Customers: can’t live with ‘em, can’t live without ‘em, right?
Never before has a cliche rang so long, and so true to me.
On the one hand, they were my customers. They paid the rent, the wages, the electricity bill, everything! Without them, I would literally have no career.
On the other hand, they’re a bit irritating, aren’t they?
I mean, they come in and put their feet up on the furniture, and watch videos on their phones through the loudspeaker, and then leave a mess for you to clear up.
Not exactly the kind of people I’d choose to be around for the best part of my day, but I knew that I had to.
I was just so torn!
I felt like Kate Winslet, and the cafe was an old bit of wardrobe door, with Leo as the customers. I knew I should help Leo, and haul him up onto my door so that we can spend the rest of our lives together in star-crossed bliss (shoutout 90’s Leo btw). It’s the obvious choice, especially when the other option was to watch him sink deep into the North Atlantic abyss, his youthful face preserved for all-time, and never to be seen again.
That would’ve meant rejecting all of my paying customers (Billy Zane) in favour of an unsustainable fairytale.
Does that make any sense at all, or am I being too dramatic?
I can dial up the dramatics even more.
I should probably start out by saying that I didn’t always feel this way about my customers.
At the start of my hospo career I prided myself on being ‘a people person’. My customer service went above & beyond to levels usually reserved for sidekicks to some villain in Disney cartoons. No request was too tedious that I wouldn’t spring into action with a big, cheesy smile plastered on my face, such was my glee in helping out my fellow man.
If I ever saw a colleague struggling to contain their hatred for a customer who was giving them an earful, I’d gladly —proudly— step in to take the brunt to the point that I reckon over time I’ve taken more bullets than Sonny Corleone did in the first Godfather movie.
And this enthusiasm to take abuse from complete strangers served me well.
I’ve talked before about my penchant for falling into management roles, and I think my ability to tolerate human beings in the wild holds some credit for this.
But prolonged exposure to such abuse does start to wear thin after a while.
Soon, what would be a light-hearted scolding from a fine member of the public over the wait time for food on a public holiday began to make me feel a bit upset. I mean sure, my smile was still on show, but it was laid in front of a growing desire to commit physical violence.
And these feelings didn’t pass like I thought they would. No, they grew, and manifested until it seemed almost every request from a customer was the most painful, inconvenient, back-breaking chore.
I began to question whether or not I’d become angry because of the customer, or because it was just who I am now.
This wasn’t helped by the odd crazy sprinkled in here and there; the type that accused me of killing flies in our courtyard because one landed in his food, or the type who said that the diced bacon in her parmy was raw chicken, and she wouldn’t rest until she’d seen my job ripped away from my desperate fingers.
They just fuelled the fire, and I was ready to burn everybody.
It got to the point that every person who walked through my doors only meant more work for me. All hope in humanity was gone and now instead of a constant grin on my face, there was a scowl.
My customer service only extended to an over-played theatre of ‘good mornings’, and ‘how are yous’, and if anybody had the gall not to play their parts in this sham production, they were sentenced to a famous, irredeemable shunning.
I waited for my patronage to drop because of this bold, fresh angle I’d taken in hospitality customer service, but it never did. It honestly felt like people would come just to experience the worst service they’ve ever known, as if they craved a side of mild abuse and an under-the-breath, muttered hex with their morning coffee.
To this day I still don’t know why they put up with me, yet another mystery of what made my customers tick.
For those of you who are still with me, I apologise for my rant. You’ll be pleased to know that all wasn’t lost.
You see, although my default setting was now more aggravated than appreciative, when a customer did break through I would go to the ends of the earth for them.
And it wouldn’t take much either.
Perhaps it was a tandem eye-roll at a difficult patron. Or something as simple as just ordering hassle-free a few times in a row. Even some meaningful conversation in an ocean of hollow small talk could open me up like you wouldn’t believe. As soon as I saw something good in a customer, I’d hold onto it and never let go.
And because of this, more and more customers transitioned to being genuine friends.
We’d go out drinking together, or go to each other’s houses and cook. A good chunk of attendees at my son’s birthday parties started out as customers of mine. Come to think of it, a good chunk of my employees too.
Sometimes they didn’t even have to be paying customers.
I had a homeless regular who I gave a pot of tea and some breakfast to every day because he was nice to me and everybody else in my cafe. He’d quietly sit there, finish his food, thank us all by name, and then leave. And I wanted to make sure that he knew that no matter how rough things got, if he needed a meal he could get it from me. I even wrote him into my operating guide for the new owners when I sold the place.
Okay, maybe that last paragraph was tooting my own horn a bit, but I just wanted to show that I can be a good guy sometimes, much like everybody.
My point is, no matter how deep you fall into the darkness, as long as you leave the door open a crack, you’ll be able to find the good in people.
Who knew back then that, just as Celine prophesied, my heart would go on.
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