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How to Charm a Pissy Customer


For the past three years I have worked as a barista for a small series of coffee shops on a college campus. On a daily basis I have seen exhausted, angry, and depressed people parade through my lines. Most of the time I try to be charming – to make their day just a little bit happier. Sometimes, however, I just manage to piss people off.

For example, something that drives me nuts is the Starbucks “Italian” sizs. Tall is English. Grande means large. Venti means twenty, and their iced large size is twenty-six ounces, same as the company I work for. What’s worse is that a lot of the people who come through my line say “tall” when they mean “Large.” I see this as an opportunity for an upsale, so whenever someone orders a “tall” drink I say, “Tall as in large?” It works about half of the time, I guess.

So anyway, this girl came in one morning way too early (I hadn’t had my coffee yet) and orders a Grande. I said “Grande as in large?” This girl just gave me the stinkeye for a long moment, so I said it again. Then she begrudgingly said, “Grande means medium.” Being the smart ass I am, I said, “No, in Italian grande means large.” But I grabbed a medium cup and started writing down her order. I politely offered her whipped cream and an extra shot (another upsale) and then asked if there was any food she would like (just a polite way of asking if she wanted anything else). Of course the answer was a curt “no” on all counts. Then, as I was waiting for the credit card to go through I asked how she was doing, and I asked for her autograph on her recipt instead of a signature (which I always do anyways). Basically, I kept very polite and friendly even though I had gone too far and pissed her off.

Basically, sometimes there’s nothing you can do to correct a mistake. I had gone too far, and I played the rest of the transaction by the book so that she couldn’t complain to my manager about me. What would she complain about? That I was too nice?

This is not an example of charming a pissy customer. This is an example of getting away with pissing off a customer. I lucked out in that she didn’t complain to my manager about me. In the end, I shouldn’t have done it.

However, there are many cases where you can charm a pissy customer. If you’re lucky – and I mean really lucky – you can even make them happy. That’s pretty rare, though.

First off: always remain upbeat. It doesn’t matter if you’re actually feeling good or happy or anything positive. People react positively to happy people. Flat out lie if you need to and if you think you can get away with it. I have long hours of rushing around, dealing with snarly people, standing on my feet, and getting burned by the espresso machine or panini grills. By the end of my eight hour shifts I don’t feel like a person lucky to have a job and interacting with interesting people – I want to kill the next customer who demands an upside down grande Caramel Macchiato with an extra shot, no foam, non-fat, at exactly 135 degrees. For Pete’s sake, most people can’t tell the difference between 135 and 140. And milk burns at 180. I just don’t show them my bad attitude.

Often times a customer has a complaint about something that happened – either by me or one of my coworkers. If they ask for my manager, I get him. He’s better equipped to deal with whatever the problem is. Sometimes they tell me what the problem is. The key to this situation is to LISTEN! Listening is the greatest skill you will ever learn. Listen to them and nod, keeping a pleasant and serious look on your face. They want to feel that you are actually listening to them. It’s okay if they are wrong about something. Once they’ve finished talking you can politely explain to them that corporate is cracking down on the way you charge for items, so the peach water they once only paid a quarter for now costs 73 cents because it costs your company for the cup and the flavor shot, not to mention your salary and the electric bill. If you apologize for the inconvenience, but your hands are tied, they may not be happy but they will retain their respect for you.

Next: do charming little things to the customer. If they need to sign their credit card recipt, ask for their autograph. Tell them you like how they have their hair, or something they are wearing. Ask them, “How are you today?” putting the emphasis of the question on them to show that you care about them. If they are in a truly foul mood they may not lighten up any, but at least you tried!

Some other things you can do with repeat customers is try to remember their names. If you suck at names as badly as I do, then you can make a game out of it. When you’re blanking on their name you can say, “I want to call you Mike, but I know that’s not even close.” Usually they’ll chuckle and say, “No, its Antonio.” Then you should say something like, “Oops. Antonio…. Antonio…. I’m going to remember your name eventually! Antonio….” Then, if you mess up the name only a little bit you can say, “I was so close, I almost got it!” Ultimately, it humanizes you. Makes you entertaining.

And remember – it’s okay if you make a mistake. Acknowledge it. Apologize. Explain the mistake if it won’t confuse the other person. Move on. There’s no point in making mountains out of molehills if you don’t have to. Don’t turn it into a big issue if it isn’t one. And don’t be afraid to be nice! The occasional concession won’t kill you, especially if it’s over something small that isn’t worth turning into a big argument, like if they’re insisting that normally an extra shot of espresso costs 45 cents when it really costs 65. Say, “You’re used to being charged for a shot of flavor. I’m going to do it for you this time, but be aware that an extra shot normally costs 65 cents and that’s what I’m going to charge you next time.”

Another issue is humor. Never make the customer the butt of a joke! You don’t want to make them feel inferior. Instead, what I’ve found that works is if you have a self-depricating sense of humor. Not everyone sees the same thing as funny. Many people don’t have a sense of humor, or your jokes are just too different from what they find funny. If you make yourself the butt of the joke, there’s no chance that they’ll be offended by it. They may feel sorry for you, that you’re such an idiot that you burned yourself again or that you feel yourself stupid for forgetting their name again, but they won’t think you find them smelly or stupid.

But remember, through all of this, you are in the service industry. They see you as people being paid to serve them. Although you are not beneath your customer by any means, they may very well see you that way. You may see a customer every day for years. You may hear about their children and lovers whenever they come through your line. Unless you see them outside of work in a social setting, they aren’t your friend. They are a work friend – a friend when it is convenient. This isn’t a bad thing. Just remember that you have a place in their eyes.

Of course these things I suggested are only words I say when I’m at work. They fit my personality. They may or may not fit yours. Adjust your comments and jokes accordingly. Use your personality to your advantage as best you can, and don’t forget to be kind and considerate. Your customers will thank you for it.

I wish you luck in all of your endeavors.


From → Serious

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