Wednesday, March 3, 2010

The Art of Customer Service

The words "customer service" get thrown around a lot, and they tend to evoke a different reaction depending on who's saying them and who's hearing them.

At the very lowest end of the spectrum, the words conjure images of soulless teenagers in stained uniforms, staring blankly past registers where the buttons are just pictures of the food.

From many job-seekers' (and hiring managers', for that matter) points of view, "customer service" represents the least desirable opportunity, a skill-free, entry-level plebeian position to be avoided like the plague. A warm body with low standards.

Comparably few people see the words for what they ought to represent: a very tricky job that takes a lot of time and attention to master. A customer service environment is one of life's most educational laboratories for human nature and communication - show me a waiter or bartender who's good at what he or she does, and I'll show you someone who can talk their way out of any conflict.

Truly excellent customer service isn't about remembering that the customer is always right - that's never been true. Point in fact, the customer is typically quite wrong, or misinformed, or unreasonable, or scheming to get something they didn't pay for. The key isn't behaving as though the customer is right, it's in making sure that the customer always understands they've been taken care of. Being able to identify what a person needs, reconcile that against what you're able to provide them, and consciously direct the entire encounter towards an end where they know beyond a shadow of a doubt that you listened and did the best for them that could be done - that's the heart of good customer service. There's not a thing easy, unskilled, or entry-level about that. It's one part tapdancing, one part sleight of hand, and three parts willingness to invest genuine attention into a human being you've possibly never met before.

It's a memorable cocktail, and one we're going to sell en masse to the Seattle populace.

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