Management Consultant Mike Eldon

Smiling with customers

As in my last article, this one again focuses on customer engagement – or rather lack thereof.

The previous one found me in a hospital setting, coaching the man who had just managed me through enduring a CT scan – but without any accompanying human touch.

Happily, he reacted positively to my coaching, and I’d like to think he now delivers much less stressful customer experiences.

Today I want to tell you about a recent interaction with the lady in a printing and photocopying shop, whom I will not identify by her actual name but refer to as Gladys.

From the outset, as I entered she looked miserable and also behaved in a way that matched her gloomy expression. I greeted her with a smile to try and soften her grimness but to no avail.

“Why are you looking so miserable?” I asked her, not threateningly, just encouragingly, with a light touch. No change. On the contrary, the barrier between us was merely reinforced.

As Gladys worked on my printing I had another go at helping her into a more positive frame of mind, explaining that as a consultant I support firms to become more customer-focused.

Like it’s nice to give customers a smile,” I suggested. Forget it. Not a hint of one. Oh dear, an extreme case, with who knows what root cause. I felt really sorry for her, and it reinforced my desire to cheer her up.

As I was suggesting that smiling at customers is a good idea, another client was just leaving the shop, a lady from some European country by her accent, who overheard my comment.

“That’s totally unacceptable,” she fumed, obviously finding my suggestion to have been politically incorrect beyond redemption.

Was it a manifestation of the contemporary “woke” phenomenon, where one must be hypersensitive about anything one says?

Did she see it as none of my business to influence her mood? Was I harassing her?

Why was she so outraged, having merely caught that small element among our earlier interactions? I decided the best thing to do was to ignore her, which I did.

I’ve no idea what effect if any it had on Gladys, who now asked me why I had described her as looking miserable.

“Because that’s how you looked, and I was trying to cheer you up,” I replied. Sullen silence from her. This was clearly going nowhere, such an unusual encounter for me.

I paid, collected my papers and left, reflecting on this unhappy episode with the two women. What could I have done differently to release Gladys from her obstinate grumpiness?

Should I have been less ambitious – just let her be her uncommunicative and uncooperative self, as I had seen her with another customer too?

What a contrast to her predecessor, who couldn’t do enough to provide cheerful service to me and her other customers.

The consequence of this encounter was that I didn’t want to return, but rather find somewhere else to get my printing and copying done, however less convenient the location – somewhere I could enjoy my visit and my relationship with those serving me while getting my work done.

Later in the day, I met a nice quote from Mother Theresa, which made me feel better about my efforts to help Gladys: “We shall never know all the good that a simple smile can do.”

Then a couple of days later I made a call to a courier company where the agent who assisted me told me her name was Mona Lisa.

“How lovely,” I commented, telling her I assumed she knew about Da Vinci’s portrait of the Mona Lisa, world-famous down the ages for her tantalising smile.

She did, so then I quoted Mother Theresa’s lovely line about the good that a smile can do, and we enjoyed a great laugh together, as she wished me a good afternoon.

Sadly, I don’t think that either Gladys or her self-appointed defender would have been interested in any of this, and maybe all I can conclude is that we are in a world of diverse characters, some cheerful and some gloomy; some self-righteous wrist-slappers and others wondering how careful they need to be in these days of political correctness.

How did you react to this story? With whom did you align? What advice do you have for me, for Gladys and for the woke lady?

PS I decided to write to the head-office director of the printing firm about Gladys, saying she needed help.

He thanked me for doing so, saying he’d look into it. As a result, I’m delighted to confirm that Gladys is now transformed, so I look forward to returning to the outlet… and to exchanging smiles with Gladys.