A dance instructor made me cry once.
It was in the early 2010s. I built simple WordPress sites for small businesses in and around Boulder, Colorado. For around $650—a pretty low rate—I would set up a site and offer a two-hour tutorial on how to edit pages and generally run things. I outlined what people could and couldn’t expect with the basic $650 package and what additional work would cost.
Everyone agreed to those terms before signing up. Not everyone agreed with them after.
Yelling is mean
Some of the meanest people I worked with in Boulder were yoga practitioners, alternative health gurus, and dance instructors. This particular instructor wasn’t happy with the limits of the $650 package. She also wasn’t willing to pay more for extra work, so, naturally, she yelled at me on the phone for ten straight minutes.
I’m a straight male, conditioned by a lifetime of cigarette ads and action movies to avoid crying at work and expressing emotions in general. This particular situation, however, broke me because the instructor was very personal and very mean. I don’t remember the specifics—I possibly blocked them out—but I remember that I bawled my eyes out. My coworkers told me it was okay, poured me a lunchtime beer, then offered me some weed-infused granola (as I said, this was Boulder).
It would be an understatement to say this person had an impact on me. But you know what she didn’t do? Convince me to help her. We refused to work more with her going forward.
Being mean isn’t effective
There’s a part of me that understands where she was coming from. From my perspective, I communicated clearly what $650 did and did not include. But she was clearly picturing something different, which implies I could have communicated better. In her mind, I was trying to get away with something: to rip her off. She was upset about that, so she lashed out. That’s understandable.
Even if I was ripping her off, though, yelling at me wouldn’t change anything.
Let’s pretend I’m a con person, stealing $650 from small businesses by building websites that don’t have quite all of the features they want. Why would I, in this situation, care even a little bit about a business owner yelling at me? I wouldn’t. I’ve already got the money. Yelling at the person who ripped you off changes nothing (except possibly making them feel better—at least they didn’t rip off someone nice).
On the other hand, if someone does want to help you out, yelling at them only alienates them. Being yelled at does not inspire generosity.
I firmly believe most customer service people sincerely want to help you out. In my case, I really wanted to build the best website possible—so much so that I’d already put too many hours into the project. My boss said we were already underwater on it. If I was going to put more work into the project, it would have to be unpaid—a favor, basically. I did not want to do a favor for the person who made me cry.
In review: Yelling at someone who actually ripped you off isn’t effective because con artists don’t care. Yelling at someone who’s actually trying to help only alienates a potential ally. Either way, yelling isn’t going to help you—and there’s a chance it’s going to hurt you.
Being nice is also just good
Here at Zapier, every employee is expected to do at least two hours a week of customer service work. I’m a big believer in this. It means everyone—the CEO of a 500-person company included—has a very good idea of what it is our customers need. It’s also a reminder of what it’s like to work in a customer service job. It’s grueling, thankless work, where you’re trying your best to be outwardly happy while solving problems for people who are typically very upset.
I honestly believe everyone should have to do this from time to time.
I’ve done just enough of this kind of work to know that the few people who are kind really stand out. They’re a cold drink of water in the middle of a desert. I would honestly do anything for those people. I know I’m not alone.
My colleague Amanda wrote 5 insider tips on getting the best support experience. On that list: be kind.
So I try to be kind to customer service people. Yes, it means I generally get better customer service. More importantly, though, it’s just part of being a kind, empathetic human in an economic system that doesn’t value it that much. It’s revolutionary in a small but meaningful way.
One more story
I recently flew internationally for the first time since the pandemic started. It feels like two years of lockdown left humans incapable of functioning in society.
While checking in, the person in front of us had a mini-fridge-size box. The gate agent told him he couldn’t check the box—it was too heavy. This made sense, but what happened next didn’t: he muttered that he didn’t want to start over again in the line, opened the box then and there, and started sorting through everything—moving heavy objects to other bags—right at the counter. For 20 minutes, I stood there and watched this happen.
The gate agent, who clearly didn’t enjoy this any more than I did, thanked me for my patience. “No worries,” I said. “It seems like you’re having a really long day.”
The look she gave me was the most intense “you have no freaking idea” that I have ever experienced.
I bet you don’t go out of your way to help people who treat you poorly—and anyone who works in customer service is also human, so they won’t either. Most of the time, they have no control over whatever is upsetting you in the first place.