Everything I Know, I Learned From Customers

I’ve spent my entire adult life working in the customer service field.  This has taken on several different forms, but at its fundamental level, all the basics are the same.  People ask me all the time how I’ve managed to last this long in what is widely regarded as a “thankless” career, and the easy answer is that I love it.  Let’s be clear: I don’t love all days, nor do I love all people; however, I find that working with the public has been a phenomenal way for me to learn a lot about myself.  How many other fields out there generate the kind of immediate feedback you receive from both satisfied and dissatisfied customers?  Not many.  

Everyone has terrible days.

I know I have terrible days, and I have been known to senselessly lash out at those I love the most on such days.  With that in mind, I occasionally have customers who treat me terribly.  Most of them I never see again.  Once, though, many years ago, I ran into a customer at the airport several hours after my shift had ended.  Earlier in the day, she verbally lambasted me, called me an “idiot high schooler” (I was 23, but no matter), threw things at me, and attempted to refuse to pay for her merchandise.  I was rather nervous when I saw her at the international arrivals gate at one of the largest airports in the nation.  I was trying to figure out why the universe hated me so much as to make me run into this woman again in what should have been a joyous place.  I then checked my ego and realized there was a good chance she wouldn’t recognize or remember me.

Much to my surprise, she did approach me, and recalled our lovely interaction from earlier.  She explained how she had been having the worst holiday season and had just received some devastating news about a family member.  She acknowledged that her behavior towards me was uncalled for and that it had nothing to do with me as a person or even as a worker.  She said she could tell that I was trying to be nice to her despite the fact that she was being awful, and she appreciated the effort.  She wished me a fantastic holiday and said that she hoped that my friend who I was waiting for arrived safely.  Her daughter (who was with her earlier as well) came over and said “I hope you apologized to the nice lady.”  What a weird interaction.

It completely changed my perspective, and that’s why that experience has stuck with me.  I don’t often get to see my customers outside my workplace, but I now imagine that if I did happen to run into that person who had been mean earlier, they would apologize and have a perfectly understandable reason for not being pleasant.  

Some people have anxiety, and it’s not their fault.

I have quite a few regulars, which is both a blessing and a curse.  I love seeing familiar faces, and it can sometimes feel like having a really large gathering of friends while I’m at work.  At the same time, they can be my harshest critics because they see me every day and can sense tiny shifts in my mood.  Most of the regulars are wonderful people who brighten my day.  Others are regulars because they crave regularity.  They have a routine and get extremely frazzled if anything upsets the routine.  There have been some changes at my store recently, and it is freaking people out.  Several customers who were once pleasant every day are now anxious, upset, and asking a lot of questions.  It puts me on edge.

At the same time, I have to try and see it from their angle.  I have anxiety about certain things, but my daily routine is not one of those things.  I’m extremely flexible in that area.  Not everyone is, and that’s not a bad thing.  The world absolutely needs such people in order to operate efficiently.  Just because someone’s anxiety is wearing me out does not give me an excuse to be irritated.  It is, in fact, all the more reason for me to go the extra mile to provide as much stability and comfort as I have to offer.  It is reasonable to expect that some people will take longer to adjust to changes than others.  I don’t get to decide when everyone is okay.

I used to take on this kind of anxiety as my own, and I would go home completely exhausted.  Over time, I’ve learned to absorb it without becoming it.  I can do this with friends now, too, which is awesome.  I can be a good listener and provide empathy without taking on someone else’s drama as my own.  I find this keeps me sane and allows me to be a much better friend.  

People want to be heard.

Everyone has something to say, and we all tend to feel better when we know someone is listening.  It is not my job to provide advice or to make judgments about what people are saying.  Technically, it’s not even my job to carry on conversations, although I love that aspect of my job and believe it creates a much better environment when I do so.  With all that in mind, it is absolutely my job to listen to the customer’s needs and deliver.  Sometimes those needs are very simple (“I need X product”), but that is not always the case.  

I have several customers who come in daily just to talk.  Of course they buy things also, but the primary purpose of their visit is to have someone to converse with.  It becomes a balancing act for me, as I have to make sure no one else is neglected while I am tending to their needs, but the power of a willing ear is astounding.  I have thoughts and opinions also; however, that is not my arena.  I can air all of my stuff when I get home or when I’m with my friends.  When I’m with customers, it’s their turn to talk and my turn to take it all in.  

As a result of listening so much throughout my days, I have become a much better listener in general.  I am still kind of socially awkward and have lots of moments of talking at the same time as someone else because I don’t always understand the flow of conversation, but I listen.  I know now that I can be counted on to hear what you have said, not tell anyone else, remember it, and ask you about it later.  I will probably forget your birthday, though.  

Genuine kindness goes a long, long, long way

I have always been nice to everyone, but I have been guilty of faking it quite a lot.  I used to be very concerned of what people thought of me, and it was much more important for you to “like” me than for you to “respect” me.  This is less true now, and I’m learning to embrace the power of being genuinely kind.  Again, I don’t enjoy every interaction I have with customers, but I truly want them to have a good experience, and I want to provide them with something that makes their day just a little better.  I truly want that from the bottom of my heart.  I can’t help but believe that this comes through in the interaction.  Nothing is too difficult or too much work if it is going to make someone that much happier.

I’ve had to really take this to heart at home.  I, like many women out there, work full-time and manage a household.  We do not have children at the moment, but we do have a dog, and she’s a handful.  There are a lot of chores I hate so much.  In fact, the only chore I’ve ever truly enjoyed is vacuuming, and I currently live in a space that has no carpets.  So I pretty much hate every chore I have to do.  That said, I genuinely want to have a nice home for all of us.  I want us to be able to have guests over without having to quickly hide piles of dog hair.  I want us to be able to have a dinner party because all of the dishes are nicely put away in the cupboard instead of crusted over with unknown gunk and sitting in the sink.  

There is a large difference between when I am doing a chore from the “I genuinely want our lives to be better” space and when I am doing them from the “why do I always have to do everything around here” space.  I can only imagine how customers would feel if I treated every request as if it were a giant pain in the ass.  I would be appalled if they saw me that way.  This is something extremely important to keep in mind at home, because it is just as appalling to be experienced that way by my family.  

I believe that everyone needs to have a job where they work with the public at some point in their lives.  It is not necessary to make it a career–this just happens to be my calling.  Regardless, there is much to be learned from such a job, even if it only lasts for a few months.  Or weeks.  Whether we like to think about it or not, the people with whom we interact are direct reflections of us, and being willing to see that reflection is so much better than being in denial about who you really are.  

I guess I should go put away the dishes now.


2 thoughts on “Everything I Know, I Learned From Customers

  1. I agree with you. Working with the public is a good experience…not only in a job skill building sort of way. Interacting with the public can help improve one’s social interactions because there are a great variety of “customers” or clients whom will bestow their personality on you. Customer service can be difficult to attune to every type of person.

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