Monday, December 05, 2005

No sugar thanks, and hold the "sir"

Dear supermarket checkout attendants, cafe workers, and shop assistants. Please stop calling me "sir". You have no reason to do this, and it's irritating the hell out of me. In no other context would you conceivably consider addressing me in this way. You are maybe five or six years younger than me; in the worst cases ten to twelve.

Come on, I'm clearly youngish, informal, mostly pretty scruffy looking. Do you really think that's how I want to be talked to?

So maybe it says you're supposed to do this in your training manual. Or your manager told you to do it. As part of your commitment to service, always address the customer as "sir"; this conveys the appropriate degree of respect.

It doesn't. At best, it makes me feel old. At worst, it comes across as patronising and condescending. Especially when you, the carefully-groomed, attractive woman in your early twenties, keep using it, in between chatting to your fellow "baristas" while you make my coffee. "Sugar with that, sir?". "So, yeah, dunno, I was thinking of going to the Matterhorn". "Will that be all, sir?".

Because, if once is too much, four or five times makes me want to slap you. And I'm particularly addressing this to you, smarmy supermarket junior manager type with the slightly different tie from your fellow employees, and your I'm-showing-the-trainee-checkout-worker-how-to-serve-customers manner. You think you're impressing your poor protege with your knowledge of the customer service handbook by firing off five or six "sirs" as you zap my groceries? This customer just thinks you're a wanker.

People, your handbook was written in the United States, where there are different standards of formality. And even there, "sir" is far from de rigeur in most settings. The place I've spent the most time in is Miami; there, in mid-range department stores, the woman calls you "baby" (and only if you're really white--anybody vaguely Hispanic looking is "mi amor"). As a customer and a person, I prefer that.

You want to know how to provide "good customer service"? Very simple - be polite and efficient. Don't piss about. And I have to say, you in the supermarket are mostly doing a brilliant job in this respect. Yes, you're mostly first-generation immigrants, and you mostly refrain from the "sir" bullshit; it's the homegrown, facetious, wannabe manager boys who pull that out.

While, we're on the topic, cut the small talk. Do you really want to know how my day is? You care if they're keeping me busy? Didn't think so. And, let's just say you were unaccountably fascinated by what I might have been doing this morning, do you think the next person in line is going to wait around while I describe it to you? So let's just lose the pretence and move swiftly on, ok?

To you in the clothes store, I must make a special appeal. Yes, you do have to be approachable. But don't overdo it. Remember, I'm male--I'm confused and intimidated by being in a clothes store. I need to browse the racks from a safe distance, like my ancestors on the savannah making sure there weren't any sabre-toothed tigers lurking before they went after the mammoth.

You can flag your availability, but be discreet. Something like: "You're ok there, right? Just let me know if you need any help" is fine. It'll still freak me out a little, but as long as I can get away with a "sure" in reply, I won't actually need to run out of the shop.

You don't care if my weekend's been busy either--so don't ask. And yes, you guessed right. I'm a guy, and I did see the game. I could even discuss in depth whether the third sin-binning was justified, or why the lineouts went awry in the second half. But that's not why we're here, so why bother?

You really want to be helpful and sociable? Tell me something about the item I'm looking at. Is it down from $89.99 to $69.99? Manufactured somewhere other than China? Made with fully unionised labor? Its material particularly warm in winter/cool in summer? The cut flattering to the shorter man? All of these things are important to me; they're useful information, what I'm looking for when I'm poking around trying to find the labels.

So, if you tell me these things, that will be of assistance; I'll know whether to go chasing after the mammoth. You might even have a sale on your hands. Just don't pretend to be my friend. And whatever you do, don't call me "sir".

OK, so right about know you're all thinking that I'm some oversensitive middle-class twat. You're doing your best, service jobs are low paid and menial, how are you supposed to know what different people prefer? Well, I believe I have done my time, and do have some insight. Three years working in a gas station, where I had to suffer gits in their BMWs pulling up and telling me to "fill 'er up, mate" ("I'm studying philosophy!", I wanted to say).

I've worked in cafes, bars, youth hostels, all kinds of service jobs. And, you think you don't get no respect as a checkout worker--try working in the carnival industry in the USA and Canada. There, not only does the populace despise you as a dirty carnie, they feel justitifed, in fact honour-bound, in trying to cheat and steal from you.

Consequently, I have a lot of sympathy for the service worker. I much prefer the system in restaurants or bars in the US, and even anal old Canada, where a tip is expected for the person who serves you. This allows you to give a portion of your money directly to that person--and the harder and better they work, the more they get.

I just have no time for the needless--and phony--self debasement that is promoted in the pages of the corporate training manuals. This does nothing for the customer, and is only truly embraced by the smart-assed types on the way up the management ladder. I would be happy to see a tip or commission component in all service jobs, so the employee is able to not only be rewarded for working harder, but also learn what customers really respond to (mostly, being treated as a human being).

So, please, act normal. Use your common sense and stop believing the guff they tell you. And, unless you're really trying to piss me off, stop calling me "sir".

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Kevin H said...

The truly bizarre thing is that there are managers/trainers out there who seem to genuinely think that is how customers want to be treated; that the patronising patter will make us feel good and want to use their services more. Where do these people get these ideas from? They live in another world I'm sure (probably Auckland).

Personally, I find the familiar use by strangers of my first name rather irritating, e.g. by bank staff, police, call centre staff, anyone who has access to my details and thinks its appropriate to call me by my first name in that irritating conversational tone, like we're personally acquainted.

Overall, it's the insincerity of the patter and questions from customer service staff that really grates. Like asking how I am today while looking away, completely disinterested. Or the inane question from the service station attendant at 7.00am when I pop in to buy a newspaper - "How's your day been?" Excuse me? It's 7.00 in the morning dumb ass.

Perhaps my biggest pet hate is the way that answering the telephone seems to take preference over serving a waiting customer; like, I'm waiting to be served or even in the middle of being served, and the staff member dumps me like a hot potato to answer the phone. Hang on a minute - I was here first!

So yes I do empathise Simon, and this is one reason I try to avoid shopping. And I wave away the service station attendant, and pump my own gas.

While I recognise that many service staff are low paid, I wish they could at least try to be genuinely helpful and sincere in their comments. Once again this golden rule is appropriate: 'Do unto others as you would have them do unto you'.

And your experience working in the gas station Simon is similar to mine when I was driving nights for Super Shuttle while studying. I just wanted to tell everyone that this was just a parttime job while studying economics and public policy at Victoria. There seems to be something a little snobby and elitist going on there, but never mind.

So Sir, how's your day been?

Susan said...

Well, I find it irritating too especially when it doesn't come with a smile and is obviously insincere. On the other hand, I can tell you it is a lot better than the surly, disobliging culture that used to exist in New
Zealand in times past. But what do you say to get your point across that they are on the wrong track? Do you grunt ungraciously? say "fine thanks" and try not to grit your teeth, or what? It's something I have never solved No doubt it would be considered to be heavy and uncool to suggest they tell
their supervisor that most people can't stand being asked how their day's going. Anyway it seems really mean to take it out on young, low-paid service workers -they probably dislike having to say it. Any useful ideas
about how to convey one's feelings so that the message gets through
politely? Please let me know.

Simon Bidwell said...

Hmmm, maybe they should read my blog.

Cecilia said...

Here's some insight from my own extensive background in customer service positions. When I was working at a clothing store in Christchurch many years ago, there was an evil manager called Nadine or Charlene or something. She had a most thinly disguised animosity towards me and, it seemed from her constant bitching, anyone who was a student (read: anyone who probably wouldn't spend the rest of their life working in same clothing store). She insisted that every customer entering the store be immediately accosted and badgered about what they needed and what their thoughts on the weather were. Never one to remain silent in the face of ridiculousness, I pointed out to her that most people, when looking for a shapeless, oversize sweatshirt, just liked to wander around the (rather small) store in peace for the first few minutes and weren't really expecting the Spanish Inquisition ("Nobody expects the Spanish Inquisition!"). Upon expressing this idea, evil manager retorted scathingly that I didn't know what I was talking about because I didn't have any "training" as a manager. Happily, good fortune then smiled upon evil manager (and myself) and she moved up in the world and left to persecute Japanese tourists at the Louis Vuitton shop. Anyway, the moral of the story is that probably those on the frontlines at the checkout do not enjoy a very egalitarian working relationship with their supervisors, where they could make suggestions about changes and comment on customer reactions. So, I really doubt that conveying customer dissatisfaction with the small-talk policy would go down very well. In my experience, this is particularly true, when your intelligence, educational level or life aspirations exceed that of your supervisor.

soph said...

Yes,I went through some "training" at a large department store in CHCH where the customer was described as "the prospect" ("...the prospect enters the store, greet him or her within 5 seconds..."). It was scary and so totally wrong.
In my years selling CDs I managed to ace the highest sales competition (NZ-wide) one year at Christmas without even trying. I think this was because I stayed behind the counter unless people looked really lost and I KNEW SOMETHING ABOUT THE PRODUCT.
I am one of the people who worked in retail and genuinely did find other people's weekends/opinions on sport etc really quite interesting as it helps make a monotonous job easier, so some of those people out there may be genuine.
Having said that, I think the most genuinely good customer service in Christchurch is probably at the library, which I imagine is directly related to the fact that they are not selling anything.
By the way I never called anyone sir, which in NZs rather informal society I think sounds really sucky, except a rather bizzare theatre director who quite liked it and requested it of the staff.

Jack Yan said...

I don’t mind ‘Sir’ and I’m getting to the age where I hear it more. What does get me, as you point out, is the insincerity. The first-name approach Kevin H. outlines above also annoys me: I don’t know this person and I ain’t his or her best friend. Both cases, however, are preferable to ‘Mister’, oft-seen in old American TV series.