Jen’s World

My friend Jen is a checker at a big chain grocery store. She recently expressed frustration about customers who come through her line that are in bad moods, cranky, or are just plain rude. Jen cites that the store rules are that she has to be reasonably welcoming and positive.  She points out that she is often the customer’s whipping post and scapegoat for all that is wrong with their day, the world, their life, etc.  She often leaves work feeling beat up, drained, and in a poor mood.  Listening to her my first thought was to say, Jen, in your line of work you have to expect this and let it roll off your back.  Then I realized that Jen’s perspective and frustration is valid.  As customers we should assume a fair share of responsibility for a pleasant service interaction.  In fact as customers we should take responsibility for enhancing the service provider’s experience.

This realization has given me a heightened sense of awareness of my own actions as a customer during face to face service interactions.  As a customer I expect a pleasant greeting and relatively cheery demeanor.  When I don’t receive it I am critical of the clerk and even of the business for poor hiring practices or inadequate training programs.  I have very high expectations from the merchants I do business with.  I know this about myself.  Everyone that knows me knows this about me.  What I didn’t realize until my conversation with Jen was that I’m not always as engaged in the interaction as I should be.  I expect the clerk to engage with me but I haven’t assumed my fair share of responsibility to reciprocate.  When asked how I am doing I respond “fine” but I don’t respond with a “how are you?”  The clerk asks how I am doing, usually, not because they really care or because they buy into the proposition that consistently good customer experiences translate into customer loyalty.  They ask because they’ve been trained to ask and who knows, I could be a secret shopper that will bust them for not following the employee guidelines.  So they cite the empty words and my rote and unemotional answer of “fine” only reinforces the fact that they have wasted their breath on another customer who adds no value to their life.

So as customers is it our responsibility to add value to the lives of those that serve us?   I believe it is; for two reasons: one philosophical and one pragmatic.

The philosophical reason is that those that serve us are not our servants.  They’re people that live in our neighborhoods and surrounding communities.  It would be a better place to live if we occasionally reached out and brightened someone’s day simply because, regardless of our perceptions or their outward appearances, they are very much like us:  fellow time travelers trying to make ends meet.  And guess what?  It’s free to do.

The pragmatic reason is that fundamentally we receive better service from someone who likes their job than someone who doesn’t.  When you enter a store that you frequent regularly do you want the clerks and managers to cringe at the sight of a cranky customer who takes out their crappy life on my friend Jen?  Or do you want them to think “hey that’s the customer who always has a smile and something nice to say at the check out line”.  I guarantee the cranky customer will not have as good an experience as the pleasant customer until Mr. Cranky realizes this and begins taking responsibility for adding a little value to the lives of those that serve him.

So I’ve taken my own advice and I’ve begun to ask the clerks and managers I meet when I’m shopping how they are doing?  My goal is to get the person to smile or just open up a little.  I’ll go on to ask them how their day has been; how’s business; how long have they worked here; do they like their job; and so on. It’s been fun, and enlightening, to see the reactions.  These reactions fall into three distinct categories.

There are the suspicious workers who have their guards up, don’t make eye contact and probably think I’m a secret shopper.  Or maybe I’m their boss’s uncle spying for him right before performance review time. They find me way too talkative and probably just wish that I would shut up and let them do their miserable job so that they can stay under the radar until the miserable shift is over and they can leave the miserable premises.  With these workers I’m careful not come across to strong or intrusive.  I do try to express in some way that I genuinely care about how they feel, that I appreciate the good service they’re providing (if in fact they are), and I thank them by name as I leave.

There are the honest workers (usually from Generation Y) who, with their body language or responses, let me know that they don’t like the work hours or conditions, wish they were anywhere but here, or were making more money. With younger workers it seems to be fashionably hip to complain about your job; even with customers.  With this group I am usually empathetic but point out that now is a good time to have a job.  They almost always agree and it seems to be a good ice breaker that leads to a more open chat about a variety of topics.

And there are the sincere workers who it turns out when they asked how you were doing did so because they really do care. Really, they do.  They care about creating a positive customer experience and they care about creating customer loyalty.  They care about these things because they understand that they are part of the commercial ecosystem, they need a job, and they assume responsibility for their share of the customer experience.  They get it. These workers willingly open up and share a part of their life when asked how they are doing.  With these workers I will often hand them a figurative business card (in some cases an actual business card) and tell them to call me if they are ever looking for a job in my industry.  And it is the sincere workers I seek out with a cartfull of groceries even if their line is the longest.

So, the next time you are at the grocery or department store, give “Jen” a break and take some ownership over the experience, smile and ask her how she is doing. But before the words come out of your mouth, think about what’s at stake, and then say it with feeling.

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