New Lows In Customer Service: The Art of Malicious Compliance
As I travel around the country, the epidemic of indirectly hostile behaviors, directed toward consumers/customers, becomes more and more apparent. These are behaviors that say, primarily non-verbally: “I will do what I’ve been trained to do; say what I’m supposed to say; provide you with what you practically want from my company; but not make this interaction either pleasant , nor positive. In addition, it will be hard for you to confront me, since I’m not doing anything overtly rude or offensive.”An example: I recently arrived at a hotel around 11:00 pm, suitcase and briefcase in tow, and approached the front desk. The young lady on duty started out the interaction on the wrong foot, by asking me how she could help me. I’ve always been puzzled by this question. What else would I be interested in doing at that late hour, suitcase in hand, other than checking in to her hotel? (In the last year, I’ve taken to occasionally saying that I’m selling suitcases, and would she be interested in looking at the model I have with me.) Let’s back up a bit.
As I approached the front desk, the young woman had a look on her face that could cut glass. Even though I see it more than I’d like to, it’s hard to accurately describe. There is no smile, no animation, and no range of feeling tone. But it is by no means neutral. It says, very strongly; “I don’t like being here; I don’t like my job; and I don’t like you.” I understand, intellectually, that it’s not about me personally. I simply represent an intrusion and an irritant in her life. (The gate agents at the Atlanta Airport have taken this look to its absolute zenith. They’ve made it an art form.) After we determined that I was there to actually spend the night at the hotel, she started going through the motions of doing what she was trained to do. Here is the exact dialogue, word for word: Front deskClerk: “Last name?” Me: “Shechtman – S,H,E,C,H,T,M,A,N” Clerk: “How’s that spelled?” Me: “S,H,E,C,H,T,M,A,N”Clerk: “First name?” Me: “Morris”Clerk: “Method of Payment and Form of Identification?” Me: “It should be billed to my client’s credit card. I stay here every month.”Clerk: “It doesn’t indicate that in your reservation. Oh, wait now I see it.”(I am not abbreviating or altering anything. This interaction had all the panache of a police interrogation.) At this point, I had had it. The following dialogue ensued: Me: “Am I interrupting something?” Clerk: (Somewhat flustered) “No, I just need to ask you these questions. ”Me: “I don’t mind the questions. I do mind your attitude.”At this point, an awkward silence ensued. Then, the most amazing thing happened. Her whole gestalt shifted. Her face filled with softer feelings, she engaged me in a brief conversation about why I come there every month, and she found the kind of room I preferred (which was not in my reservation). What happened here? First, I established my boundaries and my expectations. Second, I set limits and boundaries for her (that she couldn’t set for herself) and that gave her a sense of safety and a feeling of being cared for.
Why is this important? Because 95% of the time we miss the opportunity to grow and develop people by simply ignoring irritating and inappropriate behavior. You see and feel exactly what I see and feel. The difference is in what we choose to do about it. I am not suggesting that you become the “feedback police” and build your whole life around confronting people and being a royal pain in the ass. I am suggesting, that you pay attention to your gut, and share with people exactly how they’re impacting you, and how damaging that can be to their future.
Most career-compromising behavior is not dramatic. It subtlety drives people away, and neither party really understands what has happened. All they know is that they no longer want to deal with that person. If you truly want to help people, personally and professionally, you owe them the dignity of a genuine and caring response to their self-limiting actions.