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Customer Service

I took my aging car in for an overdue oil change yesterday. I wasn’t expecting much, as the “quick change” places generally want to process and get you out as quickly as possible. I can see both sides of the argument: someone in a hurry doesn’t likely want to be up-sold on things, nor do they want to idly chit-chat. On the other side, if they’re busy in the shop, they need to keep the line moving.

The advantages of living in a smaller community in this circumstance are two-fold: no lines, and no rush. That being said, there are often far too many experiences where the customer is treated like a number, and a stranger, rather than someone whom you’d prefer was spending their money at your establishment, again and again, forever.

My last oil change was a disappointing experience, to put it lightly. For the price that’s asked, I expected at least some of what they normally list and check-off on their invoices: top-up all the fluids, check the tires, a quick vacuum of the rugs, wash the windows, tell me if the muffler is about to fall off, etc. There’s nothing that’s difficult to do, and there is always enough time to get it all done, regardless of how busy the shop is. Well, the gents working that day couldn’t be bothered. In contrast, yesterday’s experience was the complete opposite.

A semi-retired mechanic was running the team. A big plus, right off the bat. His former employer had passed away, which effectively shut down his old shop after decades of service to the valley. At 65, he’s working a little less, but knows that service and customer relationships are priority number one. And I felt that. I was offered coffee, tea, and a cookie. He asked me a few times if I had any questions or concerns. He gave me options regarding suggested services to consider this or next visit, even a few I didn’t even know they could do. No pressure, just an experienced mechanic telling it like it is, without pushing for the sale. They offered to vacuum the rugs. They washed the windows. Tires all checked. Many other things checked, too. Fluids topped up, and all the rest that are the basic, yet complete list of services one expects to get visiting a drive-thru oil change. My car was happy. I was happy. I would happily recommend their service to others. 

My issue is that it is utterly inconsistent. If I went to their competitor down the road, what kind of service would I have received? The price is the same, but I have no idea how I’d have been treated. I can do it all myself, but I don’t want to, and my time is better spent elsewhere.

I told him about my previous experience, which was actually at another location of the same franchise. He told me how just earlier that day he was talking to the younger, newer staff members about why they do some of the things they do, instilling some sage wisdom and practiced philosophy. It’s not a complex issue. It’s simply being present, open, and willing to be of service. Get to know your services, get to know about the cars and trucks that will come through, and always look for ways to both enjoy your work, and to help the customer enjoy their visit. How, then, do so many get it so wrong?

The same goes for restaurants and cafés. I spend a lot of time sitting in cafés. There are a few Starbucks around here, but most cafés are locally owned establishments. What’s surprising, is how different the experience is even between different Starbucks. It’s easy to tell if the manager actually gives a shit because the staff always reflects the energy that comes from the top. As a result, I have a favorite Starbucks. The manager herself always makes a point to say hello, and ALWAYS demonstrates great customer service, going over and above the typically expected service, frequently bringing me my heated sandwich, rather than shouting across the restaurant when it’s ready and sitting by the espresso machines. It doesn’t take much, but it makes a memorable difference, to me, the customer. The whole vibe of the café is different as a result. I feel welcome, and like I belong. I go there frequently.

This is a far less common issue in the locally owned establishments. Many employ locals who have been there since their opening day, or those who come back seasonally, year after year. There appears to be a vested and personal interest in their restaurant that reflects on both them and the community. And maybe this is an inherent problem with the behemoth franchises: customers who frequent them aren’t concerned about the service as much as they care about fast service. The products are all the same, regardless of location. It’s nearly impossible to screw up an urn of coffee with their exacting protocols and standards. So, again, both sides of the coin have relevance.

I’m well aware that there are likely to be asshole customers that come by. That’s an inevitable part of working in the service industry. I can’t imagine how difficult it can be for some, especially the uninitiated or less experienced. Regardless, the increasingly evident apathy and disconnect from genuine service isn’t helpful. I don’t believe it’s just me, getting older and feeling entitled. I’ve worked in (and owned) coffee shops, and in different areas of the service sector. There are ways to defuse those situations and attitudes and rise above. I know that teaching and training about human psychology isn’t likely part of the retail process, but it should be. It’s not just about paychecks. It’s about people — both you, and your customer; both you and the one offering the service.

Wherever you are, be there completely. This day doesn’t come again, and if you truly hate your work, move on and find something more aligned with your spirit and your values. Regardless of the job, business or service, you will always learn something about yourself, about people in general, or about skills and abilities that will be useful elsewhere on your journey.

Life is short. It’s easy to be lazy, apathetic, bored, disconnected and disinterested. It’s easy to bicker and gossip and hate on co-workers, customers, or inept managers and bosses. With conscious practice, it’s even easier to be kind, considerate, present, and willing to be of true service — regardless of where you’re currently holding a position. Someone hired you because they saw and believed that you had relevant capabilities. Your capacity for doing and being your best in that space is up to you.

Life on Earth and our unique experience of humanity is all about people — groups, communities, societies, and networks of people. Create and maintain a space within you for connection and understanding; less screen time and more natural surroundings; less social media and more books; less texting and more talking face-to-face; less Netflix and more traveling the world — even if it’s only walking in your neighborhood. It’s simple. It’s expansive and normalizing. It’s real.

How we do anything, is how we do everything.

Solvitur ambulando