The Iron Man Interview


Bulldog or Dude? Personal Service in an Impersonal World

 WordPress’s Writing 201 challenged us, this month, to write an opinion piece.  I was tossing topic possibilities around when a FaceBook post about a great service experience collided with an experience I had with my cell phone provider. I decided to write about personal service.

I thought I’d let this be my Saturday post, but then I realized I’d be starting the new year off with a piece that is, in all honesty, maybe just a little bit complain-y. 

So I’m posting today, before 2014 winds down–venting my grievances in the already murky air of 2014.  Then…let 2015 begin, crisp and new and unsullied!


“I was about ten people deep in the express lane,” Meg writes on her FaceBook page, “when an employee came up to me and another guy who only had a couple of things, marked our stuff [as paid], and said we could go.  Basically we stood there dumbly until he said…Like, without paying?  She confirmed it, and we got our stuff for free.  Thanks, Whole Foods! I have a little bit more faith in humanity today!”

So. An employee notices tired people, who intended to just stop quickly on their trips home from work, waiting in a long line to buy just a few items.  She pulls them out of the line, marks their items as paid, and sends them on their way.  Those two people are thrilled, and they share their happiness with a broad audience.

Does the store lose?  I don’t think so.  The act of kindness sent those two people home more quickly, made the lines move faster, and insured the loyalty of a couple of customers who, the next time they return, will probably spend substantial money…more than compensating for the  the combined total of twelve dollars worth of freebies. And I bet the clerk who marked Meg’s groceries and sent her on her way felt pretty good that day.

Contrast this to Meg’s cousin Nathan’s response to her post.  He reported standing in line at a crowded big box store while a cashier ignored him, loudly complaining about an absent co-worker to another cashier.  When she finally wound down, Nathan said, “Excuse me. Is this lane open?  Can you wait on me?”

The cashier replied, “Duh! Is the light on????”

“Wow,” wrote Nathan. “Guess she told me, huh?”

I doubt he’ll be back in that mega-mart any time soon.


Service is important.  It’s important for the concern’s bottom line, it’s important for the retention of a paying customer.  But it’s really important because treating each other cheaply cheapens all of us.

I am considering this because of a second frustrating experience I had recently with my cell phone provider.  I lost my phone; the folks at the store declined to help me, instead sending me home to call an 800 number (it’s fortunate, I guess, that I have my work cell on which to place the call).  The 800 number told me I was twelfth in line, there was an estimated 45 minute wait for a live voice, and recommended I go on line to the insurance company’s website to request a replacement.

I did that, did it sitting with the policy stating I had a fifty dollar deductible at my elbow.  The process went very smoothly until, just before I submitted the request, a screen appeared telling me the deductible was $149.00.

Did I submit?  Yes; yes, I did.  I need my phone.  I did write a carefully worded comment in the ‘Tell us how we did’ box and ask for a reply–but I’ve done that before with this company.  I heard nothing that time either.

The next day the phone arrived–that was good.  I turned it on and charged it–that was good.  All my email information transferred immediately–that, too, was good.

But I didn’t seem to have a phone number or phone service.  That was not good.  So I dialed the 800 number for help.

Twenty minutes later, a young lady working in a noisy, static-filled environment was instructing me on how to remove my SIM card.  When I did, and read her the number on it, she apologized and told me that card had never been registered.

Could we just register it? I asked.

Oh, no, she said.  They could either send me one–it would only take two days to arrive–or I could go down to the store and pick one up.

When I said goodbye, she asked me, “Is there anything else I can help you with?”

Anything ELSE?  What, I wondered, was the first thing?  But there was no point in harassing the young call center clerk who had nothing to do with the phone’s faulty SIM card.

I made an appointment. I went to the store.  I talked in words of one syllable.  I might have looked a little scary.  The young man, Joe, who waited on me not only got me the new SIM card, he installed it, made sure my phone was working, and walked me to the door.

Joe’s a nice boy.  But it’s not enough to salvage my relationship with the company, which had been badly dented when we first got the phones.  Then an enthusiastic young store rep–I’ll call him Jarred–told us he wanted to be ‘our guy.’  If we had any trouble, we should just call him.

Very pleased, we jumped in whole hog–cancelled our landline, gave up our Internet service, ditched the cable TV, and got cell phones and Internet through the phone company.

Which was great except that the WiFi never worked.

I called Jarred, and he thought that the WiFi situation was really odd.  There shouldn’t be a problem, he said.  He gave me an 800 number to call; the people at corporate should get it fixed up.  But, said Jarred, if you have any problem, call me back.

I called the 800 number on a Saturday.  The man on the other end–I’ll call him ‘Dude,’ kindly informed me that my cell phone number did not exist.

“Dude,” I said, “do you have caller ID?”

“Yes, ma’am,” he confirmed.

“Can you see the number I’m calling from?”

“Yes, ma’am,” he said.

“Isn’t it the same as the number you’re telling me doesn’t exist?”

Dude said, “Ma’am, we have no record of that number in our company’s database.”

I asked Dude to look my account up under my name.  He told me I did not have an account with their company.

“Dude,” I said, “then why are you billing me?”

He had no record of that, either. Then, before he hung up, he asked, “Is there anything else I can help you with today, Miss Pam?”

DUDE,” I started. Then I gave up. “Oh, never mind.”

At least, I thought, I can call Jarred.  So on Monday, I did that.

He was no longer with the company.

I asked to talk with someone else who could help me, and a rep told me hotspots weren’t handled locally.  He gave me Dude’s 800 number.

My contract with this company expires on June 12, 2015.  We will be sprinting, so to speak, to a new provider that very day.

If a store member had made some calls for me, helped me through the process, it would have made so much difference.  But having locked us into our package, they didn’t seem to care whether it worked or not.

On a bottom line basis, a bad decision: they got our money for a year, but we certainly won’t re-up.

On a personal basis, I feel diminished.  I think the person forced to provide shoddy customer service does, too. I cannot wait to contract with a company that treats me like a real person with legitimate concerns.


Oh, Lordie, here goes: I’m about to sound like that old lady who says, “When I was young, we did it RIGHT.”  But let me tell you anyway: my first official job was in the deli of a supermarket.  Our manager was a muscular, high energy bulldog of a man who explained  exactly what he meant by good customer service.

We were to smile.  We were, if at all possible, to address people by their names–and not as Joe or Susan, but as Mr. or Mrs. or Ms.  If someone couldn’t find something, we were to go and look in the store room.  It didn’t matter if we had just looked ten minutes before; sometimes, said the Bulldog, someone will put an item back, or unpack an item without your knowledge.  And if you can’t provide it, you provide a solution–a substitute, preferably, but a rain check if needed.

If customers complain, said the Bulldog, you listen.  You rephrase so they know you heard them.  You help them find a solution.  Just like at Whole Foods, the Bulldog might authorize solving the problem by giving away free stuff.  But he’d gain a customer who came back again and again.

The Bulldog, God rest his energetic soul, was a pain in the neck to work for.  He was all over.  You couldn’t sneak in a back room break because he might be IN the back room.  You couldn’t even complain about him to your co-workers because he might just be walking up behind you.  The man never ever sat still, and he never compromised on service.

But a funny thing happened.  We moaned and groaned and inveighed against the Bulldog, but we all liked going to work.  At the deli, I had customers who would wait ten minutes so that I, and only I, could slice their weekly cold cuts.  I called them Mr. and Mrs. Smith, I asked if their dog had recovered, commented on how the baby was growing, told them about my prom dress.  If they didn’t show up one week, I wondered where they were, and if two weeks went by when I didn’t see them, I mentioned it at the store’s office.

My co-workers all had similar relationships with ‘their’ customers.  We weren’t just clerks and customers; we were people who related to each other and cared about each other.  Our interactions actually enriched our days.

I remember being crabby and abrupt with a customer one day and feeling lousy about it for a whole week.  And she was, truly, a cranky complainer, unreasonable and whiny.  But, I figured, she might have reason to be unhappy, and I probably added to it that day.  I felt small.

The next time I saw her, I was extra nice, and I made sure she got the choicest of cuts.  She was still crabby, but I don’t think either of us felt diminished that day.

Oh, it’s an impersonal world we live in, vast and populated with busy strangers.  It’s easy to feel like a cipher, a non-entity, in the face of all that vastness and bustle. A cell phone company rep treats a caller like a disembodied, anonymous voice. A big box store worker indulges in sarcasm at a customer’s expense. Nobody feels good about the transaction.

I believe that it’s our job to make connections, to validate each other, to be, maybe, the one smile someone might see in an otherwise storm-cloud-filled day.

And certainly, when we contract for service, that obligation is manifold. I truly believe this: that when that failure in good service happens we should, politely but as soon as possible, vacate our connection to that concern.  That concern is broadcasting unhappiness, and our cooperation contributes to that process.  Let’s not be parties to diminishing ourselves.

And let’s celebrate the ‘notice and care’ philosophy that Meg enjoyed–and that I really do encounter on almost a daily basis. Let’s celebrate it and remark on it; let’s elevate it so everyone can see. It’s a personal and connecting model in a sometimes all too impersonal world.