Wednesday, 5 March 2014

How to be really good at your customer service job.



I was searching my archives for any photo of me "doing a good job" and couldn't find one anywhere, so here's a regular photo of me. I guess that's one of my tips. Don't be taking selfies when you're supposed to be working. Unless that's part of your job for some reason.

So what makes me so qualified to tell you what to do and what not to do? First off, I've worked in many different customer service settings for over ten years and I feel like when I really "do" customer service I'm quite good at it. And I've worked with a trillion other people who were really bad at it. 

The other day I received an email from the college bookstore I work at as a casual employee (meaning "on-call"). The email was from my supervisor asking if she could pass along my information to another department that is looking for people. I said yes, and boom, today I'm in there meeting everybody and being extremely intimidated by industrial-grade canvas printers. Anyway long story short I asked my new boss if she wanted me to get her a copy of my resume and she said "No thank you, I've asked around and have heard good things." 

And this is why I feel I have some wisdom to impart to you. I am an introverted weirdo, I am covered head to foot in tattoos, I hate interacting with people, I'm a metal head loner art nerd ... and people are asking around about my work at positions all around a nationally ranked college campus.



So this one is for those of you who may be starting a customer service job for the first time, or those of you who feel like you're not getting the recognition you deserve at your current position, or those of you who can't seem to relate well with customers.

This is what I've learned:

Working in customer service can be broken down into four main components: interactions with your boss, interactions with your coworkers, interactions with customers, and how you feel about the work you are doing. If you can balance these four things you are going to do well. Here are my tips on getting your boss to like you, being a good coworker, having positive interactions with customers and liking where you are in the world.

1. How to get your boss to like you. 

  • Remember who is paying you and why they are paying you.You are at work to WORK in exchange for money. Nobody owes you anything. You must earn your keep and your job is to do what is required in your position. All of it. You don't get to pick and choose what you do, that's your boss' prerogative. You don't badmouth the company you work for while wearing the uniform. You respect the chain of command. If you don't meet the job requirements you will probably lose your job. Period.
  • Keep busy. Don't stand still. Don't hang out. Even if everybody else is hanging out you keep doing things. If you have time to lean you have time to clean. You can straighten a rack of chocolate bars or fold sweaters while you talk. Ask for more to do. My go-to line for this is either "Is there anything I should be doing right now?" or something like "I like to keep busy while at work, do you have anything I can work on?" I know it sounds kiss-assy but who cares? That's what you're there for and you don't have to feel weird about it.
  • Don't make them babysit you. Show up on time. Wear the proper uniform (without modifications). Wash your hands enough. Keep your hair out of your face. Do your work. NEVER make anybody tell you to do something twice. Once is bad enough, you should have had the foresight to ask if you could do the thing ten minutes ago. Do what you're supposed to. Don't do what you're not supposed to. You're an adult, act like it.
  • Act like you want to be there. Really and without sarcasm. I have worked with so many people who felt they were above the jobs they were working and it showed. Recently there was a guy in the book store who, when given a simple task to do would say NO in a weird joking-ish way to our supervisor, forcing them to "play along" and be like "Come on ___, go on now." It was a huge pain in the ass because it was like a needless mini-power struggle every time. Needless to say he lost more and more hours until he eventually just faded away. When I'm asked to do something I'm taking notes and nodding and saying YES.
  • Don't get too familiar with higher ups.  It's harder as I get older in these jobs. The managers and supervisors are my age and sometimes younger and I feel like I could relate well to them on a personal level outside of work. BUT there should be a barrier of power between the drones and the queen bee, mainly to avoid awkward moments where they're having to tell you what to do, especially when they know it's shit work that nobody else wants. Also, if other coworkers see you being casual with a supervisor they may exploit this "weakness" in the chain of command to their advantage. I think maintaining a certain level of distance from the boss and respect for their authority is important to the workplace dynamic no matter how cool they may be.

2. How to be a good beloved coworker.


  • Say good morning and bye. You don't have to be ridiculous about it or anything but it lets everyone know when you arrive and when you've gone home, plus it's a friendly gesture. Win-win.
  • Let your coworkers know if you're out of range. Do you need to go grab more supplies or use the bathroom? Just tell them where you are so they're not left hanging. I've had coworkers just go outside or wander around stores and I'm left working in the middle of a lunch rush, not knowing where to find help.
  • Don't be afraid to look like a fool, especially when you're new. Ask a million questions about the job. If you don't understand, keep asking until you do understand. You can't know everything and there's only one way to learn. Laugh at yourself if you make a mistake. When I'm training people I may miss telling them something and am grateful when they ask about it later. I'd way rather explain something three times than wonder if the job will be done properly when I'm not there. 
  • Admit it when you've made a mistake. Hey, I've miscounted till floats before. I've told customers the wrong info, I've lost paperwork, I've ordered the wrong supplies ... I've done a lot of stupid things. But I've owned up to them, usually before I "got caught", and I've done everything I could to fix the problem I've created. Trying to dust little mistakes under the rug can cause HUGE problems later on. Especially when a coworker is blamed for your oversight.
  • Bring treats for the break room sometimes. Only do this once you've been around for a while and if you know about everyone's allergies and dietary concerns.  People will love you as long as you do it in a non-showy way. Just leave the treats on the table with a note saying "happy Monday, from me" or whatever. This is not mandatory but I always feel suuuuuper grateful for a surprise mini cupcake.
  • Don't get too personal with work friends. Of course there are exceptions to every rule but in general your work friends are not your real friends. Would you really hang out with that group outside of your break room? Have you ever gone to a social setting with some people from work and realized you have absolutely nothing in common with them except ... work? It sucks! Anyway one of my good worker secrets is stay a bit aloof. This doesn't mean snobby or mysterious, just don't volunteer too much personal information about yourself unless it's pertinent to the conversation. In a way the workplace is a minor competition, keep your head in the game. You want to be THE BEST worker. Don't give anyone an edge.
  • Respect other coworkers' boundaries. This is the other end of the work friends thing. If they're not interested in being your Facebook friend or whatever you should respect that decision. Some people don't like their work and personal lives to cross, and that's okay.
  • Don't be "the stressed-out one". Don't bring your home drama to work and don't start work drama in the office. Nobody wants to come to work every day and hear about your crap. Also, don't be the guy who freaks out if you need more turkey slices in the deli case AND there are dishes to do AND you have to take your break in fifteen minutes or whatever. So many people can't handle stress and fly off the handle for tiny things at work. Try and remember how small your work day is in the grand scheme of your entire life. Will you care there were not enough apples in the display in 2027?
  • Don't be "too cool." I kind of already covered this when I said don't be sarcastic with your boss but the same goes for coworkers. Try to actually non-ironically enjoy being a barista for what it is, and share your enthusiasm with your coworkers. People are drawn to positivity and they will be more likely to enjoy working with you.
  • Don't be "the slacker". Put your phone away in your locker and turn it right off until you're done for the day. Be aware of the percentage of work you are putting in as compared to everybody else. At the very least it should be an even split. If you're not sure what you can do, ask. Don't do busy work until the real tasks are complete. You are there to help.
  • Keep it brief and light. Funny banter is awesome at work. Deep intense conversations are not. For example, I believe it's wrong to be telling a long story if there is even one customer in the store. It's unprofessional. Even if it's HILARIOUS, the customer just wants to get in, buy their hair dye and get out, not wait for you to finish your story.

3. How to have good interactions with the customer.

  • Smile and greet every person genuinely. Yes, seriously. You don't have to do a silly "Hi how are you today" toothy smile thing. You should customize your greeting to a more natural approach. Are you talking to a business lady? How about a child who is nervous about talking to strangers? Try and perceive how they see you in relation to themselves. Sometimes you represent "the man" and sometimes you're a nobody who is taking up valuable time, or sometimes you're a pretty girl, etc. And you can tailor your interactions to this perception.
  • Be approachable but not overly attentive. Have you ever been in a shop where there are two or more people working there, and you have a simple question to ask somebody, ANYBODY, but nobody will acknowledge your existence? That is so frustrating as a customer. If you see anybody who doesn't look absolutely deliberate in their actions or movement, anybody looking confused, anybody taking a super long time doing something that shouldn't take super long ... help them. This is my go-to line. "Is there anything I can help you with?" If they say no, say "Okay I'll be (wherever you will be), let me know if you need anything." and then leave them to it. Don't hover around or stare at them. You've given them the okay to come get you if they want anything, and the space to figure stuff out on their own.
  • Listen to the customer. I don't know how to teach listening other than to tell you to really try and understand the other person's point of view, especially when there's a problem. Don't use your memorized customer service lines. Don't pass them off onto somebody else. Hear them out and then do everything in your power to solve the problem or answer the question. If you don't understand something, ask for more clarification.
  • Say YES and find solutions. Even if your customer is completely wrong, or the answer to their questions is NO NO NO or I don't know, use encouraging body language and positive words. Agree with them noncommittally if possible. Here's an example of what I mean. 
Customer: (angrily charges up to cash register) Excuse me!
You: (looks interested) Hi!
Customer: I was in here 45 billion years ago and this cookie was 45 cents and now the cookie is 46 cents, and I am angry about this.
You: Yeah, I know! Prices are going up all the time!
Customer: I hate this store and demand to know why it's one more penny RIGHT THIS INSTANT.
You: Okay, I can call my manager and he will probably know more about the prices of individual items than I do, would you care to wait a moment? He's up in his office.
Customer: I don't have all day, you just tell me why this thing you have no control over happened and then fix it even though you have no power at all in your customer service position and my demands are unreasonable.
You: Well I can't do that but what I can do is offer you this free sample of this other thing. (Give them an extra one or something "for their troubles") (or take down their info or show them where they can complain or do something to help them manage their bad feelings).
Customer: Yes well it's not fair and I'm going to cry about it to the world on my cookie price blog.
You: Nice. Anyway ... (change the subject)
  • Be accurate and don't make promises you can't keep. People will ask you A LOT of questions over the day. If you don't know, admit it and find out the answer. You can always offer to take down their info and call them when you find out. This is kind of an easy way out of most situations, but if you do this you must personally ensure this customer gets their answer or you're screwed. 
  • Keep the customer moving. You don't want to get caught in a long conversation with a bored retiree who has nothing better to do because it makes you look unavailable to other customers who may need help, and it also looks like you're slacking to your coworkers and boss. Get in and get out. Do they need help? Yes. Help them. No. Okay I'll be over here doing something else. Boom.
  • Don't let rudeness affect your feelings. This is one I struggle with but I admire those who can brush jerky behavior off like stale cobwebs. Their anger is not about you, they probably just lost their mother or are stressed about a work thing or whatever and are having a lapse in character. Or maybe they're just a dick. Either way it's not your problem.
  • Don't give out personal information. Don't ever give out anybody's schedules, phone numbers or any personal info. The asker could be innocent or it could be their ex-boyfriend/stalker asking. And remember, just because you can't be rude doesn't mean you have to answer any questions that don't have anything to do with your work. I usually get young-ish men asking me really personal questions or older creepy people asking about my tattoos. My go-to response is to be VERY BUSY and not have time to talk. You can also enlist a creep-saving buddy who can ask you to go get something from the back room (where you can hide until the weirdo is gone) or say they need your help if you look uncomfortable.
  • Don't be a customer service robot. 


I'm sure everybody in their lives has experienced this type of weirdo. These people shut off and refuse to engage in any personalization of service to the customers. Vary your greetings, try not to ask stock questions to every single customer (Did you find everything okay?), and if you ask "How's it going? or How are you?" be prepared for a real answer. Sometimes out of touch store owners will try and enforce ridiculous things like offering EVERY SINGLE CUSTOMER a hand out to their car at the grocery store (even if they're a 25 year old bodybuilder buying two oranges). I usually don't do what the manual says even if it results in the occasional reprimand. Use your best judgment on this one.
4. How to like your job when it sucks. 

  • Take pride in what you do. Work hard and do your actual best. You know when I feel the worst at work? When I know I did something half-assed. I like to feel proud of myself in the knowledge I did everything I could. Sometimes I don't exactly feel like scrubbing a public toilet, and in those moments I tell myself "do your best". In the end I'm always glad I listen to my own advice.
  • Remember why you're there. Are you there because serving tofu burgers is your passion and you want to know everything there is to know about it? Are you trying to make enough money to pay off a large debt? Keep your eyes on the prize, so to speak. If nothing else it'll give you a sense of purpose.
  • Plan breaks. I find the two consistent factors in me being happy are keeping busy and having something to look forward to. So by that logic if you're doing your best at your job and are, oh, say, planning a vacation, you will probably feel happier. 
  • If you really hate it, change it. If you feel run-down on the job everybody around you will sense it. They don't want you there. So why are you doing it? If you're unhappy, think of what you can do to change your situation. Don't stop job searching until you find you can live comfortably and be reasonably content at work.It's better to try something new and be uncomfortable for a bit than stay somewhere you hate.


Anyway this turned out way longer than I meant it to and I didn't even say everything I could. Do you have any tips to add to my ginormous list?

1 comment:

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