Is The Customer Always Right?

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Words || Navishkar Ram

“I should’ve taken that extra shot you didn’t give me and shot you right in the head with it!” A visibly upset man raged, now curling his hand into a pistol shape. Standing behind the counter in front of him, a barista who was both half his size and half his age stood frozen in shock. 

In all the barista’s years of working in the family business, never had any of his customers lashed out so angrily. “You’re not very good at this you Indian prick. Trying to rip me off, you’re a grub…a filthy grub,” the now ruddy complexioned client went on, adopting a melodious rhythm to spew his racist bile. 

All the barista could manage to say back was: “Here’s your money back, get out of my store… NOW!” 

You see, I was the barista. I was the frozen 17 year old standing behind the counter. Only moments before this standoff I was happily going about my business taking orders, making coffee, and was ready to greet the seemingly ordinary man waiting at the till. Little did I know that he would explode the way he did, but that is to be expected in this industry. Worker abuse by customers is rife. 

A little context: the customer had come in a week before, and had ordered a coffee with an extra shot – he apparently did not get this extra shot and thought it would be a great idea to waltz in a full seven days later and threaten to shoot a 17 year old for this fatal and life-threatening mistake. 

Sure, coffee has become an important part of many Sydney-siders’ daily lives, that much isn’t in doubt. It’s become the drink of choice for a large number of people, but the last time one checked up on popular convention, threatening teenagers certainly wasn’t, and more importantly isn’t likely to catch on as a new trend. 

The most impressive thing about this ordeal? The customer swore in Hindi. Impressive because he was clearly not of Indian descent and I clearly am. He used certain words only a person well-versed in the language would use, although not on a daily basis. These were vulgar terms, and one included a reference to being a “goat f***er,” you get the idea. 

The customer service experience is not what it once was. In the distant past there was hope that manners and mutual respect would help mould people and leap us into an era of unprecedented good-will toward one another. It is evident by not only this testimonial, but by the countless others that this utopian and “good-willed” ideal is far out of our sight, and is possibly inching further away.  

Ask any of your peers who work in retail, hospitality or other service jobs, and sure as hell, they’ll be able to dig up some juicy stories. 

While this anecdote recollects one of my very worst personal experiences, there are literally hundreds of instances in which rudeness has reared its ugly head in daily work life.  Dealing with man-children has become an almost inescapable norm in the service industry. 

Everything from; customers talking on their phones while ordering and promptly telling off the barista for getting their latte wrong; to mothers allowing their rabid children to wreak havoc and not cleaning up – or apologising – for the veritable wasteland they leave behind; to customers getting angry at you for having a sliding door which opens to the outside and choosing to sit right in front of it… in winter. 

Don’t get me started on the whole “too expensive” crowd who seem offended at living in one of the world’s most expensive cities and feeling obliged to let everyone know how disgusted they are. 

The point of all this is to reignite the flames of revolution and enact a call to arms for all service workers to rise up and overthrow the customer centric work environment. Much like Paul Thomas Anderson’s brilliant film, there will be blood!

Well, perhaps blood with slightly less violence and more open dialogue. Though that’s paradoxical. Understandably of course, in today’s world one cannot expect customers and service workers to always be cordial with one another. Businesses and the companies you work for can make it obvious that they have zero tolerance for abuse or rudeness being directed to their staff, and do so more often and more visibly. 

This is notwithstanding the customers’ legitimate right to grievance and genuine complaint; it would be naive to suggest every service worker is always the victim, many of us have probably experienced terrible service ourselves, and obviously there’s no excuse for it. As service workers we must make every effort to provide the best service we can. 

The wider service industry does need a shakeup. The pay is often atrocious and, in many cases, the mental health support for workers is non-existent or paltry at best. 

By hopefully stoking the flames of an already extensive discussion that exists in forums like Reddit or among the numerous service horror story webpages, we can begin to highlight the shocking abuse service workers receive daily.  Let’s begin with a new maxim: “The customer is NOT always right… But we can try our best to help if they can try their hardest to be cooperative.” 

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