Belle of Liberty

Letting Freedom Ring

Saturday, August 14, 2010

Dress As If You Mean Business

I hate working on Saturdays. I’m lucky I have a job that doesn’t require weekend work. Many of our employees at my company do have to work weekends, and judging simply by their talk, it’s one of the things they’re the most dissatisfied about.

But here I am working on my blog on a Saturday when I’d rather be relaxing and reading a book, and all because of that silly flight attendant.

I was talking with Mom on the phone this morning about her bus driving escapades. She reminded that the snowy road she’d been driving on during the Olympics also hadn’t been plowed yet. At one point, careful as she tried to be, she nearly lost control of the bus anyway; that’s how bad the road was. One of her passengers reminded her off it as he got off. She thanked him; but the truth was, she knew it, and there was just nothing she could do about it.

Sometimes there are situations that are just beyond our control. All we can do is try to be prepared for them. In the business world, one of those impending disasters is the dissatisfied customer. The other is the company CEO. Eventually, they find one another. The more dissatisfied the customer is, the harder they’ll try to connect with the company president - or worse, with The Media.

My mother was just the best role model of customer service. However, when she became “The Customer,” she threw off her halo and put on her horns and pointy tail. She was just the ultimate nightmare of every waitress, nurse, receptionist, and customer service representative. She’s the customer you hope you never have to deal with.

One time, she had a problem with her phone bill. When she didn’t get satisfaction from the customer service representative, and their manager, and their manager, she took out her stock folder. Being a stockholder in the company, as well as a customer, she went through the materials the company sent her until she found the president’s phone number.

She called him, and because she was also a stockholder (evidently, she had some stockholder ID number which she gave them), she talked to him – personally. A few minutes passed. The phone rang again; it was the department manager she had last spoken to. He told her he would do whatever it took to satisfy her, only “please, please, don’t ever call the company president again!”

Customer service can be a very rewarding experience. But it can also be draining. Unfortunately – and low be it spoken – dealing with customer service complaints is somewhat like dealing with cranky, very young children or crying babies; you must be patient with them, no matter how they try and bedevil you.

You have to be prepared for them. Having the experience of my mother, I had the perspective of both the ideal customer service representative and The Customer from Hell, all in one package. I knew how bad customers could behave and what to do about them.

At dinner with a group of friends, I watched as one of the wives sipped her coffee and wrinkle her nose with dissatisfaction. The coffee simply wasn’t the proper temperature for her palate. Instead of simply asking the waitress to reheat the coffee, she lectured her about waitressing, then demanded the fresh cup of coffee.

The waitress being young and inexperienced, naturally defended herself. So the customer raised the bar and demanded to see the restaurant owner. Now an argument ensued, and as a result, the waitress was summarily fired, on the spot.

The wife apologized (to the owner), but as a former waitress herself, she should have known what the result would be, and probably did. The owner told her not to worry about it, that she was a problem employee and he would have fired her anyway (this couple were regular customers at this diner).

Our company CEO recently came to visit our offices. I was horrified to learn that he was coming. Not that I’m afraid of him; I feared for our employees and their managers. We’ve become increasingly lax in our dress code, to the point that employees are coming to work in beach sandals and flip-flops. They also come in dress sandals, which isn’t so bad; they look nice but from a company point of view, such open-toed shoes are dangerous. If that employees drops something on their foot or get caught in an elevator door, we’re going to have a problem.

Worse still, management decided to keep his arrival a secret. He was only supposed to be coming for a leadership meeting. The managers and executives would be the only employees he’d meet with.

Our company has a motto similar to the Boy Scout motto. Yet here we were, charged with keeping a secret. The one saving grace was that he has never met with any employees unless they already had the manager’s seal of approval; you had to earn the right to shake his hand.

Only what if he took it into his head to wander our hallways? Who was going to stop him? Even if he only decided to go from the meeting room to our executive suite, it was two very long hallways and elevator ride frought with the peril of encountering flip-flopping, capris-clad or blue-jeaned employees.

Our managers don’t like it when executives wander around our hallways. This is a customer-service oriented business and any executive would be all too likely to hear a contentious conversation, our employees being as human as their customers.

Well, he did wind up going from the conference room to the executive suite and did decide to tour not just one floor of our building, but every floor. Leadership had finally decided to alert the department managers that our CEO was coming, one day before his arrival. I tried to caution our employees with subtle hints (I was enjoined to secrecy) and some not so subtle to remember the dress code. One of our employees took it into her silly head to e-mail an invitation to him to come visit her cubicle, and amazingly, he took her up on it.

I needn’t have worried. Some of the meeting participants were almost as inappropriately dressed for such a meeting as their employees. Not all of them. Some were dressed in suits. My former boss was well-dressed, and he eyed me up and down that morning to make sure that I was, too. Fortunately, I passed inspection.

If I was alarmed, it was because the whole discussion of the meeting was keeping up with our competition, to make sure we weren’t getting “soft.” Now, I’m no fashion maven. But that’s mainly because of the work I do. I never wear dresses at all and seldom wear tailored pant suits because of the leg-lengths.

Today’s suit trousers are tailored for women who wear heels. My job requires running (the day of the CEO’s visit, it certainly did) and being able to keep a steady stance with the camera. I can’t do that in heels. It’s not out of defiance that I refuse to wear suits, but terror that I’m going to trip on the high heels.

Our employees and even their managers are dressed just the way I remember seeing employees and managers at a certain well-known telecommunications company dressed. They were in approximately the same business stage this company is in now.

I was working as a temporary at the time and had the opportunity of working in their closest competitor’s offices as well. Company A was very laid-back, rather confident in their ranking (the company I’m at now, I must say, doesn’t take it for granted), even as they were laying off employees by the thousands. The casually-dressed employees weren’t even all that concerned about the layoff conference call they’d be attending; they brought snacks as if they were heading for a picnic. They displayed a cavalier fatalism about what was about to happen.

Meanwhile, at Company B, a sign had been posted: “Let’s Get Company A.” Their employees were dressed in suits. Their offices, I noted were dark and gloomy, where Company A’s office were very brightly decorated and appealing. The supervisor marched himself up and down the aisles of salespeople, peppering and badgering them with some rather threatening “encouragement” about increasing sales. Their employees were terrified. Their morale was as bad, in its own way, as Company A’s morale was, in another.

Back at the present company, the president took the tour. Being forewarned, the managers tried to guide him down aisles where he was likely to meet the best employees. Soon, though, he got away from them and managed to hear one employee in an increasingly strained conversation with a customer.

Oh well, I thought. Judging by the employee’s tone, I could pretty well guess the conversation and where it was headed. That was precisely the kind of customer (like my mother) that this president was probably going to hear from anyway. Might as well be now as later, I figured.

It’s a lesson that comes at as good a time as any, with this flight attendant episode still fresh in everyone’s minds. All businesses are going to have defensive customer service representatives who identify with the flight attendant, and customers on the other side determined to exert their power and influence.

When it comes to customer service and dealing with challenging customers, it’s well to remember the Boy Scout motto: Be Prepared. Especially right at this time. They’re going to do it; challenging customers are going to challenge the patience of customer service representatives everywhere, whether they’re waitresses, bus drivers, or call center operators.

My advice for the customer service representatives would be 1) Dress professionally. It doesn’t matter if no one can see you or ever will. You don’t know when that company president is going to come down your aisle, and you should work every day as if he or she is right behind you. This guy probably didn’t care that some of the employees were dressed in jeans (mercifully no one we saw was dressed like they were at the beach). But maybe he should have been.

It’s not that anyone necessarily wants employees to be uncomfortable (some Simon of LeGrees would enjoy it, I suppose). It’s just unwise to get too comfortable and let your guard down that way. Let’s face it; when you put on those jeans instead of trousers, you’re telling yourself something, even if you don’t realize it or don’t want to hear it: I’m a schlupp, in a schlupp job and what I wear doesn’t matter.

You think a thing like that and you’re going to convey it unconsciously to the customer you’re talking to and they’re going to pick up on it. Some of them will take you up on it and start giving you a hard time and you won’t have the confidence to take them on professionally and courteously - And wisely.

The second piece of advice is 2) Be Nice. No matter how they behave, your behavior must be better, or they’ll be on the phone to that company president. He might as well be standing right behind you, listening to what you say, because if you’re rude, even if it’s understandable, they’ll be right on the phone to tell him about it. He won’t care how they behave; his only concern will be how YOU behaved.

If this is a customer service war, you must out-nice the challenging customer at all costs. They’ll try to provoke you, but you mustn’t take the bait. I know; I’ve been there. I had a customer at one company literally screaming in my ear. She was so loud, I had to hold the receiver away from my ear. Yet no matter the provocation, retaliation - arguing back - is a fatal mistake. The Media despises capitalism and the business world and they’ll drive any wedge they can between businesses and consumers.

It’s unfortunate that this issue comes at a time when the economy is so bad. These are just the times when companies cut back or completely eliminate any morale-boosting activities. These are seen as unproductive, inefficient, and inappropriate at such economic times as these. Unfortunately, these are just the times when customer service employees need them, when customers are venting their frustrations on – or wielding their newfound power over – the customer service rep. The customer always has the upperhand in a downturn. Management responds sensibly, favoring the customer (as they must) but at a terrible cost to employee morale.

Even if you think you’re confident enough to do your job in jeans or do it even better in jeans for being more comfortable, you may not be doing your company as big a favor as you think. You may think it doesn’t matter or that it’s none of anyone’s business what you wear, but to other employees – and managers - it may feel like they’re not working at the greatest company in the world. It’s no fun working at Company B, to be sure, but it’s also no fun being laid off from Company A.

I’ve been guilty about letting myself go in terms of clothing – and I used to be so particular about what I wore. Once, I was a little fashion plate. But over the years, I found myself being more and more inclined to wear jeans and sneakers instead of slacks and loafers (instead of leather, heeled shoes, only for the sake of practicality) to work. I gave into the temptations of Dress Down Day.

Luckily, my doctor changed my meds – let’s hear for it Prozac. I asked myself one morning, when I was picking out a pair of jeans, just what the heck was I doing. Well, it’s Wednesday, came the answer; it’s a band night and there’s so little time between coming home from work and heading out to rehearsal. Never mind that, I told myself; put those slacks on. And I did. I obeyed my common sense. That day, I was called unexpectedly into the Executive Office to take some photos.

So my final advice to employees is this: dress as if the company president is coming to visit and/or this is your first day at work; or it could very well be your last and your company's (or close to it).

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