11 July 2019

The Long Overdue Revenge of the Customer Service Representative

by Brian Thornton

Aloha from Maui!

Every time I've driven past the signs for Kihei in the past week, I've thought of old pal and fellow Sleuthsayer R.T. Lawton, and his better half, Kiti. (And they know why!).

As I sail toward the end of the first real vacation my family has taken in years, my thoughts have been on an amazing and amusing thing that happened to me during the final week of the school year a couple of weeks back.

One of my students (hard-working, charismatic, a real leader, just a fine young lady) informed me that her mother works for the credit union where I and my family do most of our banking. "Oh," I think to myself, "Small world."

Turns out there was more.

"My mom finally remembered where she recognized your name from," this amazing kid went on.

"From the credit union?" I said, still not quite getting it.

"Yep. She sees your name quite a bit there."

These are vacation pics and having nothing to do with this post: that's the island of Kaho'olawe across the bay.
Casting back in my memory to try to recall whether I had any recent NSF fees (Hey–no judgement. Most of us have been there at one time or another, after all.), I asked, "What does your mom do at XXXX Credit Union (Not its real name)?"

"She's Quality Control for Customer Service."

This information sends my thoughts in a new direction. Have I complained about the service I've received lately? Nope. Does that mean someone's complained about me? Is that even a thing customer service folks even do?

I asked myself this last question because a few decades back, I was one of those people working in a variety of entry-level customer service jobs. It was some of the hardest and least rewarding work I've ever done. I worked in food, in hospitality, in transportation, all while working my way through college so that I could embark on a different–yet–not–all–that–different type of customer service: teaching.

Back in those days (and we're talking the early '90s here) one customer complaint could mean the end of your employment (I didn't have a union job until I started teaching, everywhere I worked was a one-counseling session and you're fired kind of place.). I know this because at least once I got fired because of a customer complaint.

Well, that and the fact that the guy who fired me (someone who really put the "ass" in "assistant manager.") was a real piece of work.

But that's another story.

These and other memories were washing over me during my conversation with that awesome student of mine. So I said: "Quality Control, huh? She fields complaints, things like that?"

"Yep," Awesome Kid (not her real name, but it might as well be) said.

"Does she like her job?"

"She does. And she likes you."

I cudgel my brain trying to recall whether I've ever met Awesome Kid's mom. Nope. I'm pretty sure I'd remember. She didn't come to conferences, and I didn't see her at Open House. So that surprises me.

"She likes me?" I ask, all intelligence and awareness, now.

"Yes. You're one of the highest-rated customers they have."

I blink at her, not comprehending. "They rate customers?"

She nods. "And the customer service reps all really love you. You get high marks all the time and you're near the top of their list."

And just like that, with this small kindness, Awesome Kid made my year.

The island of Lana'i (left) and the West Maui Mountains (right) framing a spectacular sunset

My early experiences with the downside of customer service (being the one to catch the irate call, or get someone's order wrong, or commit one of thousand small errors) have informed my interactions with the people who work in those positions ever since my own days in customer service, lo those many moons ago.

In the years since I've striven to be patient, to be polite. To be courteous and respectful, even when I'm pretty pissed off about something.

Because, nine times out of ten, it's not the fault of the person I'm talking to. They're there because they picked up the phone, took the chat request, what-have- you.

I've never forgotten what it's like to be on the other end of that call, and I hope I never do.

So it did my heart good to know that customer service reps are getting a chance to rate their interactions with clients: getting a voice in how that back-and-forth went. Because, hey, it's a hard job. And it usually doesn't pay all that well.

Plus, I gotta admit, I like that someone on the other end of that phone call notices how I try to treat them well.

After all, Couldn't we, each and every one of us, use a little more humanity in our daily interactions?

This is why I've been tipping people left, right and center (something I do religiously anyway) over the last week, and will until we head for home.

Like I said before, it's a tough job, and people don't get paid a whole lot to do it.

And that's all I've got for this go-round. I hope you're all having a wonderful and productive July.

Mahalo, and see you in two weeks!


  1. Whoo-hoo! Well deserved Pacific Island vacation, Brian!

    I always try to separate the phone reps with the €#¢fifl‡§¶ªƒing companies/agencies they work for. This past week I came up against the impenetrable walls of my local electric company after they installed a new digital meter, asking why my bachelor's bill shot up to 3x the average for a family of four. I also confronted Amazon why, after their shipment became lost, they took it upon themselves to cancel the order without input from me. In both cases, the reps were obviously reading from scripts. Really irritating, but I don't shoot the messenger who's paid to read the script. Maybe they'll award me a half star for that!

    Happy holiday, Brian.

  2. My wife worked in customer service for years and has the patience to make intelligent complaints to government agencies and companies like AT+T, Amazon, etc. I do not have that knack. I'm only half Sicilian but that's the half that gets on the phone to make a complaint. She keeps reminding me the person on the other end of the phone is someone with their own problems.

    Good post.

  3. I've always found that courtesy gets one quite a long way with customer service people. After all the crazy regulations of their bosses is not their fault.

  4. While I hang up with great frequency on telemarketers - I didn't ask them to call - I am always polite to customer service reps. They have fixed a lot of problems for me.

  5. Brian, you've got some excellent photos there. Maui has some great sunsets to watch while sitting in a lawn chair with drink in hand. Kiti said if you walked on the sidewalk in the one photo, then you've walked in our footsteps. We know you had a good time on your vacation.

  6. Leigh: I have found that the phrase "May I please speak with your supervisor?" works very well. And if they supervisor is "not available," getting their direct contact number and hitting them up until either I get what I need or get the contact info of THEIR immediate supervisor works wonders. I say this from long, exhausting experience of the type you cite (one example: I use a CPAP and the cumbersome manner in which the company which subcontracts sending me supplies for it frequently necessitates I make the sort of call cited above).

    O'Neil: Your wife and your roles are reversed in my own marriage. I handle that stuff for both of us.

    Janice: Danged right!

    Eve: I have frequently taken a cue from Seinfeld, and seen how long I can keep them on hold: "Why, yes, I *AM* very interested in an off-season and very expensive timeshare being sold by your Nigerian prince friend. VERY interested. Can you hold on for just a moment though? I have something on the stove..."

    R.T.: KNEW you'd get it. Robyn can't wait to go back. We're looking at February next time.;)


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