Dain Dunston

The Language of Leadership

Dain Dunston

Service with a Smile: What’s It Good For?

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A long time ago, when I lived in Washington, D.C. and nobody much expected good service anywhere, I stopped in every morning on my way to work to get coffee at the convenience store on the corner of 17th and Q. The young woman behind the counter, about my age, treated everyone in line exactly the same: like we were rodents. I should mention that this was long before gentrification hit Washington and there was no clear delineation between her social status and that of the customers in line. Most, like her, were working people trying to get by. Different colors, different education levels, maybe, but no one special: just people coming in out of the cold for a cup of (really crummy) coffee. But not to her. To her, each of us was an insult.

One day, idealist and visionary that I am, I asked her why she was so unfriendly to everyone. I suggested she could say hi, that I came in there every day, that I was a human being who deserved to be treated with the same respect that I gave her. She looked at me, snarled, and told me she didn’t have to be nice to me. She wasn’t paid to be nice to me. And if I didn’t like it, I could go someplace else.

It seems clear to me that she hated every moment of her job and found it miserable to stand there making change on coffee and cigarettes all day long. It also seems likely that she treated us the way she did because she was treated like a dumb animal by her boss. But if her job was a miserable experience, she had two remedies close at hand. One was to get another job or, if she couldn’t find anyone better to work for, get some more education and then get a better class of job.

The second remedy was in the people who lined up across the counter from her, most of whom were decent human being who would have been quite happy to have exchange a pleasant word with her each morning. Every single person who stood there offered her a little ticket she could punch, a token she could deposit in her bank of self worth, a touch she could turn into small but not insignificant moment of dignity. And I hope, in later years, she learned to do so.

I read Timothy Noah’s article in the New Republic on “emotional labor,” covered here by Andrew Sullivan. I think Noah’s article –which suggests that it’s creepy that “workers must induce or suppress [his or her own] feeling” to achieve the desired effect in others–is a bit of manufactured indignation. People who are serving (and as Bob Dylan says, we all gotta serve somebody) find that their work is significantly more enjoyable and rewarding if they focus on making an emotional connection with their customer. When I’m walking out of the post office or a restaurant and see someone coming in, I hold the door open for them. Why, because they’re weak idiots who don’t know how to open doors? No, because it’s a pleasant thing to do. To serve somebody. I do it not just to make their day better but to make my day better. It’s a habit of my life.

Most business leaders I work with know very well that there is a massive body of statistical evidence to show that the relationship that most affects an employee’s job satisfaction is the relationship with their direct supervisor and the relationship that most affects the customers’ satisfaction is their relation with that one, single employee. And so a great deal of mental and emotional energy is expended trying to figure out how to make that pleasant exchange happen in a chain of hundreds of restaurants with hundreds of customers a day. That one expression of that work is silly manuals like Pret a Manger’s Pret Behaviors is balanced by the extreme likelihood that we will get a nice little bit of friendly attention from the employees there. It’s not an easy thing to manage: it’s much easier to hire for.

Noah thinks the idea of “emotional labor” is creepy. You want creepy, imagine if American or Delta airlines required flight attendants to sing to customers. Flight attendants on Southwest Airlines sing to passengers not because passengers like it or because marketing likes it; they sing because they like it. And when we see someone having fun in their work, we like it, too.

Not everyone likes their work. Not everyone has learned the capacity to like their work. But we all have the capacity to like other people. And that’s really what is at the heart of commerce.

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