Pro (Social) Tips: Treating service industry workers like people

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Many of us look at the winter months as a time to express sensitivity, generosity, and compassion. Food banks begin overflowing with canned goods, shelters have more volunteers than they know how to manage, and families make amends. However, there is one glaring exception—there is a large group that often does not receive these kind acts, and to the contrary, are overworked, misused, and objectified this time of year: those who work in the customer service industry.

Martin Buber, old time philosopher, thought we should love people and use things—but he notes this expectation is complicated and near impossible in the exchange of services. We can’t possibly develop thoughtful relationships with everyone in our daily lives, right? That kid in the drive through is just supposed to take my money and give me my order. The plumber is here to fix my rusted pipes. We need this salesperson’s help to get a pair of black boots in a size 7. That kid, the plumber, and this salesperson are operators to complete your tasks—that’s what they’re paid to do, after all. But wait! This is the reasoning we use to view people as things—a process known as objectification.

Yes, customer service industry workers are paid to provide a service. They’re also fully human beings with lives, thoughts, feelings, and motivations. They perform necessary yet poorly-valued jobs that require an intense and delicate balancing act of hundreds of other people’s thoughts, feelings, and motivations, and they deserve respect and consideration. In this spirit, here are some pro(social) tips on how to be considerate to people working in the customer service industry—during the holidays and beyond.

1. Plan in advance.

Just like you would RSVP to an event or set plans with a friend, plan in advance if you want a roast with all the trimmings, sliced and diced, and over a bed of lettuce to be picked up at 12:00 sharp. When you do this, everyone wins! They make it when you request it and you pick up when you said you would. Avoid calling in at the last moment, repeated rescheduling, or constantly trying to change the request. And if you must, be understanding with whatever answer you get in return. Everyone is hoping for a positive outcome and wants you to be satisfied with your service; if it’s not possible to satisfy your request, there’s a good reason for it.

Mintwood Place, Washington, DC

2. Have realistic expectations.

If you show up right before closing or in the final countdown days, you may have to wait in a line for 30 minutes. If a staff member says a product is out until Monday, don’t come back Sunday expecting to get something that isn’t there until Monday. Demanding to see management immediately or fussing complaints at the stock boy who doesn’t know how to use a register may sound productive (or at least soothing), but let’s be honest: the customer is not always right. And it’s silly to think you could be!

Be aware of your expectations and accept when they are unrealistic and cannot be fulfilled. Show a little understanding if you show up unscheduled or during rush hour; generally expect and plan accordingly for a wait.

3. Double check.

No, it’s not your job to make sure everything ends up in the bag just so, but it sure beats getting home and realizing that your order is wrong. Things get forgotten, switched, and smashed every which way when you and 20 of your closest holiday rivals come in at the same time. Instead of having to call or drive back to the store resentfully to create a compromise on how to resolve the error, it’s simpler for everyone if you just double check your order or purchase in the store so any inconvenience is minimized and mistakes can be immediately resolved. There is a lot going on at businesses during the holidays. Companies want to make you feel like the apple of their eye, but in reality there is a whole orchard surrounding you.


4. Be patient, understanding, and respectful.

If a mistake has been made or if things aren’t going your way, there is no reason to yell irrationally or get angry—it will not help you get what you want and in fact will accomplish the opposite: servers may actually avoid you or become ambivalent towards your requests. Yelling at, talking down to, or throwing a temper tantrum directed at staff is not only rude, it’s abusive and dehumanizing. When you resort to these behaviors, you’re stressing out fellow customers and the service team that is working on all cylinders to keep the operation running as smoothly and effectively as possible. And just because someone’s wages are influenced by your satisfaction of service does not give you the right to treat them any less than you would treat a fellow patron.

Instead, take some deep breaths and be mindful to not take your stress out on others. Remind yourself that mistakes happen and aren’t the end of the world. Communicate clearly and concisely what the problem is and how you would like it resolved. Commit to collectively determining a timeline and plan for resolving the issue. If there are problems in this approach, be assertive in your needs and seek to find a middle ground.

5. Be accountable.

We all have moments when we behave less than our best, but we must hold ourselves accountable and learn from such mistakes. Sincerely ask yourself questions like, “What is the right thing to do?” “Might I be in the wrong?” “Am I being unfair or unreasonable?” By sincerely asking ourselves such questions, we begin to change our behavior and way of
being; we begin to become capable of doing the right thing. We hold ourselves as accountable as we want others to hold themselves, and we treat others as we wish to be treated.

Source: Shutterstock


6. Respect boundaries.

Your server’s body isn’t public property. Keep your hands to yourself.

7. Show appreciation.

Give thanks to your service providers for managing (or trying to manage!) such a difficult and stressful balancing act. Show appreciation even if it is the slightest of smiles or a passing “thank you.” It helps the people working in the service industry get through long days of mental and physical exhaustion. Even in situations where someone is paid to be of service to you, kindness and mutual respect are key. Holding up your end of that bargain is a small price to pay for what you will get in return.

When the holidays come around and each of us are rushing to find the right gifts, repair the pipes, or pick up food orders, we often forget that the people working to provide these services are, well, people. And while it may not be possible to become BFFs with every server and sales associate you meet this season, you can make an earnest effort to treat them respectfully and thoughtfully. Use and share these tips to spread holiday cheer!

Special thanks to contributing writer, Kaeli Egler


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