You Got Served
I have worked in customer service. Before I got into journalism full-time, I worked at a movie-theatre candy counter, I was a telemarketer and a salesman (door-to-door and in a shoe store). I was an usher in a bingo hall, a carnival barker and a receptionist. And then I spent time in the restaurant business as, at various times, a waiter, a cook, a manager and an owner.
Over the course of those jobs where I directly interacted with members of the public, I was hung up on and had doors slammed in my face. I was called as many nasty names as you can think of. (Motherfucker? Sure. Cunt? More times than I can count. Asshole? That was some people’s way of saying hello.) I cleaned vomit off upholstery and feces off bathroom floors. I fished dirty needles out of toilets. I was spit on. I was asked if I could “help a brother out” with a free meal or a coffee two or three times an hour while I worked in one café. I was threatened with a knife and with a bat. I had money stolen from me. On many, many occasions I had to chase customers down the street when they left without paying. (Their bill would be deducted from my wages if I didn’t catch them.) I was punched in the face more than once. I had my almost-new designer glasses (which cost me two weeks’ pay at the time) ripped off my face and crushed on the ground while one of my eyes was gouged by a particularly unstable and apparently homeless woman. And most of those things weren’t particularly notable parts of my workday when they happened. They came with the customer-service territory.
So, I think I can sympathize with the workplace hassles expressed by Alex C., the TTC bus driver who wrote a letter to the editor we published last week to complain that riders on our transit system are often ungrateful, slovenly brutes. Sympathize yes. Agree no. Because Mr. C seems to draw the conclusion that riders are the problem, and that the craptacular customer experience offered too often by the TTC is somehow the responsibility of riders, and that fixing it should be their responsibility too.
His attitude in this regard — which echoes to some extent the message often repeated by the Amalgamated Transit Union, which represents TTC employees — shows exactly how deeply ingrained the TTC’s customer service problems are into the mindset of the employees. The customer is the problem? No. The customer is the reason you have a job, and the reason the entire transit system exists. And some customers are not good customers, but they come with the territory. The job of the TTC as an organization is to ensure that those bad customers do not spoil everyone else’s experience.
Someone I know who was a call-centre representative for a mobile phone company spent three weeks in training. During that time, it was drilled into her that her job — and the job of the entire company — was not limited to delivering phone service. The whole mission of every employee of the company was summed up “creating customer satisfaction.”
That’s something you learn quickly in the restaurant business, that your job is not feeding people. Feeding people is part of it, certainly, and a very big part. But it’s still just a part of the larger mission of ensuring your guests have a positive experience from beginning to end — they should find a server friendly and helpful, the music neither too loud nor too quiet, the washrooms clean and dignified, the drinks cold and the food hot and both served in a reasonable amount of time, the neighbouring customers not too obnoxiously loud… every element of their time in the restaurant is an opportunity to make them happy, or to piss them off. And if you piss them off, they do not come back and you will soon find yourself out of a job.
Dealing with problem customers is an important element of any customer-service industry, but the primary objective there is to ensure that your problem customers do not bother your good customers. After I had my glasses smashed and my eye gouged and I managed to get the crazy woman out of the restaurant (with the help of the police), I spent 10 minutes apologizing personally to the other customers and giving them all a free drink. Why? It wasn’t my fault the crazy lady went apeshit on me, right? But it wasn’t the other customers’ fault either, and it was very unpleasant for them too. And I was being paid to be there, while they were actually paying for the privilege. And what’s more, I wanted them all to come back.
The reason you don’t see ads on restaurant walls asking people not to skip out on their bills or spit on their server or crap on the floor is twofold: first, the people who do those things won’t heed the signs. Second, the people who would never do those things find being reminded of such behaviour revolting, and resent the implication they need to be reminded to behave like human beings. And yet, the TTC runs ads reminding people that assaulting a driver is illegal.
To refer specifically to Alex C.’s letter again for a moment: he complains that customers litter the bus, and points out that each bus is cleaned before it goes into service for the day. To which the appropriate response is: buses are only cleaned of litter once a day? No wonder they’re such a mess. (Well, that and the fact that there are no garbage receptacles on the bus.) It may surprise Alex C. to learn that restaurants clean tables after every single customer — and wash the dishes and cutlery after every single customer too. It may surprise him more to learn that the New York transit system washes graffiti off of subway cars every single time they reach the end of the line. See, it’s not that customers in other businesses are cleaner than TTC riders, it’s that the people running other businesses think it’s part of the staff’s job to clean up after them.
All of this is not — emphatically not — to beat up on poor Alex C. and his fellow drivers and their union. Because, as I’ve written recently, his attitude reflects poor management. Obviously he thinks of himself as a bus driver, thwarted in his mission to pilot his vehicle by all these messy, annoying riders. It should be made clear to him and to his co-workers that their primary job is serving the riders, which includes driving the bus, and smiling and answering questions, and keeping it clean, and doing anything else necessary to make sure customers have a great experience.
Both customers and staff can be jerks, in any business. But it doesn’t matter who is right or wrong, morally, in a dispute with a customer. A customer who was in the wrong who stops coming is a lost customer. If the dispute with them, however righteous, ruins the trips of 100 other customers, they can become lost customers too.
It is the TTC’s job to make riders happy, not the riders’ job to bear with the poor, beleaguered transit workers (dealing with those workers is the TTC’s job too). Customers have a choice of how to travel. And if enough of them choose alternatives to the TTC, there won’t be any more buses left to drive.