probably made minimum wage and hated her job. And honestly, I literally couldn’t think of anything to say. So I drove through, got my donuts, said thanks, and was on my way. Just like every other interaction I’ve ever had.
Why did this faulty interaction happen when I tried so hard to avoid it? Well, for starters, I was in a drive-thru, a place where fast food is served even faster than it is inside. This really wasn’t the place to stop Stacy from taking the next person’s order so she could tell me about the dog she just adopted. But the larger issue was that I, like many other customers, have been trained by society to not have meaningful interactions with employees working customer service jobs. What’s even worse is that customer service reps have been taught the same thing. Everything revolves around the idea that there should be no time for anything other than the transaction, because we need to get customers in and out as quickly as possible to maximize profits.
You see, by now, I’d realized what was happening to me and I became determined to destroy the system. So I ate my Krispy Kreme and I drove over to Walmart on a damn mission.
Walmart, along with McDonalds, are two of the worst places for what I’m calling the “customer-employee socialization theory.” They basically thrive on being completely incapable of genuine human connection. So I marched myself over to the electronics section prepared to make a difference. At the counter, an older woman seemed to be taking apart one of those security boxes they put on the valuables over there. So I politely ask her to unlock an item for me in the most sincere voice I can manifest, because I feel rude interrupting this woman.
The employee, who walked with a slight limp, followed me over to the camera equipment aisle and did her thing: Unlocked, handed customer item, walked back to register. Now, at this point, there was a second employee at the register with whom she began having a conversation. I was all ears. There had to be a way for me to slip in a few words while these women conversed.
But, to my misfortune, the conversation ended and I was unable to take the bait. The older woman rang me up and I was just about on my way. That was when everything changed.
“Gosh, my feet hurt,” the woman said to herself. This was it! My moment to make a difference! Having spent the last three years at a job that required me to stand on tile floors for 8 hours finally had an advantage, because boy do I know a thing or two about foot pain and how to solve it. My plantar fasciitis says hello too.
“You should try Clarks!” I nearly yelled with excitement at the woman. She had seem so annoyed, so monotonous, but now her eyes lit up mostly with confusion at my exuberant tone. I proceeded to tell her all about these Clarks shoes I had been wearing for years and how they helped so much at my last job. Then she told me about the kind she wears and said they were worn out and it was time to get a new pair. I new exactly how she felt. Every time my Clarks would wear out, my feet would start to be in pain again at work. We were relating so much on something so random that I couldn’t help feeling overjoyed by the interaction. At the end of it, we were both smiling and wishing each other happy holidays.
These are the interactions that we remember, and they are the ones that we should be striving for more often.
I walked out of that Walmart happier than I had ever felt by an interaction with an employee. All it took was a little bit of conversation to make us smile and feel a little bit more important in a world so big it forces customer service to become the exact opposite of what the name implies.
This made me think more on the times that owners made differences in my career. There was one occasion that a woman bought me an edible arrangement for helping solve her booking issue. One where I received a letter in the mail from an owner apologizing for her behavior when things didn’t go as planned for her vacation. One where I had an entire conversation about Fallout 4 with an owner who happened to walk by wearing a t-shirt with a pipboy on it. Most importantly, there are owners who stay at that resort all winter and stop by at least once a day to say hello and talk about their day with the staff. These are the interactions that we remember, and they are the ones that we should be striving for more often.
After my Walmart success, I ordered groceries from Instacart a few days later. I offered a homemade Christmas cookie to my shopper who seemed very happy to be receiving such an unexpected and kind gesture, even though it took nothing from me except a bit of conversation. I then made sure to say Merry Christmas to every employee I came across in the following days. Extending our compassion outside of just friends and family can make a world of difference in our own lives, plus the lives of others. And in addition to that, the more kindness we extend, the more we change the customer service industry to something less about the transaction and more about the interaction.
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