Friday, February 8, 2013

when life doesn't look like instagram. (or, why i should have waited tables.)

All while we were growing up, my dad told me and my brother he thought everyone should work in food service at least once in their life. I think it kind of disappointed him that neither of us ever did, though I tried many times to convince him working for a catering company certainly counted. (He didn't buy it.) 

Now, these many moons later, I see exactly what he meant, why he thought it would be good for his kids to wait tables and serve patrons, to trek back and forth from kitchen to dining room taking orders and gathering measly tips. 

It's good training, I'm convinced, for the real world, where you encounter people of all kinds, generous and cruel, kind and impatient. 

Last Friday and Saturday, I was recruited to sell books for our store at a special author event in town. You may have seen the picture I posted on Instagram, beautiful light shining through the trees on a gorgeous Southern plantation home. 

What that picture didn't show was the unbelievable amount of stress I was under, the lone bookseller at an event with well over 200 people coming and going during a two-day period. I ran the event sans technology, meaning I wasn't equipped with a square -- something that makes no sense to me now, but at the time, must have made sense to both me and my boss. This means I was counting change, scrambling to write down credit card information, and collecting checks. I understand that this doesn't sound particularly stressful, and really, it wasn't. Not at first. 

But then we sold out of the author's newest cookbook, and in case you weren't aware, when people don't get what they want, they tend to become unhappy. And some people, I'm learning, like to let others know when they're unhappy. 

This is perhaps the greatest lesson I've learned at the bookstore: Some people believe their happiness depends upon you. And when you mess with their happiness, their expectations, they will let you know. 

I don't talk a lot about Amazon here; I don't share where I think you should buy your books. It's your family's business, not mine; everyone has their own budgets, their own principles they need to abide by. In store, I'm the same way. I encourage our customers to shop local; I express my appreciation for those who choose to do so, especially those who do so day in and day out, my regulars.

For those who choose Amazon? Okay. Again, that's their business. I've been known to buy a book from Amazon too (though not nearly as often these days). It's the customers who tell me they prefer Amazon; the ones Friday and Saturday who asked me why they should buy from me when they could easily buy online. It's those I have difficulty handling and understanding.

I've never gone into the Gap and expressed my preference for shopping online. I've never asked a Target employee why I should shop there instead of Wal-Mart. I make those decisions personally and privately, and I don't feel the need to share those decisions with employees of local business establishments. It's hard for me when others don't do the same. 

Saturday, our store made a rookie sales mistake: We didn't order enough books for a special event. We sold out, and people were understandably unhappy. I apologized over and over and over again -- more times in one day than I think I'd ever apologized before -- and still, the reactions I received were so angry, so hurtful.

When I shared those reactions with my boss, she didn't act surprised. "Oh well," she said. "We'll know better next time." My boss, I think, is accustomed to those types of reactions. She knows you can't please 100% of the people 100% of the time. I know that, too, I do. But I couldn't help but be taken aback by the ferocity of some people's words; how they chose to express their disappointment and unhappiness was unbelievable to me.

It's a lesson, I think, for how we treat people we (wrongly) consider less than us, for how we treat people who work in areas of service.

Bookselling, I know, is not nearly as frustrating or as difficult as food service can be. I think, though, Saturday I got a glimpse of what my father wanted me to experience as a teenager, what waitstaff deal with every day when they take orders and food takes too long or patrons aren't satisfied.

I had to keep my cool Saturday. I had to apologize and confirm the customer was right. I had to acknowledge we were under-prepared and to appease them with special orders and other merchandise. I had to keep my tears in (there were tear later, if you're interested) and control my tongue and anger.

This job has meant so much to me already, has taught me so many things I didn't before realize or understand about business and retail and customer service. Perhaps, though, the biggest lesson I'm learning is one in humility, in keeping my mouth shut, in smiling when smiling seems absolutely impossible.

Dad, I never did wait tables. But every day, I'm learning what it means to serve and to keep my cool. And maybe that's enough.


mikailah said...

la, me. that must have been very stressful indeed, for you! i know it always bothers me when people are impatient and rude to people over things that they can't help... but it seems that you've learned a good lesson from it. :) hopefully your next "adventure" won't be quite so stressful! :)

xo, mikailah

Laura said...

Gosh, any type of service job is tough work. You deal with all sorts of people, and it's exhausting dealing with those who are impatient or expect you to make them happy. I waited tables for a year in college, and it was hard but so good for me. If anything, it gave me an appreciation for those who work in the service industry and how to treat them as a customer now. I wish everyone could work in food service or retail just for that reason! It really would make the world a better place.

I'm glad that you love your job though. You're invested, and you know it's right. There are always hard tasks with any job, and I'm sorry for what you had to experience last weekend. Learning a job is easy. It's those life lessons that are the hardest to learn!

Mel said...

I worked in the restaurant industry for about six years, and I think you're absolutely right that it was training. I work in an office setting now, and I've seen that the way people treat other people doesn't turn ugly only in a restaurant. It makes it sting a little less, but it also gives me pause each time I am short on patience and time and sleep and remember what it feels like to be on the receiving end. And isn't that the biggest lesson we're always learning?

Angela said...

I work in the food service industry and I agree, everyone should spend some time working there... You learn so much!!! It is so crazy how crazy people get when it comes to food. It has given me such perspective over the years , and has truly changed the way I interact with and great strangers.

Sierra said...

T"his is perhaps the greatest lesson I've learned at the bookstore: Some people believe their happiness depends upon you. And when you mess with their happiness, their expectations, they will let you know."

That is so true. So often we allow our reactions to determine how we treat others, particularly when it comes to service. Thank you for posting this. It is a good reminder to us all that we need to be patient, no matter where we are.

Oh, Just Living the Dream