I'm not sure how many of you caught the story about Steven Slater, a 38-year-old veteran steward for JetBlue who earlier this week became an instant folk hero to front line customer service workers everywhere, but it's an interesting one. The confrontation/melt-down occurred when Slater apparently asked a passenger to sit down while the plane was taxiing (as is legally required). The passenger then told Slater to “go fuck himself” and, according to many accounts, he proceeded to do exactly that. Slater took to the plane's PA system to deliver a colorful, profanity-laced lecture on rudeness and airline travelers, grabbed a couple of beers, deployed the plane's emergency's exit chute, slid down, and went home. He was later arrested.

If the world was a fairer place, they would have redacted the passenger off to Algeria, but that's not the way things work.

I'm sure anyone who has ever worked a cash register felt some sympathy for (and solidarity with) Slater and as a result, the story went viral. It's a real life version of Falling Down (the Michael Douglas film). It's an amalgam of Network, Office Space and Deathwish and it guaranteed Slater his 15 minutes of fame. The reaction to this story has been twofold. On the one side are the millions of people who have faced similar circumstances on the job and support Slater's dramatic Robin Hood escape from the service industry. On the other, countless people who have faced the inverse experience – getting dusted off by some cheese-eating high school boy at a local box store. So who's right?

The answer is.... it doesn't matter. Both and neither. On a semi-related subject, I responded to the writer of a yelp.ca comment about the FBW today, who complained about one of our staff not being very helpful recently (see P.J.) The situation as it was described didn't sit all that well with me, because it was completely unnecessary. I'm not casting dispersions here, because I don't know the entire story, but from what is posted, our customer service was lacking in this particular circumstance. Regardless of the specifics, this customer left our shop and proceeded to post disparaging comments about our store and staff. It reflects badly on all of us. In an age where consumers have been empowered to the extent that they have and moreover, have access to a multitude of platforms from which to air their grievances without repercussion and with complete anonymity, front-line employees and the businesses that employ them are faced with a nearly no-win situation. Regardless of how many times you get it right, the one time you get it wrong will likely end up on something like yelp.ca. 

But that doesn't mean we should stop trying. Experiences, both good and bad (and on either side of the counter), are cumulative. A day of pleasant exchanges and limited conflict in the trenches generally equates to a good one. A day of endless whinging and relentless displays of hipster-entitlement can grind you into a seething paste of bile-spewing hate-monkey. Too many of the later and you face retail burnout and the next you know you're doing a Douglas, sliding down the emergency chute screaming obscenities at shocked-looking toddlers eating crunchy-frog baby cones. Customers (well,...everyone, in fact) face similar days. They might have had to talk to Bell Canada, or worse Rogers, that day. They might have got 2 parking tickets in 45 minutes picking up the kids from dance camp. They may have had to go into a bank or Walmart for something. Their A/C might be on the fritz and it's 42C outside. The point is, nobody seems to want to cut anybody any slack these days and it's undermining our society and its civility. Acts of goodwill, respect and polite sincerity, even in the face of a hostile and selfish world, elevates us all, but there's too few of them.

Joe faced a difficult former customer at the FBE yesterday who'd been banned several years ago for countless late, lost and damaged disks. In this age of entitlement, the customer demanded she be reinstated because “she was once our best customer” Psshaw! Well, to make a long story short, I reluctantly agreed to a restricted trial-run membership. I hated to undermine Joe's firm and reasonable approach with the customer (no, you can't rent here because you wouldn't play by the rules back when you did), but rather than face another negative yelp.ca entry, where only one side of the argument gets aired, I acquiesced and folded like a cheap suit ...mostly because it was the path of least resistance. It might have been the wrong thing to do, but we'll see.

How do we reconcile all this? We can't. People have bad days and good days. We have good days and bad days, but on balance it's in our best interests to remain respectful and helpful, even in the face of aggressive and rude behavior. Responding in kind is a recipe for disaster and it serves no purpose. When in doubt, take the high road, smile a lot and avoid doing a Douglas if at all possible. If you get it right, it can be done with grace and moral authority ...and it doesn't mean you have to be anyone's doormat either.

Civility is the goal, because it's something our society is in desperately short supply of these days. It's the reason people are in The Film Buffs in the first place....because we get it right most of the time.



Dropkick said...

As an employee who in my three years of employment has had a few brash encounters with the other side, I must agree that civility is the high road and delivers better results.

Sometimes swallowing your spit to someone who has chosen you to let their steam off can be a soul sucking experience. And as much as I would love to have an "us vs. them" work attitude, i know i wouldn't have lasted as long in customer service as i have if i did.

Not that choosing the high road is always the way i've gone. Just last week i had an interesting phone conversation with a customer whose phone was obviously on the fritz. It was rush hour at the store and he kept asking me to repeat myself which i obliged while being louder and clearer. This wasn't enough for the man on the other end because finally he yelled "why don't you learn to talk into the god damn phone!". Well, that warrants you a prompt hang up in my books. Don't worry Sporg, doubt this fella knows how to use the internet if he's having problems with phones.

In the particular yelp instance you mention, i'd like to offer my theory that it was Jules... no actually i would say it was Niki. But not in a bad way. I'm guessing she was joking WITH the customer but they didn't get it. Niki rolls her eyes but in a dramatic way that usually has customers laughing . She's acting the part of disgruntled employee when she really isn't, at that seems to loosen the customers up a bit. It's obviously a gag and what this guy describes sounds like that bit.
but hey, i'm just poking my pecker in the dark here.

Don't worry about what you hear over the net too much Sporg. Humans have used it as a means to bitch and they'll bitch about anything and everything. I've had bad customer experiences myself, some really nightmarish ones but i wouldn't take the time to "yelp" about it. In fact in those instances i decided to deal with the problem there and then. I would express that i was offended or complain. Hell, that's my right. Last March while i was in a theme park in florida i was warned i would be thrown out if i drank a beer because they wouldn't accept my legal age of majority card. Instead of walking away i complained, becoming more unruly to the point of yelling about free healthcare at the top of my lungs to these silly Americans. Well... needless to say, i got my beer.
Point is; civility works on both sides. Skulking away and posting bitching comments on the internet after the instance in question isn't civil. We are human, if we're being rude tell us. We don't mean to be. Sometimes it's busy and there's a line out the door and if you keep staring at all the ice cream flavours i swear to god you're getting nothing.... just sayin.

La Sporgenza said...

Well said Kris. It was not my intent to validate a single negative comment from one unhappy person, but rather to point out how easy it would have been to avoid. A friend, who has numerous independent retailer friends and acquaintances, related that each are experiencing increasingly bizarre and, at times, strangely aggressive behavior from their customers. I was trying to express these sentiments/trends in slightly different terms using the yelp.ca comments as an example. The idea that civility is collapsing right across our society is entirely subjective and while each of us can probably conjure up an example in the last day or two that supports the theory, lowering ourselves to the level of those who simply don't give a shit, isn't going to improve the situation. Accessing our inner Kwai Chang Caine (of Kung Fu fame) instead of our inner Rambo is the trick.

I would dispute that ignoring all criticism, in whatever form expressed, is a sound business practice. Even if the criticism seems unwarranted, it remains an expression of someone's experience. For them to then take the time to write about it often reflects on the extremes and not the middle ground. As a result, criticisms, particularly those made by the ultra-empowered modern consumer are either particularly glowing or positively damning, but rarely in-between. In isolation they may mean precious little, but taken together, patterns take shape and reputations are made and broken. It is for that reason that I track and follow up with people who make both positive and negative comments about the stores. Most never respond back, but I still think it's the right approach. We need to acknowledge and learn from our mistakes and not simply rest on our laurels.

….and before anyone points out that this is all fine and dandy coming from someone floating around two nautical miles from shore and avoiding contact with humankind whenever possible .... I'm fully aware of my own hypocrisy. We all need time to decompress from the onslaught of bad behavior, screaming babies and people who drive like they're alone on Utah's salt flats. While we're in the shops however, we need our game faces firmly in place. The bitching can start at 10:05pm.

Oh, ...and I particularly enjoyed the image of Kadas screaming “Universal Health Care!” while trying to get a beer at a FLA theme park. The park staff probably wrote about how rude all Canadians are on their blog. Personally, I would have told Kadas to go fuck himself and pulled the emergency escape chute... but then again, that's why it's best I limit the amount of time I'm behind the counter at the Buff.

Niki Diamonds said...

Don't make fun of my eye problems. Derrrrr.

Withnail said...

To be completely honest, I feel entirely guilty on all these fronts. I realize that all of this is a reasonable way of looking at things; let's take into considerations others' lives first, parking tickets, rogers, and I would say worse, Bell. But sometimes the Buff is so busy that it is difficult to deal with petty excuses, and I will fully admit that I am the first advocate for not dealing with shit. I hate being talked down to and mostly when i have a to deal with comments that have to do with someone's advice on how to run the store better, which I think is ridiculous considering the success of the store.
Most people are happy when they come into the store, and i am happy to quietly serve. Quietly.