Service with a smile

Why do people take on jobs that involve dealing with the public when it’s clear they hate dealing with members of the public? This might be deemed an insensitive question in that, during these strained times, any job might be worth it; even one you hate. But that’s too straightforward.
Even during the boom years of the last government we all experienced people snarling at us through the security glass of some official’s counter. I recently went to a government office that I won’t name for fear of reprisals; the people behind the counter are scary and they’ll have access to my home address. It’s one of those where you have to queue outside while those inside in the warm watch the second hand on the clock go around and won’t unlock the door until it hits the appointed hour, to the second. Why? There were people outside and those inside were there already. So why not let us in, if only to queue?
Ah, and then the queue involves taking a paper number from a ticket machine and, clutching said ticket, you make your way to a seat, if there’s one left, and stare intently at the repeating advertising screens – advertising what you’re already there for – until you’re sick of that and you start to watch the counter staff instead. And that’s when you start to worry, hoping that you don’t get the fierce looking one but maybe the slightly more attractive one (it’s all relative) or the apparently smiley one, until you realise it’s not a smile but a snarl. You start to count up from the numbers being served to your own number, calculating which one you might get, crossing your fingers and hoping against hope – in vain.
Because it’s my turn at last. Excited, I’m determined to be nice and get through to the human being inside the creature on the other side of the glass. And so I smile as I approach and say good morning and ask how they are. They don’t see the smile as they’re not looking up and appear to be deaf but who knows? I take a seat and the assistant finally looks up. “Yes?”. Oh boy. It’s obvious they’re really pleased to be here, one and all. It’s as if they’ve decided  the meeting’s not going to be fun and could, possibly, be confrontational. Well I certainly didn’t feel confrontational before sitting down but I start to understand the “We reserve the right to throw you out if you’re nasty to our staff” notices pinned to the walls because my blood pressure’s rising.
Imagine if the hospitality industry posted such signs. I assume you’d run a mile but, there again, that’s your prerogative. You don’t have to come to our restaurant but I did have to go to that office. I had no choice and they knew it. But we’re all in the business of customer service – or maybe business isn’t the correct word.
Maybe it’s understandable why people in such employment are, well, grumpy. They don’t need to be nice to do their job. The public will still come through the door no matter how uncaring they are. Therefore, for some obscure, unfathomable reason they get shouted at and they hate their job almost as much as they hate you and the people in the queue behind you. But surely they’re never like that in our type of business, are they? We’re in the people-pleasing business and we only attract staff that love that type of thing. Don’t we?
Well, I don’t understand it but it’s interesting how often I walk into a pub or go to a bar at a theatre or walk into some restaurants to be greeted with complete indifference. It’s almost beyond belief. Even if someone’s only taken the job because there’s nothing else available, surely it doesn’t take much sense to realise that the job’s more fun if you like your customers. You just know that the business could be more successful with a better attitude from the staff.
But it doesn’t help that in the UK we seem to denigrate the role of serving and waiting staff. That’s bound to make people go into such a job with the wrong attitude. In some countries it’s a revered profession and it happens to be a job that I love; even though it’s tiring, the hours are long and it involves dealing with unpredictable situations. After all, customers are human and there’s drink involved. So it needs skill and a quick mind as well as good interpersonal qualities to deal with any situation. But it’s also like hosting a dinner party every night and most of us enjoy those.
Most customer service jobs in the private sector are incredibly important. And waiting at tables is, therefore, a seriously important job because if we get it wrong there’ll be no customers and therefore no restaurants and all the tax we generate and collect will be lost and they’ll be less government money to keep in employment those other customer service people who don’t need to be nice to the public. I don’t sound bitter do I?

6th May 2011

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