The respect owed to “how can I help you?”

The respect owed to “how can I help you?”

Juan Zuniga-Mejia


When I asked a customer to please place her items on the metal, T-shaped stand so that I could count the merchandise — a store policy I followed with every customer — the elderly woman held the articles close to her chest and asked me: “Why? It’s not like I’m going to steal them. That’s not in my culture.” She looked me  up and down, scoffed, and, as she left, I heard her call me a “dirty Mexican.” I inhaled; then, I exhaled, because that’s what you do in customer service. 

I got a job in retail the summer before my second year of college to make some cash and start making payments towards my loans. Now, I’ve always considered myself a respectful person, and I’ve never spoken out of turn to anyone, especially in public; however, customer service really put me being a “respectful person” to the test. When I slapped on my name badge and wore that blue polo shirt, somehow that meant my worth was diminished in comparison to the person I was swiping cards for and giving change to. 

Customer service can be very taxing on the employee.  Maggie Harvey/ QUAKER CAMPUS

Customer service can be very taxing on the employee. Maggie Harvey/QUAKER CAMPUS

One of the things I learned in customer service was that nothing I did was really good enough: I couldn’t make every customer happy; I couldn’t make my managers happy every shift; whatever the manuals and training guides tell you, sometimes s—t just hits the fan. When first-time employees come into customer service, they may find that people belittle them. When you work in any form of customer service, whether it’s the food industry, retail, or other service roles, you will face people who assume your uniform means they have the right to treat you less than, that your name tag gives you the power to make everyone satisfied. At times, a management team will be running around like headless chickens in the back, but somehow everything is your fault. You have to take every blow with a grain of salt because you are not your name tag; you are not your employee number; you are not your paycheck. You are a college student first, an employee second. 

Customer service gave me thicker skin. I learned that the best way to deal with an angry customer calling me a string of names — that I won’t repeat in a public newspaper — was to listen to every word they had for me until they let it out. Then, to follow with “I hear you, and I understand; this is what I can do,” and tell them whatever it was that I could do, not what they wanted me to do. I followed my company’s policy. I followed my training. I did what I needed to because it was either please them or let my managers file something on my name to fire me later, or lose a customer and say, “Hello, welcome,” to the next customer I could help. You can’t please everyone; don’t lose hair trying to do so. 

It wasn’t only customers who made me want to gauge my eyes out with hangers. Sometimes my coworkers had the same effect. There are people you will have to work with that make you hope with all your heart that their car won’t start and they’ll call off because you’d rather deal with short-handed staff for the shift than deal with their toxic personality.

Then, they clock in, and you just have to inhale, exhale, and smile. Nothing is worse than being caught in unnecessary drama at a part-time job. My routine was: clock in, smile moderately at everyone, do my job, clock out, pick up my paycheck, and then eat ice cream at home — drama free. 

It doesn’t matter if we’re 19, 21, or well into our 30s, dealing with difficult people is just part of being an adult. As long as I’m doing what I’m supposed to, being a contributing coworker and a cooperating team member, I’m doing my job. So, working a part-time job helped me learn how to be a better team member, value supportive help from my coworkers, and just smile and make it to the end of the day for the coworkers who just should have called off.

Besides, a part-time job is not forever. According to “Should Students Get Jobs During College?” an article by banking company Region, “At the end of each grade period or semester, [students should] take time to re-assess the work situation and decide if it’s having a negative impact on the student’s grades or mental well-being.”

In other words, know yourself and know when to put in that two-week notice. For me, it wasn’t the fact that I had more knots than a pirate’s ship in my shoulder, that I was getting somewhere around 10 hours of sleep a week at times, or that my management team needed a serious seminar on team work. 

To me, it was the moment my six-year-old brother told me he was sad and lonely; that I realized I wasn’t around enough for him, I was leaving at 7 a.m. and getting home around 2 or 3 a.m.; I wasn’t around to help him with his homework or play superheroes with him, or whatever other game he was in the mood for. I learned what is valuable working as an employee: customer service, following protocol and policy, valuable teamwork, multitasking, creative thinking, and problem solving skills. 

But what I mostly learned from being a part-time employee wasn’t all the professional skills that I will be taking with me everywhere else I go;  it was that I learned to continue to value myself, even when others didn’t. I’m a stronger person for that.