Intro: How to GET Good Service

“According to your plan, you need to do it this way. It is not possible to change plans in the middle of a service contract.”

“No, sir, I cannot do that for you. Only the manager can do that, and she’s not here.”

“This item is non-returnable. If you’ve changed your mind, there is nothing I can do.”

“You’re not listening to me. Therefore, I am simply unable to help you.”

If there is a one-word label for the era we live in, then this is the age of consumerism. Every day, we find ourselves in the role of the customer, managing a never-ending supply of goods and services we require to sustain ourselves and our families.

It was much easier in the old days, before we had things like cars or shopping malls. We made or traded for most of the stuff we needed: food, clothing, tools, and building materials. The concept of time had a whole different meaning. There was a lot less multi-tasking; we were scarcely in any big hurry. When we wanted something, we waited till the market was open. And we walked there, probably at a pace we would now call leisurely.

Since then, the number of ‘necessities’ has grown to include things that, not long ago, seemed like miracles. I never thought I’d ever have a telephone in my pocket, not to mention the world’s greatest library – Google – at my fingertips. We don’t even have to leave the house in pursuit of these acquisitions anymore. Nowadays, we can go online to buy anything from vitamins to cruises, shoes to contact lenses. As long as we keep spending money. And, together with this massive expansion of needs and conveniences in our lives comes the never-ending inconvenience of managing them.

Most of our purchases require us to (physically or digitally) approach some company, organization, or person. We enter each transaction in the hope of a smooth and painless process. Sometimes, we’re lucky. Other times, we need to try harder.

Much has been written on how to provide good service. On Amazon you’ll find thousands of Business-to-Customer (B-to-C) books on how to deal with customers, mostly written for mid-level managers who will never actually speak to a customer. I don’t want to say there’s anything wrong with these books; yet, they have not had their intended effect. Cultures with a history of good service, like USA, UK, France, Netherlands and others, have noticed a decline in the attitude of employees vis-à-vis the customers. This trend, unless we do something about it, is not about to improve any time soon.

I couldn’t find a general guide for customers on how to prepare for sticky situations, prevent problems, or solve them when they happen. So, I went and wrote it myself: this is the first comprehensive C-to-B (Customer-to-Business) handbook, so to speak.

We are the customer in “customer service”

Nearly every day, we play the role of consumer-gatherer, and there’s little we can do about that, short of going back in time a few hundred years. For as long as most of us can remember, we’ve been bombarded by media and advertising, masterminded to give us an illusion of entitlement that we deserve only the best. As a result, customers have become more savvy and demanding than ever before. Customer service, though, has not kept up with those demands. From what I see and hear, in many respects, it’s gotten worse.

It’s not just our money that talks; in fact, most employees don’t care about our money.

We earn the service we get

If an employee isn’t being very helpful, then – it’s only logical – the burden is on us to exact better service from them. It’s nice to think the customer always comes first, but, that’s just a platitude. Claiming “The customer is king!” doesn’t work anymore. Hoping for good luck will get us just so far. We need to be ready to act and respond effectively, to show the employees and service providers we deal with that they don’t have to be afraid to be cooperative.

How can we take someone who’s having a rotten day and make them more helpful? Well, when are you at your most helpful? The answer is no mystery: studies confirm that people are more receptive and cooperative when they like the other person. Liking is one of the strongest motivators known to our species, and not only ours. The fastest way to get someone to be agreeable is to get them to like us, even if just for a transitory moment.

On the other hand, not every customer is cooperative either. Some are downright offensive. Don’t you wish these cretins would do their shopping online? If you are one of those difficult customers who insists on doing everything your way or the highway, this book will probably put you off. You might find it more convenient to scare people into submission, and you’ve had some success at that. But, if you want to keep your blood pressure and embarrassment within the normal limits, try out some of the tactics explained in this book. After all, most transactions are simple and brief; we’re not talking about a complex relationship. It’s in everyone’s interest to conclude the business and be on our way as swiftly as possible.

Practice makes art

Dealing with employees, service providers, and clerks is about as uninspiring as it gets. This book is not going to make these tasks less mundane; rather it will make them smoother, more steady experiences. The techniques presented are designed to attain the respect and favor of your “OP” (Other Person), so they will comply with your (rational) wishes. Collected from abundant sources over the past 25 years, these techniques have been tried and confirmed by scientists and dilettantes all over the world. And, like any art, martial or creative, these skills can be practiced and improved. Think of any muscle-memory skill, e.g. driving, playing a musical instrument, or making love. The more we practice, the better we get, the more natural it feels, until it becomes second nature.

A brief, personal musing

During my first European trip – a student-exchange program in 1988 – one of the first things I noticed was that service did not necessarily come with a smile. Compared to what I had been used to in my native USA, Europeans were distant and indifferent, even irritable and brusque. They have a long, complicated history, and a hard time trusting strangers. Likewise, it takes longer to form a relationship. People are simply more reserved. Employees and clerks don’t smile much in Europe, even when looking the customer straight in the eye. If you’re not particularly sensitive to this, you may not notice. Or, it might even perturb you.

American employees, on the other hand, are trained to smile at the customers by default. Even when giving bad news, their facial expression is routinely sympathetic. This smile is intended to give customers the feeling that we are all ‘in the same boat’ and that’s… nice… better than nothing. But, even this perfunctory gesture has been fading in recent years.

Note for people who do not speak the local language: you’ll get much further if you learn to say, in their language, “Forgive me I don’t speak _______, do you speak English please?”

Other useful phrases to learn in the local language are:

  • “Be careful”
  • “Don’t worry about it” / “No problem”
  • “Take it easy”
  • “I’m not an idiot”
  • “It’s copacetic” / “It’s all good”

Not a non-disclaimer

Much of what you’ll find in this book will be common-sensical and not wholly imaginative. Considering, as adults and experienced customers, we already have a good idea of how to get the job done at the supermarket. I don’t want to insult anyone’s intelligence; I’ve tried to include only the most useful techniques and phrases I’ve collected over the past 25 years as a teacher, traveler and professional communicator.

As this is the first edition, there may be certain customer situations I have overlooked. Your gracious feedback will help me fill in any gaps.