How's the Day Treating You? Your Teller Wants to Know
Before there were self-serve checkout counters, Internet shopping and punching “the following menu” to be placed on 20 minutes of musical hold, before we did most of our shopping online, all business and commerce was conducted between live human beings.
You’d hand your cash to a clerk at a store, your check to a bank teller (unobstructed by a bullet-proof shield) or you’d ask a person on the phone why you seem to have been charged $3,760 for your monthly electric bill.
These human-to-human transactions were begun and ended with simple, polite phrases.
“How may I help you?” the person serving the customer would say. Or simply, “May I help you?”
“Yes (or No) thank you,” the customer would say.
Business was cordial, but chitchat strictly limited to non-specific greetings. Only polite, non-specific answers were required.
“How are you?” begs no details. It allows a response of “fine, thanks,” regardless of actual circumstances. The question speaks only to the moment, in which the customer is at least “fine” enough to be standing there, buying something. If he just got fired or his wife ran off with their kid’s soccer coach, a simple, “How are you?” doesn’t corner him into lying or divulging these things.
What’s happened to these short, civil, non-intrusive interactions? Why must we now tell our bank tellers and grocery clerks our weekend plans?
I’m “fine” with shopping online, with ordering prescriptions by number, with ATMs and pressing 0 to talk to a representative. But I don’t get why our few remaining human-to-human business transactions now require faux social conversation.
I suspect there have been Meetings, where men in brown suits and yellow ties sat all the employees of the world in semi-circles, each facing the same flip chart. These Meetings were held while you were waiting 15 minutes at the butcher counter for someone, anyone, to show up.
“Be Your Customer’s Friend,” the flip chart instructed.
“How are you?” was crossed out and replaced by, “How’s the day treating you so far?”
“Ask About the Weekend,” the next page advised.
“Monday-Tuesday: ‘Did you do anything fun over the weekend?’ Wednesday: ‘What’s on tap for the rest of the afternoon?’
Friday: ‘So, any big plans for the weekend?’”
Now it’s not enough to wait in line to deposit a check, you must also wait for everyone ahead of you to be asked, with robotic consistency, their game plan for a fun time in the hours and days ahead.
Don’t get me wrong. Some days, I’m chatty and happy to converse in the grocery store or bank about the weather, the World Series or the great recipe I have for these Brussels sprouts I’m buying. Some days. Some moments on some days.
Life is ever changing and, even-keeled as we may be, it goes up and it goes down and then up and then down again, swells rising and falling from ecstasy to grief as the current carries you along. Inevitably, we experience moments that are not nice, wonderful, fantastic or fun. Often, we like to keep such moments to ourselves. Our plans for the weekend may be hot and private, unspeakably mundane, or the weekend may loom with dread.
Sometimes it is all we can do to just get ourselves into the bank and hand the piece of paper to the teller without falling apart.
Such was the quality of the moment for my friend recently when she had to conduct a sad piece of business. Rain was sheeting outside, but she entered the bank with dark glasses, removing them to reveal her puffy eyes only when she reached the teller’s window.
“How’s the day going for ya?” the teller chirped.
“I’m getting through it,” my friend said.
“Got anything fun planned for the weekend?”
My friend paused for a moment, feeling put upon to make something up, but then told the truth.
“My husband just died.”
You see how a simple, how are you/fine, thanks interaction would have been more kind? How isolated and uncared for, in fact, the enforced chattiness made my friend feel?
Memo to the men in brown suits and yellow ties, to employers all over the world: Smiley-faced efforts to be your customer’s pal do not compensate for longer lines or poor service. Phony attempts at familiarity do not take customers back to the day when the folks down at the corner store or the one bank in town knew who you were and what your kids were up to.
In all but a few places, places where most people do not live, those days are gone. Face it. If you want to connect with your customers, do so with your eyes, your genuine (not giddy) smile, and then just do the transaction.
Thank the customer for her business. Look forward to seeing that customer again. But please, don’t demand that she experience the moment as nice, great, fantastic or wonderful. Some moments are, some aren’t, no matter what you wish them to be. It’s just a human condition thing.
And customers? If what you’ve got on tap for the weekend is nothing you care to discuss, try this as a response:
“Oh, you know me!”