As COVID-19 hits the world with full force, many restaurants and other food service establishments have been left bereft of customers. Just the other day I saw a video from two employees in a deserted Starbucks overwhelmed with boredom — a foreign and unnerving sight at a coffee shop typically bustling with customers.
While this abrupt change in the flow of economic traffic has put many individuals and small businesses in financial danger, our nation’s attempts at social distancing can at least provide service workers a small break from what can sometimes be one of the most difficult aspects of the job — dealing with the occasional unruly customer.
“The customer is always right.” It’s a frightful phrase circulated so often that I hesitate to even repeat it here — my whole body quakes with shivers down my spine whenever it comes to mind. The phrase haunts the nightmares of all service workers, and it echoes in their thoughts every time a customer berates them for an unnecessary reason or for something that is simply out of their control.
But all there is to do is offer a generous smile, grant a hollow apology and then either laugh it off or cry it out after running to the back of the store to hide. Service with a smile is what must be done for the sake of business, because the world is full of hungry customers with wallets and social media accounts — one negative post on Facebook or review on Yelp can tank an entire staff’s livelihood and world as they know it, and no one can afford that in the midst of our current crisis.
Therein lies the problem with “the customer is always right.” The phrase gives the upper hand to the person being served, and with that great power comes great responsibility. It is essential that we remember that grocers are people, too, and baristas are working to make a living just like everybody else. Remembering mutual respect and everyday manners paves a much more prolific path in any transaction, especially in this time of crisis, with tensions high and a million questions raised.
Any lack of respect hurts, and it puts service workers on the defense. As much as I hate to admit it, as frequently as the customer is not right, it is not fair to say that the customer is never right. But as a food service worker who has been under attack before, I certainly would not want to lend any kind of helping hand to my tormentor.
I remember shaking as two women yelled at me from the window of my high school job after I forgot part of their order and wanting to curl up in a ball and cry. In my situation, the customer was not necessarily wrong on paper — I had most definitely made a mistake.
But the right or wrong of an order is not as important as the right or wrong of the tone defining any interpersonal interaction. I have gladly amended orders and tried my best to solve any problems that I accidentally induced with a smile on my face. Those more frequent positive instances are thanks to the kind eyes I was met with in the requests — kind eyes that people are in desperate need of right now.
It is all about having the right attitude.
On the flip side of things, I have been the customer a million times, too, and I have made the wrong choices with my attitude towards employees more than once. I’ve grunted at a Wendy’s worker in frustration when he forgot to give me my Frosty, and I’ve thrown a fit at an understaffed Firehouse Subs when they took too long to make my order. I have been in the wrong, too, and I am reminded of my embarrassing behavior every time I step into either of those places.
Now, more than ever, I am desperate to see a change in myself and in others. I can’t even begin to imagine the range of emotions that service workers may be feeling right now in the midst of our global pandemic. No one deserves to be any more stressed out with unnecessary cruelties from customers.
All it takes to have a successful visit to a coffee shop, grocery store or restaurant for takeout is to simply remember the basics of being human — the golden rule that we were all taught when we were waddling around in diapers.
Treat others as you want to be treated.
Moving forward, we should all open our eyes, remember this golden rule and use it to replace “the customer is always right,” a truly outdated phrase.
This column is not to make light of the severity of the COVID-19 situation. A loss of customers does mean a loss of money for many. This is merely a call to remember to always treat service workers with kindness — especially in this time of financial uncertainty. While a coffee shop employee may be glad to be rid of customers, they may be completely lacking hours and payment. On the other hand, a grocery store clerk may be overwhelmed with more customers than ever before. You never know the situation, and all these hard workers need our humanity, respect and support as they lose wages, fight to maintain their lifestyles, become overwhelmed or underwhelmed with hours or whatever else it is that they might be struggling with in this time of crisis.
Hopefully we will live on a kinder Earth when we come out on the other side of COVID-19. Lord knows we are all going to need some happy and healthy human interaction when this mess is all over.