Management / The American View: Small Jokes, Large Impact

The American View: Small Jokes, Large Impact

People in customer service roles are often required to be nice to you no matter how boorish you act. Business Reporter's resident U.S. 'blogger points out that one of the fastest methods for sabotaging effectiveness in a modern company is to treat the Help Desk staff poorly. Don’t do that.

I made a stranger’s day recently by letting her unintentionally insult me. This was a good thing for both of us. The story also helps to frame my argument on why we all need to go slightly out of our way to reach out to co-workers whose position requires them to ‘serve’ us in some capacity. Let me explain …

I chose a random restaurant near my office for lunch. I was in a hurry, so, I picked the first fast-food place that I encountered in the strip mall near my office. This is relevant only to establish my mindset going into the encounter. I wanted a swift and efficient transaction, as did all of the people ahead of me in the queue. All of us customers were harried office workers; people for whom time was more important than the quality of one’s diet. Every minute wasted on lunch was extra time that had to be spent at work.

Right as I reached the till to order, I noticed a promotional poster for a new menu item. I asked the salesgirl if their ‘for-a-limited-time-only’ bacon sarnie was available as a lunch combo. She nodded. I asked for it. [1]

As the salesgirl bent over her touchscreen register to key in my sandwich, she mumbled ‘… (something) (something) large?’

I blinked. ‘I’m beg your pardon,’ I said. ‘I’m a bit hard of hearing. What was that?’

The salesgirl glanced up and raised her voice. ‘For your combo,’ she said. ‘Would you like it to be small, medium, or large?’

‘Ahhhh!’ I said. ‘I’m sorry. I thought you were referring to me.’ I patted my midriff and sighed, as if depressed. ‘It’s a fair observation … I am a large fellow.’

Go on, then. Make all the ‘overweight American’ jokes you like. I’ll wait. 

The salesgirl choked, doubled-over, and became completely incapacitated with spasms of uncontrollable laughter. Her face flushed. She started to cry. She gasped for air. She eventually had to grab the till just to remain upright. The salesgirl valiantly attempted to regain her professional composure but simply couldn’t for a good thirty seconds. The customers behind us leaned in nervously to see what the heck had happened.

Eventually the salesgirl was able to breathe. She blinked away tears and said. ‘Thank you; I really needed a laugh today.’ Then the giggle-fits took her anew and she struggled to count the bills I handed her. It took her three tries thanks to her bursts of tittering.

I understood. I worked my fair share of low-level jobs as a kid. I remember how dispiriting and draining they can be. I assume (from past experience) that this young lady was stuck on register duty because she was (a) young and (b) attractive. Every fast-food joint I worked at assigned the prettiest teenage girl to the till so that the grumpy, ill-tempered, middle-aged men queueing up would be (a) less likely to act snarly and (b) more likely to spend freely in order to impress the (completely indifferent) salesgirl.

No wonder that she needed a laugh! Two gruelling hours of lunch rush, stuck standing at a till, offering wholly-artificial ‘so-happy-to-see-you!’ smiles to dozens of grumpy middle-aged gents. All of whom were hungry, tired, cranky, impatient, and lacking in civility. After the hundredth exasperating customer, the weight of her fake ‘customer service’ persona had to be an exhausting burden. An unexpected moment of levity would have felt like a day’s holiday compared to what she’d been enduring. I was glad to help brighten her otherwise tiresome day.

Traditionally, the lull after lunch rush was devoted to us kitchen staff cleaning the dishes and restocking food for dinner, while the cashiers got to clean the dining area and restrooms. So much to look forward to!

This isn’t just a fast food joint issue; we have to remember this dynamic when we’re interacting with folks ‘downstream’ of us in our own organisations. Those colleagues who fill customer service roles like the Help Desk techs can get just as tuckered out by the requirement to always be artificially ‘cheerful’ as my lunchtime salesgirls. Remember, we’re talking about people that are outranked by almost everyone else in the organisation, certainly by the majority of people interacting with them day in and day out. A core element of their role requires them to be irrepressibly cheerful to the point of being obsequious if they want to stay employed, even when they’re having a totally crap day.

What’s worse, these are the sort of co-workers that most people (especially senior people) will only ever interact with when they’re already boiling-over mad because some techno-what’s-it is malfunctioning. All conversations seem to start off growly and get worse from there. Is it any wonder that Help Desk staff morale tends to be abysmal?

It ought to be obvious that we all need these people. Moreover, we need them to be genuinely interested in their work, since their function is to keep the rest of us productively employed. Torqueing off your support tech not only delays your own restoration of normal service, it also echoes throughout the rest of that tech’s day. The bad attitude that you caused negatively affects other workers, too.

It’s crucial that people holding power over others in an organisation – even indirectly, by virtue of title, rank, or position – understand just how much of an unnecessary productivity drain they’re creating when they treat people below them in the hierarchy like dirt. It’s crucial that people understand that their own rich inner life isn’t fully transparent to and understandable by anyone else. This is why it’s crucial that people bring some danged empathy to the table when interacting with their colleagues.

We get it. The such-and-such system is down and that’s screwing up some business-y stuff. That doesn’t mean that you’re allowed to vent your spleen at the poor guy or gal who initiates your service request.

When I was a kid, I was taught that it’s important to pay attention to the strangers you interacting with. If someone seems to be having a hard time, it’s your responsibility to try to make the other person smile or laugh. Make a joke. Change the tone. Employ some common courtesy. Do something to make the other person’s day suck just a little less. Don’t add to their problem; actively help to alleviate their problems.

That frustrated clerk with the dark circles under her eyes and the world-weary monotone? Maybe you’ll never see her again. Maybe you will. Doesn’t matter. Try anyway. Maybe your efforts will fall on deaf ears. Maybe they won’t. Doesn’t matter. Try anyway. Be a decent human being.

If you have to justify the expenditure of effort in business terms, then consider it a low-cost investment in employee morale and a down-payment on organisational esprit-de-corps. On a side note, if you have to justify treating lower-level colleagues kindly, consider that you, personally, may be the reason why they have low morale ...

[1] I was 99% certain that anything sold in an American fast food joint would come with too many chips and a gallon of sugar water.

Title Allusions: None this week.

POC is Keil Hubert,

Follow him on Twitter at @keilhubert.

You can buy his books on IT leadershipIT interviewinghorrible bosses and understanding workplace culture at the Amazon Kindle Store.


Keil Hubert is the head of Security Training and Awareness for OCC, the world’s largest equity derivatives clearing organization, headquartered in Chicago, Illinois. Prior to joining OCC, Keil has been a U.S. Army medical IT officer, a U.S.A.F. Cyberspace Operations officer, a small businessman, an author, and several different variations of commercial sector IT consultant.

Keil deconstructed a cybersecurity breach in his presentation at TEISS 2014, and has served as Business Reporter’s resident U.S. ‘bloggersince 2012. His books on applied leadership, business culture, and talent management are available on Keil is based out of Dallas, Texas.


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