Is the problem with customer service? Or with the customer?

I’m going to toss out a theory and see if it sticks: How you treat service personnel directly reflects your ability to connect effectively, positively, and memorably in your other interactions, including those that take place in networking settings.

Sound crazy?  Maybe. Maybe not.

In my book The Intentional Networker™ I tell the story of how Zappos, a company known for its stellar customer service, initially gauges any job applicant’s hireability. It’s as simple as this: how did you treat their shuttle driver?  If you were friendly and courteous, you move forward in the hiring process. If not, you’re done.

In short, Zappos wants to know how you treat people. Not just customers, but everyone.

In her new book Daring Greatly, Dr. Brene Brown has a similar message. She expresses her concerns about how disrespectful we can be to service personnel, including the wait staff in restaurants, the person who takes your order at the drive-through, the counter clerk who handles your dry cleaning order, or even the person who does your nails or shines your shoes. (And take note: if you’re the person who is on your cell phone as you interact with customer service personnel, this is a huge and rampant form of disrespect.)

Think about it. How DO you treat the hardworking people who are there to make your life better?  Do you treat them as equals – or even as fellow inhabitants of planet earth?  Or do you see yourself as better then them? Or worse, do you pretend they hardly exist?  How about this:  Can you honestly say you remember anything at all about the service person you last interacted with?  (I do, I just had a great conversation with Gloria who handles my dry cleaning. I wouldn’t think of picking up or dropping off my dry cleaning without asking her how she was doing.)

So often we are busy talking on our cell phones, perusing the menu, fumbling with our packages, purses, and wallets. We fail to acknowledge the person’s presence, let alone make eye contact, extend a greeting, or call them by name.

Yesterday I said “Good morning” to the woman who was mopping the floor at the gym and asked her how she was.  She gave me a huge smile and responded to me as if no one had cared enough to ask her that. Ever.  On one level it made my day. On another it made me incredkbly sad.  My friend Leslie had a similar experience with a customer service clerk. She smiled and offered a compliment. It brought tears to the woman’s eyes, she was so moved that someone bothered to notice something positive about her.

As Dr. Brown says, “Everyone wants to know why customer service has gone to hell in a handbasket. I want to know why customer behavior has gone to hell in a handbasket.”

My point here: your behavior and courtesy as a customer can say so much about how well (or badly) you treat people in general.   Be careless and aloof with those everyday interactions and I’m predicting you could have similar issues in your other interactions and relationships as well.  And that includes networking settings.

Coincidentally, I am currently reading Aspire by Kevin Hall, which is about the power of words. Another great book. In the first chapter Hall writes about the word Genshai (pronounced GEN-shy), which basically means the practice of never making anyone feel small.  Are you practicing Genshai?

That said, I challenge you (and myself) to try these tips. Better yet, vow to make them practices in your daily life. I promise if you do it will improve how people in all situations respond to you.

  1. Remember that every human with whom you interact is indeed a fellow human – and we all matter.
  2. Ditch the notion that you’re “above” or more important than anyone else.
  3. Put your cell phone away when interacting with others. That call or text is likely not that important.
  4. Smile, greet, and call people by name, when possible.
  5. Make eye contact; really see the person.
  6. Employ simple courtesies such as “please” and “thank you.”
  7. Show appreciation for a job well done, even if it’s what you expect and pay for.
  8. Cut others a little slack when mistakes occur. No one is perfect. Stuff happens. Most of the time errors can be corrected.

What would you add to this list? What are your experiences or observations with how we treat customer service people and how it relates to networking and relationships?


17 Responses to Is the problem with customer service? Or with the customer?
  1. Dawn Lund
    October 13, 2012 | 11:45 am

    I love this! I am amazed at how people act toward clerks, wait staff, cleaning services, project managers (my husband). Didn’t they ever learn that if you’re nice to people you get a lot further? It makes me so uncomfortable when I hear someone proudly bragging about they threw their weight around and got their way. Does that make them feel good about themselves? I always smile and ask them how they would feel if they were on the other end of their rant. If we all spent a little more time considering other people’s feelings the world would be a better place!

    Thanks Patti for another thought provoking blog!

  2. Terry
    October 13, 2012 | 3:50 pm

    Thanks for the article. I thought I was the only person that noticed people too busy to hang-up their phone when talking to a service person – airport, restaurant.

    Your advice helps keep me on track. Unfortunately, those that need your advice the most may not be paying attention.

    However, thanks for fighting the good fight and maintaining standards that should be common courtesy rather than the exception.



  3. Glenda
    October 14, 2012 | 11:43 am

    LOVE LOVE LOVE!!! Best article I have read in a long time. I have had two experiences in the recent past (probably more but 2 which were outstanding) where I have been appalled at peoples behavior and attitude towards a service personnal. And I also had a hotel maid crying recently when I gave her a ring from my collection (I am an Independant Silpada Rep) as a thank you for allowing me to interrupt her cleaning in my room, so I could use the space for a short while, and then called her back.

  4. Julie Tereshchuk
    October 14, 2012 | 12:20 pm

    Sadly, so often we are interacting with customer service people who have little control over the level of service we’ve received from their company. We just checked in at Jacksonville airport to find that our seat assignments had been changed–for the worse. And our old great seats had been reassigned. Absolutely nothing the check-in personnel could do, but despite that, it was SO tempting to take out our frustration on them. In these situations I try and use what I believe was another DeNucci-ism: SBNRR. (Stop, breathe, notice, reflect, respond. It helps me be less reactive.

  5. Cameron Babberney
    October 14, 2012 | 10:18 pm


    You have once again helped shine light on our etiquette skills when navigating the many ways of making contact these days. I admit I was on my phone, the last time the video teller came on to check in with me. I am going to show up more fully in future; it’s not her decision to interact with me through a video screen.

    I have been lapping up Dr. Brene Brown’s You Tube presentations upon your recommendation. Wow and thank you.

  6. SueAnn Wade-Crouse
    October 15, 2012 | 6:32 am

    So, so true Patti. One of my pet peeves. Years ago I lost some respect for a man that I sort of idolized when I saw how he treated a customer service person at a hotel. I was stunned, and felt like I’d been duped all those years, thinking he was classy.

    In the interest of my own sense of kindness, however, perhaps he was just having a bad day and I should take that into consideration. No excuse for being ugly, but then, we are human.

    Another one knocked outa’ the park you Very Smart Gal you!


  7. Helen Baer
    October 15, 2012 | 7:55 am

    Thanks for the great column! Recently I was telling my husband how much I value politeness. People light up when you say good morning, even complete strangers. I really believe that each of us can make the world better by being pleasant to those we encounter.

  8. Janki
    October 15, 2012 | 8:44 am

    I have a story to share… I am a woman of color and one year my husband and I hosted a political fundraiser for a candidate we knew. She sent in advance a volunteer to get things set up. This volunteer had never met me. I was cooking food for the party and had an apron on. While cooking some friends came to the kitchen and I was chatting them up. This volunteer coordinator came up to me and reprimanded me for “not doing my job” at the event. I realized she assume that women of color in apron = hired help. And I guess this woman felt comfortable yelling at any hired help. When she realized that I was the Hostess she tried to cough up an apology but it too late. Luckily the candidate called me later to apologize and removed the volunteer.

    To this day I can’t believe this clueless woman thought it was ok to treat anyone so poorly, “hired help” or not. We are all people. Customer service is an honest job, one that shouldn’t be looked down on. We should always be gracious, not just to people we think “matter”.

    • pattid
      October 15, 2012 | 9:12 am

      I am so moved by all these stories and comments. When I sit down to write a post, I just write what seems to be pulling at me and what flows out of me. (As I once heard “the good stuff doesn’t come from us; it comes through us.”) To think that so many of you are touched by this post or have experiences related to what I write is very affirming. Thank you so much. How we treat one another is so important. We’re all guilty of making mistakes here but as I read once in another article that is buried somewhere in my files, it really pays to “be excellent to each other.” Janki, I am so sorry you experienced this, but you rose from is with grace which is admirable. Thank you — and everyone — for your contributions.

  9. Tiffany
    October 15, 2012 | 12:52 pm

    I wholeheartedly agree. When I was single, how a date treated the server at dinner was criteria for whether or not there was a date #2.

    • pattid
      October 16, 2012 | 2:04 pm

      Tiffany, brilliant! Great “test!”

  10. Jan Goss
    October 16, 2012 | 1:36 pm

    Bravo, Patti! The “Golden Rule” is hard to beat. A small kindness reaps such a great reward, for the recipient and the giver. There is not one person I know who is not facing some sort of battle… whether of their own or with someone they love. What is so wrong with just being kind to others…? Kindness is the foundation for civility… and I think we are all clear that we could use a good dose of civility in our world! Thank you for sharing such valuable information, as always. Another home run!

    • pattid
      October 16, 2012 | 2:05 pm

      Thank you, Jan! I know in your work you help people understand the power of treating others with respect and in making them feel good in our presence. That’s not only attractive, it’s the right thing to do.

  11. Lisa Copeland
    October 16, 2012 | 2:18 pm

    Thanks so much for addressing how to “treat the help” . As a car dealer , so many people walk in the front door with a preconcieved notion of what they might expect at the car dealership. I know from personal experience that we SO appreciate clients that appreciate us!
    Thanks so much for addressing this. As usual, I am EXCITED to see the next blog!!
    Keep it up!!
    Lisa Copeland
    General Manager
    FIAT of Austin

    • pattid
      October 16, 2012 | 5:25 pm

      Thank you so much for this comment, Lisa. Given your amazing track record, I’m confident your customers are receiving a surprising level of service and respect. Hoping you receive that in return. That was how my dad and grandfather did so well with their auto dealership. They could have gone somewhere else to get a better price, but they wouldn’t enjoy the same level of trust, experience and service. Congrats to you!

  12. Connie Brubaker
    October 17, 2012 | 8:38 pm

    Great blog, Patti. Many years ago, I heard Colleen Barrett speak about Southwest Airlines hiring practices. She shared that often an applicant was sent to the cafeteria and was observed to see if they interacted with the workers and others seated around them. They wanted to hire people that liked people. Southwest has 39 consecutive years of being profitable by treating their customers, both internal and external, by valuing relationships.

    One addition to your wonderful list that I would add is to listen! Really listen, without thinking of what you want to say next.

    Great reminders for each and everyone.

    • pattid
      October 18, 2012 | 8:57 am

      Thanks for your comment, Connie. I also recall a story you tell about a customer you had at one of your restaurants years ago. The person was caring for an ailing relative at home. But you didn’t initially know this. You only noticed that a) the person came in every day and b) was always cranky. Once you set some limits on how cranky they could be to your staff, you also learned WHY the person was so ill-tempered. It led to understanding, perspective and even mutual respect. You built a bridge and showed compassion for that person. We can all try that.

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