Jo Clarke v the Sainsbury’s Checkout Assistant: Is customer service culture killing good manners?

In many ways it’s a fairly unremarkable encounter, but it’s become a story which has got us all examining the way we treat each other in the modern metropolis. Jo Clarke, a 26 year old, is in Sainsbury’s doing a mid-week shop. Reaching the checkout she’s still deep in conversation on her mobile phone whilst she’s being ‘served’. So far, nothing out of the ordinary. Depending on who you are you either think nothing of this interaction, or you tut to yourself and wonder what’s happening to manners and whether it’s the effect of all this new technology which enables people to inhabit a physical space, yet in their minds be somewhere else entirely.

Today though the checkout assistant has had enough. It’s probably the tail end of a bad day and yet another person is treating them as if they aren’t there, as if they don’t matter, and they probably won’t get so much as a thank you before this young woman swishes out of the store with her bags not giving a second thought just like all the others. So the assistant tells her;”I will not check your shopping out until you get off your mobile phone”……

The supermarket’s response is predictable. It’s media department swing into full damage-limitation mode; it apologises profusely, offers free vouchers and states more-or-less that customers have the right to do pretty much just what they want.

And herein lies the problem. Being in a call centre I know just what type of customer Jo Clarke is likely to be. She’s the one who calls up screaming at you, the one who calls you a liar, the one who calls you stupid, the one demanding to speak to your manager, the one    who tells you to “just get on with it” and the one who never says thank-you when you’ve pulled out all the stops to get them what they wanted. Ok maybe I’m being unfair on her here, maybe she does none of those things – and there is, I should point out, no evidence to suggest she does – but her reaction to the incident in which she is quoted as saying “I couldn’t believe how rude she was” , when she herself was acting in a way many people would still consider rude, speaks volumes about the relationship dynamics involved.

Like the shop-floor In the call centre no matter how you are being treated by the customer your job as a representative of your organisation means you must  be friendly, polite and display manners beyond reproach. The Sociologist Arlie Hochschild famously refers tothis as ’emotional labour’ which in less technical terms it means that your employer wants you to smile sweetly even in the face of the kind of excessive rudeness which would never be acceptable in any other encounter. The customer on the other hand – just so long as they’re not swearing – is permitted to act how they choose. The relationship is one-sided, it’s one where the worker is expected to display deference to the customer, where the ‘customer comes first’

By no means am I advocating that customers should not expect politeness, they should, but the point is that they should offer it too. Just because someones got a badge, or a uniform on, or is paid to take calls does not make them any less entitled to be treated well. My golden rule whenever I’m dealing with an organisation is to treat the person I am dealing with as a human-being and to treat them how I would like to be treated. Can’t we all do this?



3 thoughts on “Jo Clarke v the Sainsbury’s Checkout Assistant: Is customer service culture killing good manners?

  1. I want to give a big “YOU SAID IT” to this. I’ve spent a good time working in call centers (and briefly for the reception desk at … holy crud muffins, that was awful), and in retail, and this is completely true. The idea of “customer’s always right/employee is not allowed to make the slightest mistake” creates a huge feeling of entitlement on the side of the customer, a debilitating feeling of servitude for the worker, and not the best work or shopping department. People look for you to slip up so that they can get discounts, businesses give discounts at the slightest upset because we can’t afford to piss these people off in the slightest.

    Ugh. Awful work, that. Thank goodness for customers who are also employees of the industry. All those other “min or close to min wage workers”, retail vets who are far and above more kind and understanding than any other group of people.

  2. Absolutely spot on! It’s all about empathy which is rapidly disappearing as narcissism takes over. The checkout assistant did the right thing and the store was totally wrong not to back her up.

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