Being shouted at is your goddamn job

I never shout at customer services people. Literally never. Occasionally I mute the phone and scream; on very rare occasions I excuse myself from the physical situation and scream; but I’ve never shouted at a customer services person of any kind and hope never to do so.

In most cases, this is because they don’t deserve it. We’re all fully aware that customer services people are hired to follow rules, that rules are laid down by managers, and that managers are frequently useless idiots (I defy anyone to quibble with that proposition).

If someone’s enforcing a stupid rule which is actually a rule laid down by management, they admit that it’s a rule laid down by management that they have no authority to do anything about, and they don’t BACAI, then being anything other than civil and polite with them is morally wrong. We all have to eat, and anyone drawing parallels between Boncentration Bamp guards and junior call centre bods is a knobend.

However, the situation becomes slightly different when you’re dealing with someone who actually thinks they’re a force for good, rather than merely enforcing a stupid rule that they’re too stupid to understand is a stupid rule. This encompasses about half of the people wearing uniforms in airports who don’t have advanced training in flying aeroplanes, firing guns or spying, as well as the vast majority of security guards and PCSOs elsewhere. In fact, it’s pretty much solely confined to occupations where you can wear a uniform and exercise power over people despite knowing fuck-all and having fuck-all skills (the other 50% of people in such jobs fall into the first category, of knowing how pointless and stupid the role is but needing to get paid. They deserve nothing but respect and sympathy).

I’m not rude to these people, except in abstract. Not because they don’t deserve it – they do, and if everyone treated them with the lack of respect that they deserved, uniformed-muppet-interaction situations like airports would become much less unpleasant. I remain polite to them at all times partly because I believe that publicly losing one’s temper generally loses one the argument, and partly because there are lots of them and have the right to kick me out of their mall/airport (and in the event that the only way to resolve the dispute is to call the real police then “being in the right, completely calm and that’s backed up by the CCTV footage” is a helpful way of ensuring that you win in the longer term [*]).

However, that’s solely a personal, pragmatic decision. I don’t hold anything whatsoever morally against people who react to the latter group in the manner they’ve entirely provoked.

And hence, the title of this post. Nobody should be spat at or subjected to physical violence as part of their job, unless they’re in a punk band or a boxing match. But if you take the point of your job as “being an arsehole”, then “having people be rude to you” ought to be a part of your job description, not something which is oh-so-terrible-and-traumatic from which you deserve legal protection. And on that basis, as long as the reaction remains verbal rather than spit- or punch-based, I’m 100% in favour (standing offer to all readers: provide evidence of a public servant’s arsehole-y ness, and evidence that you’ve verbally abused said arsehole, and I’ll buy you a drink).

I’m aware of claims that people in customer services roles who react in the former manner, by apologetically following the rules, are also subjected to abuse. I simply don’t believe it – every customer services person I’ve ever seen abused was one who followed the rules gleefully, rather than empathetically. I’ve never seen a customer services person who actually appeared to understand and care about a customer’s problem get into any trouble whatsoever [**] [***].

[*] the one interaction with arsehole-ish authority that I’m still grumpy about giving up on was Christmas Eve a year and a bit ago – a South West Trains ticket inspector demanded a penalty fare despite the fact that I had a valid ticket, and I was barely-on-time for a family dinner – if I’d had nothing better to do, I’d have happily called the police myself and calmly noted that a burly man was holding me under false arrest.

[**] this is the difference between “you should have been here 30 minutes before your flight” and “I’m sorry, but the management has said I can’t let people on within 30 minutes of the flight. No, I don’t understand the rule either, I know you don’t have any luggage and you could easily make it to the gate, but I’m not allowed to let you on. Here’s a complaints form, please write to the management and ask them why they enforce this policy and if they could change it”. I’ve seen both done; the first makes people boil, the second deflects any boiling to the people whose fault the boiling actually is.

[***] before posting counter-examples from personal work experience, I recommend thinking very carefully about whether they reflect primarily on my argument or your skillset.

4 thoughts on “Being shouted at is your goddamn job

  1. I’ve never seen a customer services person who actually appeared to understand and care about a customer’s problem get into any trouble whatsoever

    This. When you realise what the phrase 'The customer is always right' actually means, you'll find it very hard to fuck up a business relationship through how you relate to your client. (As opposed, of course, to having fucked up the underlying product…)

  2. Relatedly, I've just sent this email to a company who messed up, charged me a hundred quid to deliver something I didn't want to an address I didn't live at, but then reversed the charge without being arsey:

    I've been using XXX for around five years now, and one thing that I've always been really impressed by compared to other companies is how quick you are to put things right whenever anything does go wrong, and how friendly the service always is in those situations. Thanks for keeping up that good impression (and please do pass this onto your manager/team leader/etc – I really hope senior managers understand the value that the customer service team is creating).

    This is what you want your customers to be saying. If you have the slightest fucking clue about managing things, this is what your customers will be saying. If you don't, then you'll be most companies, which is depressing.

    (I'm not going to reveal the company's name or line of business, but its brand is licensed from a slightly annoying man with a beard, who seems to be pretty good at enforcing This Sort Of Thing)

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