Peak shopping season in America starts in November and ends in January. For most of us, this means a series of increasingly stressful holiday dinners, parties, and if you celebrate Christmas or Hanukkah, gift shopping. All this while we wrap up year-end work and worry about our wallets.
For service workers, peak shopping season is a three month flurry of promotions, forced cheer, long hours and hyperemotional customers. Plus all that other stuff — family, packed schedules, life. And through it all, abuse. To be sure, not all employers abuse their employees and not all customers abuse the people serving them, but it’s common enough that there are multiple national and international campaigns to improve conditions for service workers. As a former retail worker, I can attest to how common stories of abuse are, from the minor to the extreme. For service workers, November to January is most frequently and best described as “crazy.”
While employee abuse is an important and frequently covered topic in HR, when it comes to service workers, things become more complicated. As if mediating between coworkers, or worker and supervisor isn’t hard enough, abuse complaints in the service industry frequently involve another element — the customer. The need to maintain good customer relations all too often colours how supervisors, managers and even HR view conflict and complaints. If you’re selling goods or services, you want your customer to be satisfied with them and excited to come back. Sometimes that means getting pretty creative in finding ways to ensure the “customer is always right.” But as much as returning business is important, so too is worker safety. The customer isn’t right when she’s crossed lines or caused harm. It’s HR’s job to support workers who have been abused and to give them the tools to ensure that it doesn’t happen again.
But what can we do as customers to prevent abuse?
When I first started working in retail, I’d often find myself upset and confused by demanding customers. Should I really apologize for something I didn’t do? Wasn’t there a point where I could just walk away? Retail training typically involves some conflict resolution work but it’s not intensive. How much training does any organization want to give a sixteen-year-old summer employee? Honestly, not much. Keep that in mind next time your cashier has screwed up your order and is just staring at the computer screen in horror. By the time I’d become a manager, I’d learned the most important skill for customer relations: managing expectations. If the lines are long, get someone out there facilitating and managing the experience. If a return process is long and confusing, explain it clearly and concisely and include a timeframe. Most customer complaints can be headed off with a little patience, clarity and responsiveness.
But while service workers try to make our holiday shopping and dining experiences fun and easy, there’s something we can do for them and for ourselves: manage our own expectations. As a customer, I expect to be treated courteously, to be assisted in finding what I need, and to be out the door in a reasonable time. Most of the time that’s exactly what happens. Well, it’s December 16 as I write this, and as a conscientious consumer, I know there are times when that experience is a bit harder to come by. “Reasonable time” to checkout is not going to be the same a week before Christmas as it is in July, and certainly not if I’ve made the terrible decision to visit the Disney Store at 2 PM on a Saturday. Getting a table for my annual Christmas party at a hot restaurant? Well, I probably should have booked that at least two weeks ago. No one likes to be disappointed, but the holiday retail and dining world is not built out of miracles.
Don’t Act Out
No one likes to think of themselves as an abusive person, but if you’ve ever snapped at a service worker you’ve come close to that line. During my tenure in retail I was insulted, demeaned and even assaulted — more than once. Every bad experience I had started small and escalated quickly. Looking back, there were many that I could have prevented by better managing the situation, but there were even more that were out of my hands because somewhere along the line, things had already gone terribly wrong.
Here’s a funny thing about crowd psychology: how you express your emotions affects how others express theirs. Sure you’re mad at the long lines, dwindling stock and out of control heater in the mall, but what if you DIDN’T throw a tantrum? Chances are, if you’re not losing your temper, the people around you aren’t losing theirs. And if you’re in pretty good spirits, the people around you probably are too. But say you don’t choose to let go of your frustrations, and instead start to complain to other people waiting in line. Maybe you let your anger show in your body language. All too soon, other customers will join you. In crowds, we feed off of and amplify each other’s emotions — there’s a certain satisfaction in being grumpy together, just as there’s a certain pleasure in being happy together — but this too easily spirals. When crowds turn hostile, violence against service workers is more common — and you can help prevent this.
Above all, remember that service workers are doing their best under trying circumstances and they deserve to be treated with the same respect and kindness that you expect for yourself. Every interaction between a service worker and a customer is a transaction — it’s all part of that exchange of goods and services — but it’s also, most importantly a conversation between two people under stress. When your expectations aren’t met, make sure your complaint is being directed to the right person. When your expectations are exceeded, make sure to compliment the right person. Keep your head during the holidays and I promise the lines will seem shorter, the annoyances smaller, and your experience brighter.