Musings

The life lessons from working in customer service

I have spent 1.5 years of my 23 years long life working in customer service. Might not seem like much, but that’s more than half of my working life. In that time, I’ve worked as a shop assistant, a shampoo technician (the most insane job title I’ll probably ever have), receptionist, and waitress. I will not elaborate on those here, as I’ve done that already in My First 7 Jobs, and if you feel like learning more about my career so far, you can head over there.

Those 1.5 years taught me a lot of practical things, such as giving a head massage, but that’s not what this post is about. They can be found on any job description, and I’m sure you’re all capable of using Google to find that out. But there are things that those jobs taught me that are far more important than the ability to process a card transaction, or carry three plates at once (although, to be honest, that’s super useful when you have people over for dinner).

Customer service is tough, mostly because you spend your days interacting with people. Don’t get me wrong, I’m not antisocial. But there is a difference between having a chat with your friend, and dealing with a bunch of strangers day in and day out. Especially as people’s moods and characters vary greatly – some are balls of warmth and fuzziness, others – really not so much. Although some customer service jobs are fairly low skilled and low paid (sometimes relying on tips or commission to top up a measly salary), others can be the exact opposite. After all, isn’t a doctor’s job to serve (a.k.a. treat) the patient? To a great extent, it is, the difference being that in their hands they’re holding someone’s health (or life), rather than a plate of spaghetti.

But working low-paid-low-skilled customer service jobs has some great lessons on offer, starting with allowing you to figure out if you actually like working in customer service. I realised that although I can be really bubbly, and genuinely like people, I absolute hate working in customer service. Just doesn’t work for me, but I do know people who love every minute of it. Who knows, you might be one of those people. Especially if you’re planning on pursuing a career that involves customer service by definition (e.g. doctor, lawyer), you might want to see how you’re dealing with handling customers. You might realise that you’d be better suited to becoming an academic, or working with corporate clients rather than your average Joe.

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Although serving someone a lasagne is totally different than fixing their teeth, if you think that no patient will ever shout at you about something completely out of your control then you’re quite naive. Because, yes, as badly as it sucks, people won’t always be nice to you. Frankly, some people are douchebags. That’s why customer service teaches you how to be (overly) polite and patient

Because you really need to be patient to endlessly answer the same questions. Or repeat four times that no, you really, truly do not have a free appointment for a given date, and you’re not actually hiding one, and that speaking to the stylist directly will not make their diary magically stretch outAnd to do this, you also need to stay polite because, obviously, you can’t just shout at people, no matter how much you want to. Even if they’re calling you incompetent and telling you that you’re not a serious business, because their stylist is in a hospital following a car accident. Or how come you didn’t think that their 18-year-old child will want to eat a kids meal at a wedding?!

Such situations are bread and butter of customer service, my friends. And often the customers aren’t being fair – we once had a client call my friend incompetent (even though she was better at this job than me and was in fact my superior), because she didn’t know what appointment I booked her. Thanks to this, though, I can patiently listen and respond to any amount of bullshit (thankfully, life isn’t customer service, and I don’t usually have to), but I will also apologise to a person who bumped into me. (Can you be too polite? Have I passed my Britishness test yet?)

Spending your days serving others will also make you appreciate good service, as well as understand that sometimes it’s impossible for the service to be perfect. Since I got to experience how hard it can be to always give 110%, I am far more patient with receptionists, hairdressers, waiters, etc. It often happens that I tell a flustered waitress not to hurry, or ask a receptionist to take her time with finding me an appointment. Because guess when most of the mistakes happen? When you’re putting the person under crazy amount of pressure. Give them some breathing space, respect them, and many a time they will go an extra mile for you – ask someone to stay late for you or prepare you a special meal. I once ran around the whole restaurant looking for a herbal tea for a lady who was lovely to me, even though I didn’t have to.

On the other hand, though, you can really spot bad service. And it’s going to seriously bother you. Because I might be really patient with a person who’s really busy, but I get really angry in 30 seconds flat if a receptionist carries on talking with her friend when I’m standing at the desk, or a waiter pretends not to see that my glass is empty. I’m sorry, it’s your job to keep an eye on that. And pretty please, don’t tell me it’s impossible to do, because, you know, I’ve done that job, and I know it can be done.

And yes, I am this person that walks out of a shop if they don’t get proper service. Because you know how long it takes to say I’m sorry to keep you waiting, I will be with you as soon as possible? 4 seconds. FOUR. I just checked. Because I’m happy to wait, but I am not happy being ignored. My patience and politeness don’t stretch quite as far.

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