Aditi Dholakia

Smile, stand up straight, say “please, ma’am” and “thank you, sir,” laugh at their jokes, always apologize and, above all, remember that the customer is always right. If you’ve ever worked in America’s customer service and/or retail industry, this mantra should be familiar enough to you to induce many nightmares about forced politeness, aching feet and lower back muscles and the ever terrifying phrase, “I want to speak to the manager.”

Compared to other countries in the world, such as Germany or Switzerland, customer service employees in the United States are treated almost worse than garbage, paid less than a pittance and yet are expected to remain loyal to their employers and treat their customers like royalty. Google couldn’t help me figure out this problem since the results only showed articles giving pointers on improving a business’s customer service to create a better environment for more revenue.

What’s even more interesting is that the “customer is always right” mindset is really only prevalent in the U.S. Customer entitlement has been proven and supported time and time again. Customers know that if they kick up enough of a fuss, whether or not their complaint is valid, management will give that customer preferential treatment cushioned by free merchandise.

I experienced this firsthand while working at my current job, which revolves around friendly and polite customer service to ensure that the consumer population returns to buy more of our products. A potential customer berated me for looking impolite and unladylike when I took a 10-second sit-down break on a cooler when feeling dizzy from standing out in the heat all day. I was working alone, and there were no apparent customers in the tent, so I took a seat. The potential-but-lost customer found this apparently offensive and complained about it loudly.

When I, in turn, complained to one of my German friends about this event and the much larger, ongoing phenomenon, she was appalled at the behavior of the customers as well as the doormat-like treatment of the minimum-wage customer service workers who endure the aforementioned behavior day in, day out.

In Germany, customer service and retail-oriented jobs are much more straightforward. Customers enter an establishment, whether it’s a clothing store, a grocery store or a restaurant, with the express purpose of minding their own business with as little fuss as possible. Store checkout employees are permitted to sit behind the counter while scanning, and they are paid much more than American employees. In the event that there is a problem, customers respectfully work with employees to make sure it is resolved as quickly and quietly as possible.

What it boils down to is a paradox of entitlement and unachievable perfection. Customer service culture in America has blown up in a way that automatically puts all parties at a disadvantage. Companies and establishments advertise the perfect customer service experience to consumers, thereby implying that their workers will make absolutely no mistakes, behaving like the perfect customer service robots they have been trained to be.

A more truthful experience, in which customers are not expecting perfection but acceptable service in exchange for money, and in which employees are not breaking their backs while bending over backward for minimum wage, would lead to a more enjoyable consumer experience for all parties involved.

Rather than feeding into customer entitlement and unachievable employee perfection, the culture needs to change to be more equally accommodating so that it’s acceptable for customer service workers to take a 10-second break every now and then when they feel dizzy from heat exposure and dehydration.