My Customer Service Philosophy: Lessons from a Ten Year Old

I was asked recently what my customer service philosophy is. I responded with this:

The customer isn’t always right but they’re usually not wrong.

What do I mean by that?

I mean that some behavior is simply unacceptable. Customers don’t have the right to abuse staff, to expect preferential treatment, to demand we make exceptions just for them. Basic human decency and respect are still required. I won’t tolerate threats to the safety of staff members.

However, in my experience, when someone is acting out there’s usually a reason for it. There’s usually a need or a want that isn’t being met—and that need or want is usually legitimate. Problematic behavior arises when someone can’t figure out how to get what they need or want. And while the behavior may be a problem, this underlying reason can be productively addressed.

A ten year old boy taught me this lesson.

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Experience & Context

Some years ago, when I was still doing theater work in Chicago, I had gotten off a job late one night and found myself craving a pint of ice cream. So I stopped by a corner market on my way home. Another gentleman—a complete stranger to me—arrived at the same time I did. We approached the door just in time to see the proprietor throw the lock and change the sign to “Closed”. He shrugged at us, pointed to the sign listing the store’s hours, and walked off.

I was disappointed and somewhat miffed. The other guy proceeded to throw a spectacular tantrum.

I stood there nonplussed, unsure what to do. Once this strange man had stopped yelling and stomping around, I asked him, “Are you OK?” (Inane question, I know—clearly he wasn’t—but it was late and I was tired and hungry.)

He proceeded to tell me a Tale of Woe for the Ages. All about his terrible, horrible, no good, very bad day, very bad week, very bad month. Everything that could go wrong in this guy’s life had gone wrong. All he wanted now was some potato chips—crunchy bites of salty comfort. Is that too much to ask?

So I took him to a local bar and bought him a beer.

He apologized for making such a scene. He knew it was a ridiculous overreaction. I assured him I totally understood. And I did understand: for me, having the door locked in my face was annoying. For him, it was ONE MORE THING in a long line of crappy things that had happened to him lately.

For him, it was the one thing too many.

This experience taught me something important:

Context matters.

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On the Economic Value of Human Beings

This.

Immigrants Shouldn’t Have to Be ‘Talented’ to Be Welcome by Masha Gessen (New York Times, September 6, 2017)

If immigration is debated only in terms of whether it benefits the economy, politicians begin to divide people into two categories: “valuable” and “illegal.” When countries make people illegal, the world comes apart. When we agree to talk about people as cogs, we lose our humanity.

I hate how our culture has decided that economics is the only thing that matters. That every aspect of our society is assessed predominately—if not exclusively—in economic terms. Education, healthcare, the environment, arts and humanities, science and engineering, technology, civil rights, immigration and refugees, and on and on and on…

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A Personal Perspective on the Struggle for Civil Rights

Some years ago, I was working on the overhire crew for a touring event gig in Chicago. One of the touring crew was an older guy who used to be a rock roadie. I got assigned to work with him and so we got to talking.

He mostly talked about his experiences of the Civil Rights movement in the United States during the 1950s and ’60s. He was in high school and college at the time, and he participated in the protests and sit-ins. He fought hard for equal rights. It remains a defining experience of his life.

This guy was raised by middle class white Republican parents in a solid middle class white Republican neighborhood. According to him, many of his fellows stood and protested with him in support of the Civil Rights movement. They supported equal rights because they believed in the importance of individual merit. A person’s success or failure in life should be determined by their own abilities and effort.

Systemic inequality is anathema to the doctrine of individual merit. If the system assigns unearned advantages or disadvantages to people, it renders individual ability and effort largely meaningless. They all wanted an equal playing field where individuals could prove themselves.

While this guy remained committed to continuing civil rights efforts over the years, he watched most of his fellows change their stance as they all grew older, many to the point where they now actively oppose current civil rights movements. He told me he was trying hard to understand how that happened.

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Practicing Empathy

I recently heard a story about a guy sitting in a public place, clearly wearing a wedding ring and clearly scrolling through a dating app. What’s disturbing wasn’t just the fact that he was cheating on his partner, but that he was doing it so obviously, right out in the open where anyone could see.

What a bastard.

It’s times like this when I’m reminded most powerfully of David Foster Wallace’s “This Is Water” speech (*). He challenges us to try and do better when we make assumptions, to think better. We have a choice whether to assume or not, and if we choose to make assumptions, we get to choose what we assume.

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Another Perspective on Poverty

This is a story that hits much closer to home for me, as it happened to a friend of mine. But her story has done as much as anything to affect how I understand poverty, how I understand the role of government assistance, of social safety nets.

And it has done as much as anything to teach me the dangers of making assumptions.

I have a friend who experienced difficult times during the recession of the Bush Years. She and her husband are both capable and hard workers, college educated. He worked in a skilled labor field and she did general office work. They did fine for themselves.

Then he was involved in an accident and was severely injured. He’s disabled for the rest of his life. As a result, he could no longer work in his chosen field. He lost his job, lost his health insurance. And we all know COBRA is prohibitively expensive.

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