Shelle analyzes the philosophies behind bad service.

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Flying on Air Canada back to Toronto early one morning, I was sound asleep in my chair. Suddenly, a searing hot feeling flashed down my leg. Instantly awake, I jerked my head up to look at the flight attendant standing nearby. “You just spilled coffee down my leg!” I squawked. “It was tea,” she replied.

Shockingly poor customer service is far from a unique experience. After years of noticing the peculiarities exhibited by people serving customers, I began to wonder what was behind it all. I came up with the idea that there were probably some unconscious processes, operating out of people’s awareness, driving these behaviors. I decided to explore this further and have finally nailed the underlying attitudes in three different cultures.

The customer is bothering me

The Canadian philosophy is undoubtedly “the customer is bothering me.” Want to test this theory? Ask a supplier to do something outside their normal procedure and notice the response. “Uhfff (prolonged sigh), oooohhhh (martyred acquiescence), alright (wearied agreement).”

We have a running competition in my office to see who can extract the best service from vendors. Each of us has tried various approaches: grovelling, threatening, escalating, being friendly, even acting completely helpless and begging for rescue. You know what repeatedly works best? Apologizing. Sorry to bother you.

The customer is a spaced-out preschooler

If you want to define the difference between Canadians and Americans, start with their customer service. Sure, American service philosophy appears friendly and enthusiastic. In fact, it took me a long time to put my finger on exactly why it offended me.

Insight came in a flash one evening at a restaurant in Denver. My fellow diners and I had already endured the “Hello my name is X, and I’ll be your server this evening….” routine. Dinner had arrived but one of my companions sent his meal back. No sooner had I uttered the thought, “You know, I think American customer service people think clients are spaced-out preschoolers who will not listen” when events aligned to prove my point. “HI. MY NAME IS MARK. I AM THE CUSTOMER SERVICE MANAGER. MY JOB IS TO MAKE SURE YOU ARE COMPLETELY SATISFIED WITH YOUR MEAL.” Mark was leaning in, face to face with my friend, speaking v-e-r-y s-l-o-w-l-y to make sure he was understood.

The customer is always wrong

If you’ve ever been to France, this will probably sound familiar to you: The woman behind the counter at the French national railway screamed at me when I wanted to buy a ticket, a car insurance agent physically threw me out of his office for saying his prices were too high, waiters just ignored me. This kind of thing happened on a daily basis during the seven years I lived there. What must these people believe to be true for them to behave this way? One day it struck me – the French customer service philosophy is “the customer is always wrong.” I adapted. I learned to be more dramatic, yelling and screaming like the residents to get what I needed. But in France, assuming you can get at least a little attention, it’s clear that as a customer, you’re still wrong.

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