Quick! Look at a person in the room with you and guess what they are thinking. This is harder to do if they are not talking, but I would bet that even if you cannot guess exactly, you can tell the mood they are in.
That intuition you just used is a big part of my job. I assess service levels for a living and often ask myself, “Did that person want to help me or am I inconveniencing their day?” In other words, did he/she just give me a ‘mental hug’ of welcome and kindness? Or was it more of a ‘mental middle finger’ of wishing I were: 1) cuter, 2) richer, 3) not there at all, 4) dead.
Do you think it is hard to tell the difference? It isn’t. Look in a mirror, pretend you see your best friend while saying, “How may I help you?” Your face brightens, your voice raises, and you feel warm and happy. Now look in the mirror again pretending you see someone you don’t like at all. Say the same line of, “How may I help you?” and see what happens then. The typical reflex is that the eyebrows relax, the voice is deadpan, and sometimes there is a barely perceptible sneer. Barely perceptible, but I can still see it.
On the telephone, attitudes are even more clearly defined. I call hundreds of people and test their service skills. Without being able to see the people on the other end of the lines, there are no visual distractions to deal with. I can tell if they have a bagel hanging out of their mouths. I can tell if a person’s face is resting on his hand while talking (though I cannot tell which hand-yet). I can hear the insincerity in her voice when she says, “Of course Mrs. Buhler, I would be happy to email you that confirmation.” These little annoyances are very clear to me, and when I teach a class and let students listen to a call, they hear them too.
This is not to say that we can or even should like all of our customers. Also there are days when we feel tired, anxious, hungry, hung over, or bored and have to ‘dig deep’ to welcome people to our business. No one is perfect or has an endless supply of enthusiasm, so in these cases, I bring out what I call my ‘service mask.’ I smile, raise my eyebrows a bit (even on the phone – it works) and the person I am interacting with will never know there was a problem. It is still authentically me, only slightly detached from whatever is really going through my mind at the moment. The service mask takes years to develop and perfect. Sometimes I see a waiter or cashier wearing a mask, but one eye roll or sigh and the façade slips. I can tell it was an act from a mile away.
The best way to combat service fatigue aside from the mask is to remember the larger goals of the organization. You are there to make money and serve clients who come through your door. This might seem overly simplistic, but if every employee truly made the connection between the success of the company and their being able to keep their job, service attitudes and all daily interactions would greatly improve.
So, if I can’t stand you, you will never know it: I will smile, attend to your wishes, appeal to your ego, and take your money. If I genuinely like you and think you are a great person: I will smile, attend to your wishes, make sure you feel well cared for, and take your money. It is a business after all.