Sean McHugh: The insidious effects of customer service


So I've worked in customer service for about a year and a half now, which means I know everything there ever is to know on the subject, and I have come to realize something. Customer service is ruining our society.

Part of it is the name. "Customer Assistance" would be a more accurate and less problematic expression, but, unfortunately, service was the term the focus group spat out.

The word "service" has several unfortunate implications. If you're having trouble hearing them. ask yourself which greeting you would rather hear from stranger, "How can I help you?" or "How can I serve you?"

Still, it wouldn't be a problem if customer service was just an internal corporate buzz word, the way companies now say "Logistics Team Member" rather than the less glamorous "Stock Boy." Unfortunately, the phrase escaped like a cane toad into the Outback and it is now in danger of destroying the fragile social ecosystem.

Now that the phrase is in common use, customers can angrily declare "This isn't good customer service!" when they can't get whatever they want with no effort on their part.

I believe that this phenomenon may be unique among professions in that it is considered acceptable to tell someone they are bad at their job just for doing it. How might translate into other professions?

"I'm sorry, you have cancer."

"I have cancer? You are a terrible doctor!"

I am also curious if the number of threats I receive on a daily basis has analogies in other lines of work. Not the real threats, the ones brimming over with incoherent rage or the threats of legal action from people whose Caps Lock key seems to be stuck; those can be pretty funny.

I am referring to the casual threats that work themselves into basic transactions in hopes for a better outcome.

People who want to get more, think nothing of throwing in the occasional "I'll tell all my friends that you suck!" as a means to that end.

Now I have nothing against a person actually telling their friends that I suck if they feel that the interaction warrants it, but I find the repeated and cynical use of the threat senseless.

With the advent of social media, which I believe was touched on briefly in the Book of Revelation, every human calling in now claims to have a blog that gets 10,000 hits a day and has no compunction against using the alleged web journal as a bludgeon.

Let's again take a look at how that might work with other professions:

"I'll just go onto Facebook and tell everyone what a bad mechanic you are!"

"The tires will still cost 200 bucks."

I suppose it wouldn't be such a problem if corporate culture had not decided it was more cost-effective to let the squeaky wheel get the grease rather than letting it squeak. This then encourages every wheel to squeak, even if it only needs the regular amount of greasing.

So the fabled "Good Customer Service" is steadily eroding the moral fiber of our society as it encourages people to be combative or even dishonest in hopes of achieving a better result.

In light of this, I thought I'd make some basic recommendations that might make things a little smoother for everyone involved in your next customer service call:

First off, try to avoid using the phrase "Customer Service" except when referring to the department by name.

Second, there is no need for threats. Asking politely, but insistently, will typically give you the same results, but without making you look like a jerk. Which you would be.

Third, while we're on it, email addresses aren't case sensitive. It's not a big a deal, but every day I hear people say that their email address is all lower case and there's really no need for that.

Fourth, remember that an angry retort is a poor way to open a conversation with a complete stranger. Before you can say "Holy bad first impressions, Batman!" you'll find that the conversation is now a debate.

Lastly and most important, remember that there is no shame in asking for help, which is what calling a customer-service line is, if you think about it, and it will take you further than making demands or throwing blame around would.

If you go into the conversation looking for help you just might get it, but if you go in looking to be served, you're contributing to the downfall of society.

Write to Sean McHugh at


If you'd like to leave a comment (or a tip or a question) about this story with the editors, please email us. We also welcome letters to the editor for publication; you can do that by filling out our letters form and submitting it to the newsroom.

Powered by Creative Circle Media Solutions