Tuesday, May 13, 2014

The customer is always right…right?

After the culmination of a less-than-pleasing experience while trying to order catered food to be delivered for a business meeting, I feel the need to expound the virtues of customer service, and set some things, as I see them, straight.

(Wow – that was quite a sentence.)

Having paid my dues in both retail sales and hash-slinging (read waiting tables), and now as an administrative assistant, I consider myself to be a decent judge of character and also will gladly lay claim to an pretty good ability to communicate effectively with my peers. To quote Lena, a bar waitress from Thelma and Louise: “If [waiting tables] don’t make you an expert on human nature, nothin’ will.” Or something like that.

When I called a certain sandwich shop earlier in the day, I was as I always am on the phone: clear, concise, and charming. (Don’t laugh. You’d be amazed how far a certain level of charm will get you in my line of work. I can’t make miracles happen, though some folks might kindly say otherwise.) I explained to the gentleman on the other end of the phone that I needed to order an assorted sandwich tray to feed 15-20 people and, along with a salad, chips and some tea, I had a budget of about $120. He agreed he thought that could probably be done, and proceed to listen carefully to what I needed.

Yep – he did a great job. His name was Bo and, though I won’t specifically name the sandwich shop, I will say yes, that is his real name and further say his customer service manner was top notch.

So where’s the problem?

The problem is that when we came to the point of Bo telling me the total, it was about $30 more than we’d budgeted for. Having been told originally that the previous orders for this same meeting, from this same sandwich shop, to be delivered to the same place, and paid for by the same person have, historically, been $120, you therefore can understand why I hesitated. I explained that I wanted to reach out to the person bankrolling the mission to verify that the $150+ cost of this meal would be sanctioned. I explained further that, since it was not my money I needed to make sure I had permission to spend the extra amount.

Silence on the other end of the phone. Then, “Um…hang on.”


Thirty seconds later, I get a very brisk, “Ma’am how can I help you?”


Starting over, I explain that Bo had taken my order quite professionally and that I was simply taking a moment to reach out to my person to find out if it was okay for me to spend $150 instead of the expected approximate amount of $120. This was not a rocket scientist moment, I know. But apparently it took a rocket scientist to figure out what I was saying.

Meanwhile, said person I was trying to reach out to had stepped away from the computer and was unavailable for consultation. So I asked if I could call them back to verify the order and to let them know the amount was OK.

At this point, Mr. Brisk Voice decided to lay into me. “Ma’am, I can’t give you a discount. We don’t work like that. See, we have set prices in the computer and when we put something in it tells us how much it’s going to be. I’m in the process of firing one of my managers and the reason you probably paid less last time is ‘cause he screwed up. I’m not givin’ any discounts. This guy really screwed me over. If you wanna call back that’s fine, but no discounts.”  I’m paraphrasing. It was much more lengthy and rude. I am being kind. I am trying to be the bigger person.

OK Mr. BV, lemme tell you something.

First: I was not asking for a discount. Not in any capacity. I was simply trying to make sure I had permission to spend money that was not mine. Period.

Second: though it is unfortunate that you had a manager that did not do his job to your exacting specifications, that problem does not automatically become mine, so please don't make it my problem.

Third: If you were my child, and you talked to me like that, you would have a serious problem.

Fourth: If I had had any other option of a place to order food to be catered to this event, I would take it. At this point, you have effectively lost me not only as a corporate customer, but as a personal customer as well. I think I might write to your General Manager. Oh wait! You ARE the General Manager. My bad!

But…the customer is always right? Right?

In any service position (and just taking me as an example and calling upon the sales, table-waiting, administrative skills I possess) it is your job to serve, with a certain level of kindness, and, regardless of how belligerent your customer may get, it is never okay to put up with verbal abuse. Talking down an irate customer takes a certain level of skill and some people (most people, actually) simply lack that skill. It does not mean they have bad customer service skills, however. It simply means that there is probably someone more qualified to quench the customer’s fire, whatever that fire may be. By the same token, if you are able to talk down an irate customer, more power to you. I refer back to my charm statement of yore.

It’s a liberating feeling to give the customer what he wants, but I suggest here and now that if you are bashed, bullied, lambasted, screamed at, or otherwise pushed into doing so, that it not be done. If your manager, or anyone in a higher position of authority, wants to do so, fine. More power to them. But I personally wouldn’t compromise on that one folks. Just walk away. Fisticuffs and bloodshed are not necessary.

From a service perspective, I have always, I repeat always, tried to give the customer what they want to the absolute best of my ability. In sales, my customer was anyone I was trying to sell something to. While waiting tables, my customers were the folks waiting on their food. In my current administrative world, my customers are the managers and co-workers that I support. And even to a certain extent, in my personal world, my customers are my husband and my children.


But even in my personal world, if you bully me…forget it.

Even though in this case I was the customer and he was the service provider, I'm pretty sure these arguments will stand.


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