Mark Mason

Why do people make excuses for surly staff?


‘You grab that table, I’ll get the drinks.’ I did as bid. A couple of minutes later, Paul was back, beers in hand, and we started chatting. Soon the member of staff who’d served him appeared. She was stony-faced and holding a card machine. ‘You didn’t pay,’ she said.

Paul looked confused for a second, then glanced down at the machine. ‘Oh, it didn’t go through?’ The staff member shook her head. Paul held out his card, she punched the numbers again, we all waited for the beep. Then she handed him his receipt and left.

‘Service with a smile,’ I said. He laughed. And then, a second or two later: ‘Oh well, I guess she’s having a bad day.’

I didn’t say anything – this was the first time I’d met Paul, we were here to talk about something else and I didn’t want to get distracted. But what I felt like saying was: ‘It doesn’t matter if she’s having a bad day – it’s a basic part of her job to be able to ignore that when she’s dealing with customers, and treat them politely.’

Why do so many people make apologies for the bad service they’ve just received? I first noticed it years ago, queuing at the issue desk in a library. The woman in front of me was given the books she’d ordered, and noticed that one was missing. She asked about it. ‘It’s unavailable,’ replied the librarian, neither looking up from his desk nor offering an explanation.

The woman faltered for a second, clearly wondering whether to enquire why the book was unavailable, or whether it would become available at some point in the future. Deciding against it, she turned to leave. ‘That was friendly,’ I said as she caught my eye. But instead of accepting my commiseration, she had a go at me. ‘Would you do that job?’ she scowled, and stormed off.

Had she left me time for a reply to her question, it would have been: ‘Yes, I would. I’ve done several jobs where I’ve served members of the public, as have most people I know, and in every case I’ve treated them with courtesy and friendliness.’

My first such job was for my father, one of whose efforts in the (ultimately doomed) campaign to make his farm pay was offering pick-your-own runner beans. It was my task to weigh the customers’ hauls and take their money. If at any point my father had seen me being anything less than affable and respectful, he would have deployed the age-old personnel management technique of ‘giving me a right bollocking’. And he would have been right to do so.

Many apologists for bad service are members of the GMC – the Guilty Middle Class. They’re not exactly socialists, but they’re temperamentally anti-business, sneeringly inclined against ‘fat-cat’ owners who make too much money (‘too much’ always being about ten grand a year more than they make themselves). The GMC hate the fact that they’re forced to be part of a society based on private enterprise. They make amends for their guilt by always siding with the downtrodden workers: it’s a kind of economic S&M. The excuses they make for the shop assistants, waiters and receptionists who insult and/or snub them are absurd. ‘They haven’t had the right training’ is a common response. Really? If you need training to (a) smile at a customer and (b) say ‘please’ and ‘thank you’, you shouldn’t be doing the job to start with.

No one’s asking for any forelocks to be tugged. Over-attentive service can be as bad as the rude kind. All we expect is a normal human interaction, where a few pleasantries are exchanged, and perhaps the odd joke. My favourite experiences are often in pubs or restaurants where you’re served by a teenager. They’re lively, engaging, they tell you things you don’t know, they ask about your world and you ask about theirs, and it’s a mutually rewarding encounter.

You know that in 15 years’ time they’ll be running their own businesses, providing lots of those things that the GMC always go on about but the origin of which they never seem to understand: jobs.

And those business owners of the future will take care to employ people like themselves, people who look after the customer, see them as an integral part of the job, not a problem to be dismissed, or ideally ignored altogether. Because they know two things about a customer. One, they’re the people who pay their wages. And two, they have a choice about where they spend their money.

A business with unhelpful staff might survive for slightly longer than it should, simply because the GMCs will keep on queuing up (literally) for a dose of the rough stuff. But in the long run, both sides are doing each other a disservice.


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