Customer Service as a Way of Life
No matter our job or circumstances, we all have customers, and serving them is our most important and beneficial work
My first job was as a bagger at a grocery store about a mile from my house. Every day, after clocking in, I had to check in at the front desk to receive my day’s assignment. Once I got there, a manager on duty would look at the schedule, see what needed to be done, and assign me my work for the shift.
But that big front desk was also the customer service desk. It was where customers would bring returns, haggle about wrong prices, and generally look for help. Because of this, at any given time when an employee came up to check in, there’d be a customer there, wanting help right away.
There were so many times I punched in and went to the desk, only to be whisked away on a mission to help a customer. I’d go on journeys with them to find an obscure product. I’d find someone from the bakery to help with their cake order. I’d reunite them with their lost grocery-shopping companions. On many occasions, I’d help one customer, only to be intercepted by another on my way back to the front of the store. There were times when it was nearly a half-hour before I could even check in with my manager after clocking in.
The funny thing was, there was a vestibule in the front of the store where the managers tended to be. It was outside of the view of the customers, right next to the machine where we clocked in, and would allow for us to check in without interruption. It seemed like that should be where we started our shift, rather than the customer service desk. This way, we could avoid being sidetracked before checking in and getting our orders for the day.
It seemed awfully inconvenient and inefficient to me. I would soon learn that I was right, but I was also missing the point.
Don’t Miss the Point
As I became more comfortable talking candidly with the managers, I brought up my concern to one of them. His name was Dean. He was in his mid-40s, balding, mustached, and with a wizened and sarcastic way about him. He was pretty cool, as retail managers go.
I complained to him how it seemed awfully inefficient for us to have to go to the front desk after checking in. After all, we could check in at the managers’ vestibule without interruption from customers, and save time.
I’ll never forget his response. “You’re right,” he said “it would be more efficient. But you’re missing the point.”
I must have looked confused or something, because he went on with the explanation. “We have you all go up to the customer service desk to start your day so you can be front and center with the most important part of your job. What you see as an interruption is the main reason you and I are here. The customers.”
It was decades ago, so I’ll never remember all the words Dean used, but the lesson has stuck with me. Dean was making sure our workday begin at the same place customers were most likely to need our help. That way, we would be forced to put aside whatever tasks we might aspire to in order to serve the customers. It wasn’t an oversight; it was intentional.
Whatever tasks I may have been given by a manager at the beginning of my shift, none were likely to be as important as helping a customer.
In every job since then, I took it for granted that a customer would interrupt something else I was doing. I learned not to see them as distractions, but rather opportunities. I learned to embrace whatever challenges they gave me. Most of the professional success I’ve had has come from making customer service the priority. Whatever professional and personal skills I learn and develop feed into better service of my customers — whoever they may be.
This is not unique to my experience. Priority #1 in any kind of work is customer service, and we all have customers to serve.
It Begins and Ends With Customers
My time at the grocery store taught me something important. When you get down to it, all work is customer-centric — whether you realize it or not. The more you prioritize serving your customers, the better your work will be, and the more you will grow.
Even if you’re in the rare position where you work by yourself and create for yourself — this still holds true. In fact, people who work for themselves have some of the most demanding customers of all!
I’m not trying to be coy here. Think of how difficult it can be to meet your own demands — especially in your creative work. How many times have you dragged your feet on finishing or submitting something — jus because you weren’t satisfied?
Think of the genius creatives or excellent artisans you may have worked with. They place higher standards on themselves than almost anyone else does. Talk about a demanding customer! And when this gets taken to the extreme, they might never finish anything, because nothing’s ever good enough.
And like any good customer service interaction, it’s not about simply giving in to unreasonable demands. Serving a customer includes managing expectations, gaining buy-in, building rapport and trust, and providing long-term value.
So even if you break free of any external customers, you’re still stuck with an internal one: yourself. You still have to live up to your own standards. And doing so is no less demanding or complex than serving external customers. Knowing yourself, and truly serving your best interest is difficult. Many of us go our whole lives without really doing it.
And customers are not limited to only those you encounter in business. A customer is anyone who desires or expects something from you, or someone you would like a relationship with. And the more you effectively you serve them, the better your relationship will be.
It’s Almost Never What It Seems
Another valuable lesson I learned about customer service from my grocery store gig is that good customer service is a journey. What a customer asks for at first isn’t usually what they really need. Some ask for too much, some don’t ask for enough. Some just don’t know what they need. Hence the journey. Great customer service — even when the customer is yourself — is about discovery and problem-solving.
This takes time, patience, listening, and re-asking the same question multiple times. And a single interaction won’t do the trick. It is an iterative and often collaborative process. There is back and forth. There can be ups and downs. But if you keep the goal in mind of serving — of providing value — you will get through it.
Good customer service is also a long game. It’s not about just getting the customer to shut up and go away. It’s about getting them to respect you, value what you provide, and to want to come back. And when you’re making up for mistakes or trying to navigate demanding peoples’ emotions — that’s real work. But in our best moments — if we believe enough in what we do and who we are — we can do that work. And it’s in those moments when we do that we grow the most.
Again, this all applies especially to the work we do for ourselves. So often, we are our most unreasonable customers. We beat ourselves up and berate ourselves for things. But how often do we deploy really good customer service to help smooth out our own relationship with ourselves?
So try it. Find out why you’re so angry and upset with yourself. Get to the bottom of what you expect of yourself and why. Then make a commitment to make it better, and see it through. Wash, rinse, and repeat for the various relationships in your life. Because that’s all that customer service work is: relationship work. Build and maintain relationships of various depths and lengths. Keep them all as healthy as you can.
Remember the Feeling
Whether they’re wrong and unreasonable, or legitimately unsatisfied and in need of a fix, whether their needs are well-defined or as yet unclear — customers are the center of our work. This is true whether you have a million customers in your life, or just yourself. We need to be continuously reminded of that, in whatever way we can.
At my grocery store job, the reminder was having to clock in and go directly to a place where customers would go in need of help. That forced me to have to help deal with all kinds of challenges, and to learn how to listen to and identify needs. But in your situation, there may be a different way to force you to do this demanding, but essential work.
Whatever way you choose, just remember how good it feels when you’re the customer and someone goes the extra mile for you. It can make you a loyal customer — whether to a business, a friend, or a partner. Become great at service, and do it often. There are fewer skills in life that will do more for you, while also doing a great deal for others.