Service with a Smile

One of my all-time favorite books is one called ‘Six Cousins Again’ by Enid Blyton. A key plot line in the story is a conflict between a mother and her favorite youngest son. The mother is used to petting and fondling the boy and he appreciates this show of affection. But things change when the boy’s request to keep a dog is denied. The mother says she will not take the trouble to care for the little pup and asks him to take it away. From then on, the boy begins to feel all the mother’s sweet words and gestures are just for show and that she does not really care for him. If she really cared for him, she would have ensured he got what he wanted. Somehow I could so relate to the boy’s sentiments at that age.

Now looking back, I realize the boy’s sentiments might not be entirely right. After all, parents can’t bow down to all the whims and fancies of their children. For example, if our son were to come to us with a request similar to that of the boy in the story, I doubt if we would be able to oblige. Neither me nor my wife are used to animals and wouldn’t be comfortable caring for a pet animal. But that does not mean we care any less for our son. But then the idea is still right in principle – one should show one’s feelings through actions rather than words or gesture. I thought about this in all together a different context – people in the hospitality and service sector.

Let me first start with my experience with an executive of a credit card company. The credit card had been given to me on the understanding that it was a life time free credit card. But they ended up charging me for it at the end of the second year. The executive I spoke with informed me that my understanding was wrong and the card was free for one year only. When I requested to cancel the card, she said she would not be able to cancel the card and I would have to personally make an appearance at the bank. Almost everything I asked for met with a negative response and I was none the wiser either on the exact procedure to cancel the card. But all time she spoke so sweetly and nicely. In the end, she asks me if she can do anything else for me. That totally got my goat. What is the point of asking if she can do anything for me after having done absolutely nothing for me so far?

At least in that case, it was single interaction and she could be excused on the grounds that she is probably a junior call center employee who just has to mechanically do what she had been trained to do to earn a paltry living. But I had a similar experience in dealing with the customer service executive at a popular hotel chain. I had discussed about some facilities to be offered to me and certain payment terms with the sales team. This customer service executive told me some of these things they would not be able to offer and for the rest of the things he had to contact a senior. Three days passed by and still he kept stalling me that he was waiting to get in touch with his senior. When I tell him my problems, he listens with a smile but offers no solution. And after all that every evening he comes knocking at my door, “How was the day, Sir? Hope you are enjoying your stay with us!” 

He knows pretty well that I am not getting dinner and going to bed hungry. He knows he is not giving me the bill in the form I would need as per my company policy and I would have to shell out my own hard earned money. So isn’t asking me whether I am enjoying myself sounding more like rubbing it in rather than being courteous to me?

I recently read in a book that Starbucks trains its staff to be genuinely empathetic towards the customers. I haven’t had much experience with this chain yet. So I am not sure if this is possible. But at least I could do without this hypocrisy of all sweet words and gestures while being completely unhelpful.  

For whom the bell tolls

A book of faces