At 16 years old in a crooked Starbucks hat, a coffee-stained apron and a name tag that read “Hi, my name is Erin,” I stood behind the counter as a woman double my age animatedly expressed her outrage. Verbalizing animosity at me for the uncontrollable: caffeine in a light roast cup of coffee. Immediately, I wondered how had I gotten here. Why was I taking the brunt of this woman's anger? As a high school student working a minimum wage job to pay for the occasional gallon of gas — what had I done to deserve this stranger's anger over a caffeinated beverage?
To this day I’m still unsure. Maybe it was the right time for her and maybe I was in the wrong place. Or maybe she saw me as a scapegoat, a commercial robot paid hourly by a corporate institution to heed her every complaint.
Three years later, and I still think about the light roast coffee incident. As a customer service employee, it should not be expected of me to brace myself for emotional turmoil every shift because of the possibility a customer is unhappy with their service — controllable or not. Society is civil. We are not wild animals. There is order.
Patience, understanding and kindness are universally understood forms of respect — so why does it feel as if customer service employees are the exception to these forms of respect?
Is there a simple solution to diminishing this seemingly complex power dynamic between customer service employees and the people we are hired to help? My answer to closing the gap is a strong belief that everyone should work a customer-service job at some point in their life.
The customer service industry is a humbling, unforgiving, ruthless line of work, yet extremely necessary. Without customer service employees, your favorite restaurants, grocery stores, malls, coffee shops and gas stations couldn’t operate. So why are customer-facing positions often undesirable?
A study done by the National Library of Medicine dove deeper into dysfunctional customer behavior and its effects on customer-contact service employees, theorizing that “customer-contact employees experience emotional exhaustion more frequently than other employee types.” Despite this, every customer service employee has heard the belitting phrase “the customer is always right.”
This completely dismisses the humanity of every customer service employee. Customers are becoming increasingly less civil and customer service employees are expected to bear the brunt of it. So, what happened to treating others how you want to be treated?
Empathy is vital to human understanding, it’s about seeing a situation through someone else’s eyes. Without empathy towards customer service employees “dysfunctional customer behavior functions as a stressor, engendering psychological stress” in the very employees that are meant to assist customers.
Due to the pandemic, customer service employees no longer provide basic services to customers such as answering questions or selling products. There is now an expectation that we provide services far beyond the scope of our job descriptions. We are mask mandate enforcers, security guards, an open ear and, worst of all, bearers of bad news. All of it takes a mental, physical and emotional toll on employees who never expected to be frontline workers. I’m not a healthcare hero — I’m a bartender.
That being said, working in various customer-facing industries has made me more empathetic towards employees. This is why I suggest every person at some point in their life should hold a job as a customer service employee.
According to Indeed, a customer service employee can learn a myriad of interpersonal skills while working in a customer service position such as teamwork, patience, managing conflict, managing stress and most of all — respect. These skills can be translated into day-to-day life either as a customer or as an employee.
Currently, while working as a bartender, I have developed transferable skills that aid me not only at school and at home — but in public.
I know my local Target employees can’t control what’s in stock and what’s not. I know the L.L. Bean employees at the mall a town over cannot control the shipping time of a back-ordered item. And I know that the wait times at my favorite restaurant are not two hours long to spite me. It is unreasonable to expect customer-facing employees to have control of the uncontrollable — recognizing this truth and giving a little empathy can go a long way.
I truly stand to believe that everyone should work a customer service job at some point in their life. To those who never do — the opportunity to be patient, understanding and kind to the very employees that make society run is still readily available.
So, next time you feel yourself getting frustrated — something bound to happen to us all — I implore you to remember that we, as customer service employees, are trying our best. With that being said, I thank you, as I do with all my customers, for your patience and understanding. Have a good rest of your day.
Erin Mercuri is a sophomore studying communication arts. Do you agree that everyone should work a customer service job at some point in their life? Send all comments to firstname.lastname@example.org.