When the woman standing on the other side of the desk stared at me blankly for four full seconds, I knew that we were wrapping up the argument. I’d explained to her, in strict repetition of the exact same policy phrases written in the online customer handbook, that no, she couldn’t have the document she wanted for free. It doesn’t matter that she thinks that’s not fair, or that she thinks my office ‘owes’ her for all the fees the company I work for had charged her over the years, or even that the document she was trying to return wasn’t exactly what she had wanted when she had decided (in full understanding of this) that she still wanted to buy it- she can’t have a free anything, and that’s a fact she’ll have to accept.
This is the moment that I know is coming in every administrative argument that I will ever have- where a customer can decide whether to accept and understand the rules that the company has laid down, and look for a way to operate within those parameters, or the moment where they might decide to break all forms of social contract, and take liberty to abuse me for a situation I can no more change than they can.
This is the life of a customer service representative- every complaint from a customer risks exposing you to some very cruel forms of abuse.
Of course, the woman wasn’t going to just let it go.
Looking me full in the face, she twisted her mouth and said ‘Well, that is just pure evil. This is fucking bullshit. This is the worst customer service I have ever had. I want to speak to your manager.’
Let me be clear- it is NOT poor customer service when a representative of a company calmly and rationally explains the policies of that company to you, nor is it poor customer service to offer you a solution within those policies- even if it isn’t the answer that you want.
I’ve been told by customers that:
In order to understand their complaint I would need to be more intelligent.
That they are best friends with the head of my company, would report my conduct to that person, and I would be fired.
That I am causing them to lose their job.
That if they are deported, they will sue me.
That my decision meant that they couldn’t afford to feed their children.
That, if their daughter committed suicide, it was my fault.
That, if THEY committed suicide it was my fault.
And a million variations on these themes.
Please understand that, when you are speaking to a customer service rep- whether they are in retail, hospitality, administration or otherwise, you are speaking to a vulnerable human being. If you have ever been this woman, if you have ever decided to swear or raise your voice or bully your way into getting what you want, you’re part of the problem.
Your attitude and your words when you say these things are abuse. You are exhibiting verbal abuse, it is violence, and it is wrong.
No one should have to stand in front of you while you use them as an emotional whipping post. I understand that you are upset. I understand that you are irrational as a consequence of that upset. But I will not give you permission to treat me as something less than human, and someone that does not deserve respect.
The thing is, I’ve had enough abusive, dangerous and emotionally vulnerable conversations, that I can recite the phrases that I use to diffuse them by heart.
It’s a true reflection of our society, that a customer service agent has a script pre-prepared for conflict situations. Some people treat us so badly that we expect it now. Honestly, I am more surprised when someone wishes me a good day than I am when they hang up on me.
There is a stark difference between making a request through official channels and respectful means to achieve a resolution, and hurling unwarranted abuse at a person who can only give you the information that you have asked for.
Next time you’re about to throw a fit because of a policy you just can’t get around, think about this:
When I was told by this woman that I was evil, for a second I felt, loud and clear, the mountain of unfair and horrible things that had been heaped upon me by customers. I say mountain, because some days the memory of mental scars seems insurmountable. When she said this, I felt my hands shake, my voice waver, a flood of adrenaline pumping out from the emotional reaction she had triggered, and the approaching panic attack. I felt her words like slaps.
Am I evil? Shouldn’t I just comply? If I want to be safe, I should just say yes, do whatever she wants. Will she get violent? Maybe, maybe not-
But, I’ve been doing this for a long time, and I have Opinions about people like her.
Flatly, I let her know that, in fact, I am the senior officer. I am the authority she wanted to schmooze.
I am smart, and I am worthy,
My job is not anyone’s plaything,
Her job is not my responsibility,
Her stay in this country is determined only by her own actions,
I am not responsible for her household budget
I am not responsible for the mental health of anyone but myself, and
If you think the result of one conversation will determine whether or not you die today, then no one can possibly stop you from making that decision, as you’ve already decided to go.
This conversation is over.
PS- If you think there’s any difference in saying ‘you’re evil’ and ‘this is evil’, I frankly disagree. Arguments that include any variation of the phrase ‘I know it’s not your fault, but (continues with swear words/abusive rant)’ is just a person trying to excuse their abuse. It’s tantamount to saying ‘look what they are making me do’ while you slap someone. Take responsibility for yourself and own up to the fact that you’re unleashing mental and emotional scars on someone to make yourself feel better, and don’t hide behind some bullshit ‘I know you’re actually the good guy’ platitudes. That’s emotional manipulation, and I refuse to be complicit in it.
PPS- the majority of the customer I deal with are actually quite polite, so please don’t feel this is condemnation of everyone that has ever needed to approach a service desk. It’s those few that leave behind a memory so vivid that it’s triggering that I want to address, and this little rant is more ‘how not to be THAT guy’ than ‘you already are’.