The idea of customer service is, in general, satisfying customers through all reasonably-expected means. Handling exchanges and returns in retail, along with helping customers find what they’re looking for. For food service and mail order companies, it means getting orders correct and correcting any errors that arise.
Most people who walk into an establishment won’t loiter. And unless the customer is a regular and is readily recognized as a regular, chances are they also aren’t there to “connect” with the staff. And even if they are a regular, that will still likely be the case the majority of times.
There are several establishments near where I live and work where my wife and I are recognized readily as a regular. In only one of those establishments do the staff know anything about me beyond my name and I know anything about one or more of the staff beyond their name. And that establishment also has the benefit of being a small business, not a chain or franchise, that I’ve been visiting for years.
Yet some business owners don’t understand the actual relationship that exists with their customers. Take the example of Austin Simms of Roanoke, Virginia, article linked at the top. Simms owns CUPS, a small coffee and tea shop where a sign he created offered three pricing options:
- “One small coffee” – $5
- “One small coffee, please” – $3
- “Hello. One small coffee, please” – $1.75
He’s not the first to attempt this, and he likely won’t be the last. So he’s definitely not the first business owner to expect more than is reasonable from his customers. His reasoning?
I decided <…> to start charging more for people who didn’t take the time to say hello and connect and realize we’re all people behind the counter.
Question: what happens if someone says the $1.75 phrase but does so in an easily-discernible impolite manner?
While patrons absolutely should be polite and kind with the staff at an establishment, amending or prepending “please” does not make it polite by default. A ready example is the phrase “please shut up” or “please leave”. Indeed both tend to be said in response to someone obviously not being polite. And not saying “please” does not make it impolite by default.
Your customers are not invited guests to your home.
Here’s how I place my order at my local coffee shop: “I’ll have a 16oz latte, to go”. And I always take it plain rather than adulterated beyond the point of being able to tell there’s any coffee in it. At a restaurant, if I don’t have any questions about any menu items, I will just place my order directly: “[Desired food and/or drink item, with or without modifications]”, sometimes prefaced with “I’ll have”. No “please” included, and not in the form of a question.
Am I being rude? According to Simms and the apparent majority of those in the article’s comments, yes. Am I somehow dehumanizing those working in food service by not including “please”? The same would likely also say yes.
However if you were to ask those serving where my wife and I are regulars, I’d wager they would say “No” in both instances. That we are not rude and do not fail to acknowledge their humanity. I’ve also had wait staff ensure I’m their customer. So I’d say my never uttering “please” to them is not really that much of a bother.
An exception to this would be modifications to an order if you’re uncertain if the modification can be done. For example, the first couple times my wife ordered the steak tips dinner at IHOP, she would request with a question or by including “please” to not include mushrooms. Once she was confident the kitchen could do that, she just made it a part of her order.
At a local small business where I frequently buy lunch, one of my favorite sides sometimes isn’t available when I arrive, so I’ll ask for that side as a question: “And can I get [side] as well?” If it’s available they’ll add it. If not, they’ll say so, and I’ll either select something else or forego the sides altogether.
Again, not saying “please” doesn’t make you rude automatically, and adding “please” doesn’t make it polite automatically. It’s everything else about how you place your order that determines whether you’re being polite. At the same time, if you place your order in the form of a question — something that most seem to do — it’s always come off to me that you are uncertain of what you want.
So the pricing idea that Simms had would, as comments to the linked article have already pointed out, lead to a false politeness from patrons who’d merely recite the words on the sign to get the cheaper price.
In coffee shops and fast food establishments, most will expect to get in and out. Trying to make pleasantries with the staff behind the counter is not conducive to the customer’s time, or to the time for those behind them in line. When I get coffee at the coffee shop near where I live, I keep my order short and direct and have my payment method already in hand to allow the order to be placed quickly.
In dining and fast casual establishments, the customer is obviously expecting to spend more time there, but not to make pleasantries with the wait staff. Where I’m a regular I can likely get away with additional pleasantries, provided the place isn’t all that busy.
Now some may say in response that the business doesn’t owe me any service. Which is true. I also don’t owe them my patronage either. The patron-establishment relationship is entirely voluntary. No one is forcing me to be there.
Businesses also have a right to kick out rude or harassing customers. They can also refuse service to someone for any reason or none. They do it all the time. But such choices have consequences, especially in the day and age of massive social media participation where a story of impropriety toward a customer or service staff, even one that’s completely fabricated, can go viral in a matter of hours.
At the same time, though, the fact I don’t use “please” when ordering doesn’t mean I’m somehow reserving the right to be an asshole to the staff that work there.
Business owners need to be mindful of the patron-establishment relationship. A business is only as successful as their customers allow them. Discourage or disparage customers and you’ll either go out of business or never grow as fast or as much as you’d expect.
In the above scenario — and others like it — the establishment doesn’t get to call many shots. The sign as well as the owner’s stated intent implies that I owe the establishment a particular demeanor when the only thing I owe the establishment is a certain amount of money when I place an order.
So ask yourself this: if I walk into my local coffee shop and say to the woman behind the counter, “Hi, I’ll have a 16oz latte,” have I just been rude to her? Have I dehumanized her? If you say “yes”, you really need to re-evaluate your point of view, as well as what is considered polite.