The barista who makes my coffee is a twenty-something blonde with legitimate cheeks and a kind smile. She’s wearing the kind of flannel top I wish I could pull off, kinda reminding me of a trendy Elsa. Her name is Amy. She’s not wearing a name tag – this coffee shop is too hip for name tags. I know her name because her supervisor called her from across the bar to send her on her break. To know this about Amy, I had to pay attention.
My favorite cashier at the grocery store around the corner from our home is named “Marge”. Yes, she’s actually named Marge, which I love because it suits her. She’s no-nonsense and efficient but she has an eye for beauty – more than once, she’s commented on my necklace or my asymmetrical hair cut, or my daughter’s vibrant curls. She’s up on her Super Bowl stats and she’s generous with the brown paper bags, even though she’s supposed to charge me. I always forget my reusable bags. Since we moved to LA a year ago and made the store around the corner “our” grocery store, I’ve paid attention to Marge, and now she feels like a friend.
The other day, we had a problem with our bank account, so I called the 800 number in the mobile app and a man answered. He was pleasant and professional. When he answered, “Thank you for holding. My name is Seth, how can I help you?” without skipping a beat, I replied, “Hey, Seth, this is Osheta Moore, how are you?” I guess I could have jumped in with my problem – I mean, there was nearly $500 missing from our account – but I simply couldn’t do it. I can’t rush straight to my customer service needs without acknowledging the person meeting them on the other side. I’m not a particaulrly virtuous person; I’m just a woman who was changed by a Lenten practice a few years ago called “customer service shalom”.
When I complained to my husband about the server letting my glass of water remain half full for most of my meal, I realized that I hated the consumer I was becoming. In every part of my life, I tried to live a life of intention, except when I spent my money. I had stopped caring about the servers, the cashiers, and the store reps.
I was entitled and efficient, out in the world spending my money, expecting to always get my way. I am the daughter of a hard-nosed, no-compromise store manager. I knew the standards my mom had for her employees, and I expected nothing less in my own customer experience. Those high standards robbed the humanity from my shopping; I lost my kindness to those who served me through impersonal metrics and survey. Too often, I read Yelp reviews and marked the angry, snarky ones as “helpful” because, you know, “the customer is always, right? Right?”
No, because people always matter more than things.
Hearing myself consider docking the server’s tips for letting me go thirty minutes without fresh water disgusted my own ears. I knew I needed to filter my consumerism through the lens of “shalom”. Shalom is another word for peace, wholeness, and unity. It’s seeking to live as whole a life as possible. My attitude towards people in the service industry was broken, and in need of wholeness.
So, I decided that for Lent, I would do three things:
1: See the person behind the counter and remember one thing about them. The way they smile, their interesting tattoos, the way they part their hair. Anything that humanizes them.
2: On the phone, listen for their name, say their name back to them before jumping in to my need.
3: At the end of the call or transaction say, “Thank you” and mention one thing I loved about what they did.
For 40 days, I paid attention to the people in the service industry, letting Mother Teresa’s words, “We belong to each other”, mean more to me than a pretty phrase to hang on my kitchen wall. For the 40 days of Lent, I treated every person in customer service as if they belonged to me, and soon, they did.
Now, my barista, and cashier, and bank teller, and hair dresser are no longer a means to an end, but my allies in this life. Their hard work and attention keep me going. I pay attention to them and I let them know that I see them.
This looks like telling Amy that the little bear she created really made my day, or letting Marge know that I appreciated how quickly she came to help me at the self-check, even though she had two customers waiting for bags and one with a malfunctioning scale. It often looks like me telling the rep on the other end of the line that I think he did an awesome job helping me find out where my money went (card fraud, by the way) and thanking him for explaining the bank’s policy to me.
“Customer service shalom” has taught me how to resist the temptation of consumerism to reduce those relationships to transactions.
Oftentimes the people working in our banks, coffee shops, and restaurants are making minimum wage. They’re barely able to make ends meet, and when I come in and treat them as a means to an end, I add insult to injury. No one wakes up and expected to be treated poorly when they get to work. Their job does not strip them of their intrinsic value and worth, so I’m choosing to be a mindful consumer – mindful of the person behind the counter, mindful of my gratitude for them, and mindful of the way I communicate that worth to them.
Today as you go out into the world to pick up a gallon of milk or fill your gas tank up or upgrade your phone, I hope you’ll join me in honoring the people on the other side of the counter by remembering that they are people, saying their name and offering a sincere “thank you” for all that they do. It’ll add wholeness, and sweetness, and a new purpose to your errand-running. At the very least, it’ll keep you from noticing and complaining about half-empty water glasses, which is always a good thing.
Photo by Naama Ym