I was originally going to write a do/don’t list about how to interact with customer service reps (CSR’s). But those lists preach only to people who don’t particularly need to hear the sermon.

Instead, I’m offering things to consider when dealing with a CSR. I’m deliberately leaving my definition of CSR open-ended, but examples of what I mean are waiters/waitresses, fast food workers, bank tellers, in-bound call-center reps, and retail or grocery store workers and cashiers. (For the record, I’ve had all of those jobs except waiter.)


  1. Unless you’re a regular customer, the CSR doesn’t know that you’re not a jerk. Let’s say a transaction requires you to present an ID. (as in a teller transaction). If the CSR has to ask you for it–instead of you just presenting the ID–he/she doesn’t know you’re not the type of person to get upset and scream at him/her for having the temerity to ask for it. Similar deal if you’re at a takeout restaurant and you need to present a receipt to pickup a food order. If you don’t just present the receipt, the CSR might not know how you’ll react if he/she asks for it.
  1. When you ask to see/speak with a supervisor, it’s sometimes interpreted (by the supervisor) that the CSR has failed. There’s a game in a lot of customer service interactions. The CSR does what he/she is told by management. The customer disagrees with the decision. The CSR has no authority to change the rules. The customer asks for a supervisor. The supervisor then reiterates the rule or changes it. This can reflect poorly on the CSR, because an often unstated part of their job is to run interference between the customer and management. There’s usually no disciplinary action taken against the CSR, but when it comes to review time, the CSR’s failure to run interference consistently might be mentioned and taken into consideration.
  1. [a variant of consideration no. 2] A lot of the rules that the CSR has to enforce don’t seem to make sense, actually don’t make sense, and the CSR knows they don’t make sense, but the CSR has to enforce them anyway as part of their job.
  1. [another variant of consideration no. 2] A lot of the rules that the CSR has to enforce don’t seem to make sense but they actually have a rationale behind them or their rationale isn’t quite what you think it is. I’ll return to the example of ID’s at the teller window. It’s not always that the teller doesn’t know who the customer is. It’s sometimes that the teller doesn’t know that the customer isn’t the type of person who makes a withdrawal, later forgets about it, and then claims that it wasn’t they who came in to make it. (ID practices vary. In my experience, tellers often make compromises, and sometimes it’s bank policy not to even ask for ID if the amount withdrawn is below a certain amount.)
  1. If the establishment does not have enough CSR’s to handle the volume of customers, the CSR probably doesn’t need you to tell him/her that, probably dislikes the situation as much as you do, and probably doesn’t have the authority to remedy the situation. The CSR usually can’t hire new people, sometimes co-workers call in sick or don’t show up or aren’t scheduled, and a large influx of customers with too few CSR’s means the CSR has to work a lot harder to help the customers. Often even the shift manager lacks hiring or scheduling authority, and they’re often the ones scheduled to be in the store/restaurant at the odd hours that a CSR shortage is most grievous.
  1. If the CSR seems rude, maybe he/she is just shy, or has had a difficult day, or is using a defense mechanism because of the types of customers he/she usually gets. Sometimes a grudging attitude or working inefficiently is one way of coping. Male customers, I have heard, sometimes interpret a smile or friendly from a female CSR as flirting or as an invitation to be asked out. She doesn’t know the customer isn’t a potential stalker. (I bring that up because I know of one example where a customer exhibited what in my opinion were stalker-like behaviors to one of my female coworkers when I was a bank teller.) Or maybe the CSR is just rude. But it’s important to know what you don’t know before or when you decide to call the employee on, or speak to a supervisor about, their “attitude.”
  1. [a variant of consideration no. 6] If the CSR seems lazy or seems not to be doing things he/she is hired for, the “laziness” might not be what it seems. Most CSR jobs in my experience have busy times and slack times. The slack times are often a chance to rest. To a certain personality that seems like laziness–and to another personality, that seems like “stealing from the employer”–but it can be just taking a much-needed couple minutes to relax. In some cases, what looks like slack time is actually not even slack time. When I was a teller, we had to run numerous nighttime deposits on a tight schedule–before a certain time in the afternoon when we rolled over to the next business day. Running those deposits was stressful because we had to be very careful to accurately count the money, fill out slips to note any discrepancies, and help customers in the teller line in the process. In the middle of running a deposit, it could sometimes look to the customer as if the teller is just counting his/her money. Again, it’s important to know what you don’t know.
  1. If you are on “friendly” terms with a CSR, and see the CSR taking a lunch break, that CSR probably doesn’t want to spend the break talking with you. That break time is the CSR’s time. Depending on the employer or laws of the state, the CSR might not even be paid for that break time.
  1. The customer is often (but of course not always) a lot better off than the CSR. Before you lecture the CSR about how you work for a living (with the implication being the CSR doesn’t work), you might consider whether you actually earn more money or have better working conditions than the CSR. I got this talk occasionally in many of my jobs. Once was as a retail stocker and the lecturer was an irate teacher (pro-tip: if a customer goes out of their way to tell you they’re a teacher, that usually means they’re going to treat you poorly. #notallteachers, of course.) Another time was as a bank teller, and the lecturer was someone who (judging by his paycheck) earned a lot more than I but who seemed to think that because I worked in a bank, I was automatically raking it in. (It was the mid-1990s, and I was earning $8 per hour, without benefits, and with a restriction that I could work only 1,000 hours in a year. $8 went further then than now, but still….this guy seemed to be earning a lot more. [/grinding axes])
  1. There’s a master/servant dynamic going on in customer service transactions. This dynamic probably underscores the main principle behind all the preceding ones. It is in my opinion deeper, more complicated, and more fraught with potential conflict and emotion than the fiction we have to adopt as a shorthand to explain the employer/employee/customer relationship. In that relationship, it is presumed that an employer agrees to pay an hourly wage, the employee agrees to work at that wage, and the customers deal with the employee, and after a certain amount of time the employee goes home. But add to that a sense of being told what to do and having to do it and facing bad consequences if one doesn’t do it to the customer’s or boss’s satisfaction. The power differential can be something almost visceral and can transcend rational action. Sometimes even the best paying job has its frustrations and moments when the worker just needs to detox or whatever. That’s not always captured in the quid pro quo, money for service equation we, among whom I include myself, tend to talk about when it comes to policy discussions.



I tend to over-think these things. And I’m not perfect. I probably err too much on the side of defending bad CSR behavior and I probably therefore come off as condescending or obsequious in my interactions with CSR’s as a customer. There are times–probably more than I realize or would like to admit–when I as a customer have lost patience or been snippy or otherwise let my frustrations show.

Finally, I really do intend the above points as things to consider, not do/don’t commands. I’m not saying, for example, “never tell people the shop is short-staffed,” “never call out rude behavior,” or “never ask to speak with a supervisor.” I do admit that some of the “considerations” I describe are just part of the job description and in other cases, the “considerations” over-determine or at least strongly imply what I think customers should do. But what I really want to say is that if we as customers want the marketplace to be more humane, maybe one place to start is in reflecting how we treat those whose job it is to serve us. And one step to that goal is considering how they feel.

Category: Market

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7 Responses to Ten considerations for just practice: a customers’ primer on dealing with customer service reps

  1. fillyjonk says:

    For me, I tend to boil it down to one rule: “Remember the person you are talking to is a fellow human being, with human limitations and emotions.”

    I have also found the phrase, “I don’t know if you have the authority to….” sometimes helps, because it acknowledges that sometimes CSRs are hamstrung but rules, some of them quite silly, and they can’t always help when they want to.

    Also I find “please” and “thank you” go a long way. (And I’ve been on the end of helping people, not as a CSR, but in my gig as a professor, where having them say “Thank you” at the end made a HUGE difference to me. It really does seem sometimes the most demanding people are the least likely to express gratitude.)

  2. Mike Hunt Ray Rice says:

    Re: Consideration 2

    Tough shit

    Re: Consideration 7

    It is rude to have “slack time” in front of waiting customers.

  3. James Hanley says:

    When I worked for the pool supply company in mail-order sales, we had no supervisors on weekends. So when a customer would ask to speak to one we’d hand the phone to another CSR who would pose as a supervisor. It generally satisfied the customer, and it wasn’t mean-spirited. The alternative was to tell them to call back Monday and wait on hold for who knows how long again.

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