Ann Bancroft

Ann Bancroft
October 15
I've been a newspaper and wire service reporter, editorial writer, speech writer and communications director. Now I'm writing my own stuff, and have no bosses to blame. I write short fiction and essays about absurd stories I've read in the newspaper and things that rile, amuse or touch my heart.


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MARCH 28, 2011 6:25PM

How's the Day Treating You? Your Teller Wants to Know

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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!”




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I can't believe I've been so stupid. The clerks at the grocery store and the pharmacy have been running this one on me and I didn't put it together until I read your article. I'm so naive and this post explains it all. For people such as myself, full with the guilt and illicit thoughts of past misdeeds, it's like I'm being questioned by a priest. And I'm not even Catholic.
Also, that "how is your day treating you?" stuff... it just doesn't compute with today's accountability, responsible for your choices and their effects on others blather.

How about the way you feel when you fall for the question and actually start responding, only to see eyes glazing while they are looking over your shoulder, fixed on the next customer, ready to spring the question again.
Bravo! Thank you for writing this! I have been tempted to tackle this topic myself. But you said it better than I ever was brilliant.

Last Saturday, when my all-too-chirpy bank teller asked, "So HOW is your day going??", I was tempted to shoot back a snarky remark
(or worse). I had to tell myself the poor dear was only doing her job.
And yes, she was no doubt following orders from the men who had
the Meeting you described. Their new concept of "Customer Service" isn't working too well. In fact, it's just making our interactions more annoying than ever. When will they ever get it?
I'm fine with these. What really drives me nuts is the infamous "So, did you find everything you were looking for?" What kind of question is that? If I found everything I was looking for, chances are pretty good that's when I would have decided to come to the checkout stand and pay for it, so the answer is almost always going to be "yes". The only time it's going to be "no" is when they didn't have what I wanted, so now she's pissed me off because no matter what I respond with, she's NEVER going to find the item for me if it wasn't in the store to begin with. If I say no, and she points out the item being somewhere deeper in the store, I now lose my place in line and have to go get it. So, I'm probably still pissed.
Duane, the first draft of this included, "so, did you find everything you were looking for?" which is invariably asked right after you've swiped your credit card. Maybe you didn't find everything because you forgot to write it down. Is it too late to go back for the cumin and sour cream? Yes, it is. You'd feel like a schmuck. But the cashier SOUNDS helpful...I guess you could say, "actually, you seem to be out of goat testicles. When do you expect the next shipment to arrive?"
Love this post! They are totally getting too personal these days. I went to the drive thru teller the other day with a crying infant and a bored 2 year old in the back. The tell asked me, "How's your day going so far!" Can't you hear the screaming? Can't you just hurry up and do your job so I can go? I said, "well I have 2 kids in the back who want to go home". Then the stupid stupid girl asks me out loud so my 2 year old can hear "Oh would they like a lollipop?" Maybe I was going to feed her lunch after this you stupid girl! My two year old starts immediately begging for the lollipop and here it comes through the tube. Of course I actually have to thank the stupid girl for the damn lollipop.

Another time I was asked what my weekend plans were and I had none and I drew a blank and the guy, the dude I guess I should say, replied, "Just gonna chill huh? I hear that!" No dude, I don't chill, I have 2 kids, weekends are like every other day except no preschool so more hours to fill with playdoh and melt downs and time outs and trips to the store to talk to cashiers like you who want to know how my day is going. SO ANNOYING!
Really enjoyed your article and "favorited" you. You are very funny and you made some really good points. I think my answer to "what are you going to do this weekend" might be "I am planning on robbing your store." That might shut them up. RRRR
I see where you're coming from especially if your day isn't quite "chipper" and on top of it all someone who doesn't really know you is inquiring about your life....add to it that there appears to be no sincerity in the inquiry, then yuck.

I was in banking for 20 years so maybe I can answer a couple of your "whys?". For the majority of those years I worked in a community bank that was surrounded by other community banks. If we wanted to keep our customers, we tried to offer more than the other banks. Most community banks offer the same services so sometimes the only thing different between the banks is friendly service...and that means getting to know our customers. If we knew at least a little bit about their family and social life, it helped us in determining their needs. Spouse or child passed away?....we would send flowers and/or open a memorial account for the deceased. Direct deposit from their job delayed?....we would cover their checks. Son/daughter headed to college?....we would share info about student loans. Many other issues like this as well were taken care of by the bank. Did we do it in order to keep their account and therefore keep the bank in business? Sure! But we really did care about our customers....we lived in the same community and they looked out for us as well. Another "why" is customer protection....believe it or not. If we know what the customer's usual schedule is, then if something unusual occurs on their account, we can notify them....if Tommy Smith, who makes minimum wage and is struggling to save his money, is usually working on Saturdays and then all of a sudden an ATM withdrawal for 2,000.00 comes through on his savings account on that day, then we can contact him to verify. It could very well be that he withdrew it and we have no right to know why or what for, but for the most part our customers were appreciative that we were looking out for them.

My banking years were in Houston, Texas and I think that made a difference as well. Not all, but some, of our customers who had newly arrived from New York City were flabbergasted that we said hello, much less inquired any further. I love New York so that's not a bash by any means, just an observation from our customers:).
That's why I never use teller services. I get my cash when I use my ATM card to buy groceries and my deposits are automatically sent to my account. As a former banker (retired) I loved my job when banking was all about service and offering the appropriate account which a client asked for or actually *needed.* Now it's all about sales. Tellers and everyone else get paid for 'selling' credit cards, checking accounts, home loans, etc. That leads to competition with peers (who sometimes take credit for another person's sale ) as well as unhappy customers who are pitched for this or that every time they walk into a bank.

Believe me, the tellers and others don't like it any more than the clients do but when your job is on the line for failure to 'sell' your assigned numbers then they do what they are told - script included. It's really sad.

Management gets their 'sales goals' and passes them down - even employees who don't meet the public are given goals. They're expected to get family and friends to open accounts, talk the businesses that they frequent - pass out credit card applications at social gatherings, etc.

People get fired for not meeting sales goals who are great at their actual job - for example a teller supervisor who juggles accuracy, bank policy, procedures, risk management, part time employees with ever changing schedules, planned and unplanned absences, peak hours, peak days like Social Security payday, etc. Most tellers are part time - students mostly - who cannot work more than a certain number of hours or the bank would have to pay them benefits. Couple that with lean staff numbers and customers who get upset if they have to wait in line. Many tellers now are also expected to open accounts at the teller window. If you get a couple of people doing that then there may be only one or no other staff to take care of other transactions. Add the risk of having a gun pointed at you by a bank robber and the job gets old in a hurry.

I really feel for employees who serve the public. I don't like the scripted personal inquiries either but understand the pressure they are under.
Maggie, you are so right that this scripted nonsense is not the fault of the tellers, and I could not agree with you more on the high-pressure sales pitches. It's a shame we can't all go to community banks like Oaxacagringa describes.
This is very funny, and I agree that the insincere questioning can be annoying. But on the other hand, maybe I do live in Mayberry, because I kind of like chatting with the cashiers at the grocery store for 30 seconds. It's not I'm especially gregarious, but I've been going to the same place for 10 years so it would seem odd to me to not have a bit of small talk.

Far worse than the over-talkers are the people who act like you aren't there at the checkout. Drugstores seem to hire a lot of them . No eye contact and chatting on their cell the whole transaction. Or the guy at petco the other day, texting while ringing up. Kind of impressive multi-tasking, really.
Actually, I've been going to the same wonderful neighborhood grocery for decades, too, and do chat with the friendly folks there, because we know each other. Still, they don't grill me about my plans, as the strangers at the bank are scripted to do!
My highest compliment : the spirit of George Carlin lives!