Wednesday, 21 March 2007

In Praise of Customer Unfriendliness

When my School of Everything co-conspirator Paul bemoans the scarcity of free wifi in central London, I tend to feel a little smug. In Sheffield, there's a decent scattering of hotspots in independent cafes or pubs. On the other hand, when all that matters is getting something written, I prefer to escape the tentacles of the internet and hole up in more low-tech surroundings.

That's how I found the old cafe a couple of streets away from where I'm living. Let's call it Cafe #8. As a newcomer, it's a disconcerting place. The owners hardly seem enchanted at the sight of an unfamiliar face. It's more like the moment in a Western when the hero walks into a saloon and every conversation stops as every head turns to look his way.

If, despite the owners' suspicion, you stick around, you'll start to notice how most of the customers seem to know each other. They'll stop for a chat at each table on their way in or out, or ask each other for help with the crossword. After a while, if you go in often enough, you will be rewarded with a smile and a nod. They may even not object if you ask to plug in your laptop.

A few years ago, to fill the gaps between freelance work, I used to be a mystery shopper for Starbucks. It was a fascinating glimpse into the mind of a company which aims to synthesize and standardize the "customer experience" of the kind of well-loved local cafe it sends out of business. Among other things, I had to rate the staff according to whether, over and above the standard sales script, they made an effort to strike up conversations with customers. Spontaneity, it seemed, was mandatory.

Well, what occurred to me, as I slowly won the acceptance of the owners of my local cafe, was that the one thing Starbucks can't simulate is the customer unfriendliness of a place that really belongs to its neighbourhood. At Starbucks, the staff are meant to treat me like a friend because I'm a paying customer. At Cafe #8, my treatment depends on becoming part of the community, which takes time. It's not that there's any danger of being turned away. Anyone can buy a coffee there - and they know how to make coffee - but, to get all sociological about it, the staff's "emotional labour" isn't part of the bargain. And, when you come to think about it, isn't there something dirtying about anywhere where I can pay to be treated like a friend?

So let's hear it for the places where it takes time before you're welcome, where the staff are slightly wary of outsiders. It doesn't score well with mystery shoppers. It's easy enough to caricature. But set against the fake friendliness demanded by the managers of multinationals, that wariness is a little act of resistance.


SimplyTim said...


Yeah, I like this post.

Your phantom shopper routine clarified something that's bothered me about FourBucks.

In my local clone there is too much chatter and "friendliness and lightness." I guess I could work myself up into feeling like George from the Seinfeld show, and stand outside it and worry about why they are having all the fun.

Last week I was at a Starbuck in Ann Arbor (in Michigan for you guys).

When it was my turn I said I would like a plain vanilla black coffee.

She said that will take several minutes.

I said, no problem, I'm in no rush.

To those on line I said I had recently taken a vow...."I will rush no more."

That got several smiles...the knowing and real kind.

She said "you can wait over there while we brew a fresh pot of vanilla coffee."

(light bulb goes on in my head) "No that was just plain black coffee, like in plain vanilla coffee. "

It took her a moment but the bulb went off for her too.

Come to think of it, some of my best days feel like a Seinfeldenian world...but not as George.

Steve Hayes said...

I've never been in Starbucks, though I saw some in London when I visited a couple of years ago and thought of going in just so I could experience what everyone was talking about, but in the end I didn't. I did go to a McDonalds in hong Kong for the same reason -- now we have them here, but I've never been.

Anyway, I know what you mean -- the waiters (actually in those kinds of places they call them waitrons, which sounds uitably android) come along and hover over you when you have just taken your first mouthfull of food and say "Is everything all right?" and I have to chew for half a minute, which gives me time to think that Id better not say "It would be if you'd just bugger off and let me eat this stuff." But by the time I've finished swallowing half chewed stuff I can't taste because of the effort of trying to swallow it quickly, I've either thought of something more diplomatic, or managed to nod enough to make them go away.

Dougald Hine said...

Thanks for the comments, both of you! It's good to know when a post connects with people.

Steve, you're right - it's amazing how some waitrons (a term I've only met in SA, incidentally) time their "Is everything all right?" routine for the moment you've taken a mouthful.

Tim, I really enjoy your accounts of conversations - this one was no exception. I've also been thinking about your post from earlier this month about imagining a perfect storm - I recognise the experience you're describing, it's something I'm aware of from writing about climate change. I've been reading Lee Hoinacki's 'Stumbling towards Justice' this weekend and there's a passage in there that seems very relevant. I'll either add it as a comment to your post, or write about it at greater length here.

Steve Hayes said...

Actually I think some of those things they learn at waiter school. They believe they get bigger tips that way, also crouching down with their chin on the table as they take your order.

A couple of weeks ago, however, at one such place, we had a very inefficient waiter, and he was rather rude, then apologised for being rude saying he had a splitting headache and had to go and play drums afterwards.

After a while it dawned on us that he regarded us, of all the people in the place, as people with whom he could have some human contact. He wasn't putting on an act of spurious friendliness -- rather the reverse, in fact. But he was looking for friendliness and sympathy and human contact.

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