Service With a (Faked) Smile

Yesterday, Jen and I had brunch with one of my library co-workers. During our meal, the topic of customer service came up. She remembered that I had said in a staff meeting that good customer service is an acting job. She said that really stuck with her because I always seem to be smiling and happy to help patrons.

I stand by what I said. Giving someone good customer service is definitely an acting job. That was true when I first started working retail jobs in high school and college. It was true when I was a project manager. And it’s true at the library.

We’re hitting the time of year when people in the U.S. go even more consumer-crazy than we are the rest of the year. The Christmas holiday shopping frenzy is at hand. And having worked a lot of retail jobs—including during the holidays—I have the following insights to share.

Retail workers and public servants at places like the DMV or your local library typically are feeling the pressure. We always do because so many businesses have that “the customer is always right” mantra.

First, that mantra is BS. The customer isn’t always right. The customer can be completely, 100% wrong but we still have to work as if they’re in the right. That is often complicated because the people who are most convinced they’re right are entitled, insufferable jackasses. That makes explaining how and why they’re wrong a real challenge. (And if you think I’m talking about you, I probably am.)

Second, people working retail and service industry jobs hate their work. Really, we do.

Don’t believe me? Think about your own work life. How often do you complain to your colleagues, personal friends, or significant other about the people you work with? Or work for? How often do you gripe about the difficult clients? Or the lazy colleague who steals supplies?

Folks in retail and public service have those exact complaints about our co-workers and colleagues. We just can’t show any of that frustration to the public. Not if we want to stay employed, get a better set of work hours, and possibly get a raise. (Not that many of us have had those in a while. Too many places are citing BS reasons to keep from increasing wages. But that’s a different post for a later date.)

No, we have to provide that “service with a smile” even when we’re tired, sore, sick, worried about our bills, trying to help our kids with their homework, and wishing we had better weather.

In my opinion, some of the greatest acting performances this world has ever seen happen every day when a cashier, sales associate, or circulation assistant provides top-notch service while making customers believe that the faked smile we’re showing is genuine.

Hollywood legends like Meryl Streep, Denzel Washington, and Katherine Hepburn couldn’t hold a candle to retail and service workers. We out-act them all day, every day. We have to. Our paychecks depend on it.

Perhaps this holiday season, you can spare a couple of minutes from your busy day to tell the service workers you encounter that you appreciate them. We don’t hear that very often. Especially those of us who work in the public sector. (If we hear one more time how your taxes pay our salaries and we should bend over and grab our ankles for you, we might just scream.)

Please don’t be that person. Give us a smile, thank us for our hard work, and wish us a happy holiday season. We’ll likely try to rope the moon for you if you do.

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