I was in the waiting area when the woman rushed in, snapped her umbrella closed, shifted her parcels to balance her load, and approached the receptionist.
“Hello; could you tell me what time Mr. Person-Next-Door will be in today?”
The clerk smiled apologetically; this was clearly not the first time she had been asked a question like this. “We are no longer the same practice,” she said. “And so, I’m sorry, but I don’t know what their schedules are.”
The woman put her packages on the floor and stood again. “Oh. Well . . . will he be in at some point today?”
“I’m sorry, but I don’t know.”
“Okay, well do you think you’ll be here when he arrives?”
“I will be here until five,” she said, still—against all odds—warm and friendly.
She could have said,
But she didn’t. She just hung in there with the woman, hearing her, being present.
“Oh good! Surely they’ll be in by then. Can I just leave this with you?”
“Of course. You’ll let them know they are here?”
The woman was picking out packages one by one, “What? Oh yes. I’ll leave them a message.” She plucked one package on the desk. “This one is for Person-one. Can you just write her name on it? I forgot. That’s it. ‘Person-one.’ Perfect.”
To be fair, there was not a line of people waiting. The place was actually pretty dead other than the woman who usurped all the receptionist’s time. Still, I’m sure she had things to do.
“Oh I didn’t put the name on this one either. It’s for Person-two. Can you . . .?”
She thanked her, propped the door open with her foot while she opened the umbrella out in the rain, and then she was off. The receptionist turned back to her computer and continued working.
I approached the reception desk, greeted her, and said, “Wow! I’ve led workshops on customer service and I could not have done better myself. That was amazing!”
“Oh,” she said, waving off my compliment, “Thanks! I didn’t mind.”
“Clearly. You were so kind and patient with her!”
“Well, it’s raining. I just put myself in her place. I wouldn’t have wanted to take those packages in and out of my car in the rain either.”
“And that,” I told her, “is the key to good customer service.”
Put yourself in the other’s place; see through their eyes. It’s a good rule for customer service. And, ya know, for life.
Recently, my sister reminded me of a family story that I hadn’t thought about in years. It happened back when we were in college, working in restaurants over holidays and summer breaks. At the time, she was waiting tables in our hometown in South Carolina.
Now, for those of you unfamiliar with the South, you need to know this tidbit. In South Carolina, when you order tea, it is assumed that you want your drink served over ice and—unless otherwise stated—sweet enough to pass as a dessert. It’s the rare Southerner who would choose hot tea to go with a meal. Even then, it would be requested with a touch of embarrassment or a word of explanation. “I’m coming down with a cold, you see, or I’d have the regular.” At which point, the waiter would say something like, “Oh! Bless your heart! I’ll getcha some iced tea for after you finish that stuff. No charge. You can take it to go.” In the South, iced tea is serious business, and it’s just not something you want to go messing around with . . . .
As my sister recalls, it all started because one night during the supper rush, a fella complained to the management because he had to request a spoon for his glass of sweet tea. According to him, the tea wasn’t quite sweet enough and he wanted to add more sugar. Not having a spoon readily available (and apparently unable to make do with either his knife, fork, or straw), he made quite a stinker of himself, frustrated that he was made to wait even momentarily for the preferred utensil. His nastiness threw the staff off kilter and made for a rotten night for everyone.
By the time the servers arrived the next day, the restaurant owner had devised a solution to this customer service conundrum. Incidentally, this was the first time in memory someone had requested more sugar for the sweet tea. Never mind that though; on to the solution.
“From now on,” the owner told the wait staff, “We will put teaspoons in each glass of tea. That will solve the problem.”
The staff just looked at her, apparently waiting for her to see the obvious flaw in the plan. She didn’t; someone spoke up.
“Well . . . umm . . . we put the spoons in the glasses of unsweetened tea so we can identify them. How will we tell them apart if we put spoons in all the glasses?”
The owner thought for a minute, came up with the answer, and said, “Okay, in the sweet tea, put one spoon. In the unsweetened tea, put two.”
“Yes! Two spoons.”
Well, you can imagine how this played out. The first really busy night, they ran out of teaspoons early on and the plan was scrapped. Which was fine really, because the problem wasn’t the system in the first place; the problem was a grumpy man who had probably just had one inconvenience too many that day.
Overcorrection: just one more way to create major problems out of minor ones.
Unlike water or wine or even Coca-Cola,
sweet tea means something.
It is a tell, a tradition.
Sweet tea isn't a drink, really.
It's culture in a glass.
(Allison Glock, writer)
(Original posting, November 17, 2014)