A Customer-Facing Employee Yelled At Me - And I Liked It

Brian Cantor

One composing a list of “customer service don’ts” would likely begin with the notion of yelling at customers.

On second thought, maybe not.  The idea of yelling at customers is so universally maligned that one would doubtfully bother including it in a piece on bad behaviors.  Why bother when everyone already knows yelling at customers is wrong?

A recent experience left me questioning that conventional wisdom.

No, I do not suddenly think yelling at customers is a “best practice.”  In a certain context, however, I believe it can be indicative of a customer-centric mindset.  It can be a reflection that the particular employee understands the idea of connecting with customers.

What happened

Almost every morning, I buy a protein bar – and sometimes gum, mints and water – from the local convenience store/pharmacy.

The process is usually simple and frictionless.  I walk in, say hello to the “regular” cashiers, grab my items, engage in some brief small talk, and pay with my credit card.  The experience may not be mind-blowing, but it is effective.  I quickly get what I want, receive implicit confirmation that the employees recognize and appreciate my business, and get out.

Last week, I threw the process for a loop.  I decided to pay with cash rather than my credit card.

Specifically, as the cashier was scanning my protein bar, I put the $3 down on the register.  I was surprised by what happened next.

A fellow employee confronted me about an action I thought was rather innocuous.

“Why would you just throw the bills down like that,” she yelled.  “That’s disrespectful.  You should hand the money directly to us!”

I initially wondered if she was being wry or sarcastic.

She most certainly was not.  As her volume and tone escalated, she confirmed that she indeed had a legitimate issue with the way I chose to present my cash.

Confused and surprised, I engaged in a conversation about the matter.  During the conversation, she revealed that the recurring problem is not exclusive to cash.  She also takes issue with my putting items down on the register.

She feels the respectful, cordial thing is to hand everything – products, cash, coupons or cards – directly to the cashier.

In my defense, I truly had the opposite understanding.

I have never personally worked in a retail store or restaurant, but a close friend of mine – one with the same “Seinfeldian” passion for minutiae – told me that his biggest pet peeve when working at a fast food restaurant was when people would push their card in his face before he was ready.

Naturally, I thought the same would apply to cash.  By putting the cash down on the register, I’m letting the cashier take the money on her own terms.

And I’ve certainly never seen anything to suggest putting items down (as opposed to handing them to the cashier one-by-one) is an issue.

It definitely was an issue for this particular employee, and she definitely let me know it!

Why it’s okay

I’m a loyal, regular customer of this particular establishment.  It’s also the era of customer centricity.

On the surface, the idea of criticizing my method of payment – let alone yelling at me about it – may seem thoroughly improper.  The customer is supposedly someone to value rather than lecture.

Perhaps I am being too upbeat and glass-half-full, but I do not see it that way.

I actually see the rant as proof of her customer centricity.

She criticized me the way one would criticize a friend or coworker for an annoying habit.  She spoke to me, quite simply, like a person.

Is that not a reflection of comfort, familiarity and recognition?  Is that not the essence of customer centricity?

While examples of personalization and customer centricity (preparing “the usual,” offering discounts, proactively asking about vacation plans) may typically be of a more positive variety, the spirit behind this cashier’s action was the same.

"I know this person.  I have a rapport with this person.  Shouldn't I speak to him accordingly?"

She is usually a very nice, cordial person, and I have no reason to believe she would have lectured a random, one-off customer.

Because I am not a one-off customer, she does not treat me like one.

I appreciated that mentality when she asked me about my appendix surgery last year.  I also appreciated it when she voiced a criticism about my payment etiquette.

I may not have loved her tone (or even agreed with her particular criticism), but I wholeheartedly accept her logic in thinking it was okay.

After several years of interacting, our rapport has become more personal and comfortable than “random employee serving random customer.”  Why shouldn’t our communication reflect that evolution?

Other benefits

Beyond the “personalization” element, I also value the transparency.

We have all encountered angry customer service representatives.  In most cases, we probably wrote them off as inherently rude, grumpy or incompetent.

But if what if they were not truly to blame?  What if our own behavior caused the anger?

We may not be accountable in theory – it’s the agent’s job to please the customer, not vice versa – but we should still strive to correct those bad behaviors.  We should still make a reasonable effort to create a harmonious interaction because we benefit from such harmony.  We benefit from pleasant, friendly interactions that are more likely to result in the resolutions we want!

Handing bills directly to the cashier is not a major inconvenience for me, but it apparently was a big problem for this employee.  Now that I know, I have made the minor correction – and everyone is happier!

Insights from frontline employees are, moreover, valuable in general.  We become better members of society when we learn how different people feel about different situations.

I certainly do not need or want to be lectured by any employee with a minor gripe.  I am certainly not advising customer service representatives to read the riot act anytime they feel mildly offended.

But if someone with whom I have interacted for several years wants to share her perspective, I am interested.  I care what she has to say, and I also appreciate that she feels comfortable enough in the relationship to share it.