Giving and receiving service

April 3, 2007

A semi-recent posting in John DuPuis’ Confessions of a Science Librarian provides a link to a rant by a barista from Starbucks. Upon reading it, anyone who goes there for a caffeine fix will wonder if they have ever received service from this charmer. Even if not, you might have witnessed a few of the 15 categories of irritating customer behaviors outlined by the barista. Having worked with the public in a number of settings, such as a McDonald’s, Wal*Mart, and two libraries, I can understand some of his/her frustration. Still, I also agree with DuPuis that the barista has a rather rotten attitude, which sees little distinction between downright boorish/stupid/self-centered customers, and those who are simply less perfect than him/her.

Looking at the list and considering my own customer conduct at Starbucks, I would probably end up in one of the upper levels of the barista’s personal version of Inferno. I might barely get through the eye of the barista’s proverbial needle for tipping well (#4), because baristas generally do what they’re supposed to do: just gimme a good mocha or caramel macchiato. I probably shouldn’t tip a dollar for a $3.50 transaction on a librarian’s salary, but I know that most baristas and other servers scraping for tips probably bring home even less money. On the other hand, I do order Frappuccinos in hot weather (#9), which inexplicably raises the ire of this barista, and I have occasionally grabbed the drinks of others (#6) due to confusion. On balance, that would probably place me in Limbo, probably no lower than Lustful or Gluttonous.

Although the barista’s comments do get vicious, I think he/she makes some good points about the self-centered attitudes of some customers. Since many of my readers probably work in libraries, we can share some sympathy with the barista, even if we do not share the same contemptuous attitudes.

Since librarianship is a service profession, many of us should know the basics of good “customer” service (though I prefer “patron” for a number of reasons). However, when we take on the position of customer, we should maintain that courtesy. I am a firm believer in noblesse oblige, which means treating those who provide me with service as human beings… unless they really screw up. Even if a sense of fellow feeling doesn’t appeal to you, just keep in mind that you might surreptitiously get some unwanted “extra service” for treating a service employee poorly.

Considering the topic at hand, I feel compelled to unveil the Pragmatic Librarian’s Rules of Customer Etiquette. Yes, we all know that “the customer is always right” (even if they’re not), but I offer this as an education piece for the more self-centered among us:

    You may be a customer, but you are not the center of the universe

    This is a cardinal rule. Keep your needs in perspective, and realize that you are not the only person needing help. This really goes without saying, but I’m sure all of us in service professions or clerking jobs have encountered someone whose needs “obviously” supersede those of anyone else.

    Give employees benefit of the doubt

    I especially keep this in mind in restaurants, because I remember all too well when someone at McDonalds would “get sick” on Saturdays or Sundays, and the rest of us would have to bust our humps to make up for the shortfall. Of course, those of us who bothered to appear for work ended up taking the brunt of impatient customers’ rage. From Wal*Mart, I also recall an incident where a woman needed assistance in the pet department. The person who normally worked that night was absent, and I mentioned this fact to her to explain why no one was there. She accused me of “making excuses,” which she apparently did not want to hear. So much extenuating circumstances.

    In retail, clerks do not just stand around waiting for you to approach them. Their employers also expect to shelve a certain amount of stock within a given time period. If merchandise is not stocked, a manager will interrogate them about it. This happened to me once after a very busy night at Wal*Mart. The only response I could muster was, “I had customers,” which was true. Of course, those store managers likely have district managers breathing down their necks. My birthmother-in-law is a manager at a retail store where this is the case, and which (naturally) has an unwritten rule that managers come in on their days off… even after already putting in 60-70 hour workweeks. It’s for a chain of fabric stores, which provides supplies for people to do projects in their spare time. The irony runs deep here.

    I don’t want that much service

    (Actually, I intend this as more of a message to corporate big shots who want their employees to “exceed customer expectations.” I think “doing one’s best” should suffice, which would encompass meeting and exceeding expectations. It also wouldn’t reek of the “corporatespeak” that’s oozing into our discourse.)

    I generally have lower expectations of service employees than the establishments that hire them. I don’t want servers at restaurants checking on my needs every five minutes, or acting as my “best bud” while peddling X-Treme Shrimp Fajita Flingers. Like at Starbucks, just gimme what I want in a reasonably timely fashion, and you’ll get a decent tip.

    In my father’s case, he has what many would consider a downright perverse dislike of such suffocating service. At one restaurant, the x-treme service annoyed him so much that he didn’t leave a tip. I told him that the poor server was probably told to perform a parody of friendliness by the manager, but Dad remained unmoved.

    The same can go for suffocating service in retail stores. Several years ago, I was actually in a department store where an employee engaged me in a conversation similar to this:

      Employee: Do you need help finding anything, sir?

      Me: No, just looking.

      Employee: What are you looking for?

      Me: I’m just looking.

      Employee: Well, you wouldn’t be here if you weren’t looking for something, so what are you looking for?

      Me (irritated): Just. Looking.

    I’ve never figured out if the employee was trying to flirt with me (a skill I never learned, and have no intention of learning), or if she thought that I looked like a potential shoplifter (it was on a Sunday, a day when I sometimes don’t shave). Whatever the case, mallratting isn’t a crime, especially if you’re getting ideas for stuff you might buy later.

    If I had to pick out the winner for suffocating service, it would be Best Buy. Many years ago, they had a commercial telling how their employees wouldn’t hassle you, unless you needed help. Something obviously changed over the course of a decade. In fact, during one visit, four or five clerks accosted Diane and I over the course of ten minutes to see if we needed assistance. Again, I know that it’s their job, but some of us just like to see what’s available, and figure out if we might need anything.

Anyway, that’s my take on customer service. I hope that it has served its didactic purpose, and that you will go forth into the world as a better customer. I also hope that the barista who authored the aforementioned rant follows this advice as well. After all, if the barista suppresses uncharitable feelings for customers while at work, one can only wonder who receives the brunt of such ill-will. Perhaps another barista, who will end up writing about serving some wrath-ridden barista from another Starbucks.

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