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Casual indifference

TextingEmployeecolorThere is a phenomenon in the services industry (some might say, an affliction) that I’ll refer to as ‘casual indifference.’ Its occurrence is not rare. Casual indifference by uninspired employees toward the needs and expectations of customers is rampant.

Casual indifference is demonstrated by retail employees who pass within five feet of a customer and say nothing; or is reflected in the body language of preoccupied employees who’d rather look down at their texts than look up to be of service. Other times, it’s reflected in the robotic actions of bored employees who are content to simply process customers, treating each customer like the one before, until the end of their shift puts them out of their misery, at least until tomorrow.

I could go on (and so could you), but let me turn it over to Lee, a blog reader who passed along his own example of casual indifference:

“I have ONE big pet peeve at restaurants. I have searched on-line for etiquette for this pet peeve of mine, but cannot find any rules on it anywhere.

My ONE big pet peeve at a restaurant, is when we are finished our meal, the waiter will pick up the dirty plates, AND my plate of food to go in the same stack.

I just cringe when this happens.

My thought is this: pick up the dirty dishes in one trip, then my plate of food to go, in another trip. I know they are trying to save trips to the table, but there is just something about seeing my food on my plate in the waiter’s hand, along with the dirty dishes in the same hand.

Just a curious restaurant goer.”

I can think of many actions that restaurateurs would hope to inspire from patrons (e.g., positive reviews, referrals, repeat business, etc.), but ‘cringing’ isn’t one of them.

So, why would a waiter casually place a guest’s leftovers on top of stack of dirty dishes before schlepping them back to the kitchen to prepare a to-go box? Perhaps he (like the proverbial frog in a pot of water that’s getting hotter and hotter…) becomes acclimated, comfortable, desensitized, and indifferent toward cues that should signal that something’s awry? Maybe the waiter, in the midst of his transactional mindset, is doing his best to “turn and burn” his section, blissfully unaware of his blunder?

As tempting as it is to fault the waiter in this scenario, that would be misplaced blame. Years ago, I heard the statistician and quality guru, Brian Joiner, wisely say, “Blame the process, not the person.”

When managers ask themselves, “How did the process allow this to happen?” and then thoughtfully examine the related processes that may have contributed to an unsatisfactory result, a different picture often emerges.

In many cases where I have observed casual indifference, I have also observed ad hoc recruiting efforts, inadequate selection criteria, unstructured onboarding, insufficient training, inconsistent supervisory modeling, non-existent performance management, and undocumented (or undisclosed) standards. Given such flawed processes, employees are set up to fail.

If I were advising the restaurant in question, the first thing I would do is revisit the performance standards. In the absence of credible, documented standards, good is good enough. Can you imagine this restaurant, or any company, embracing “Good is good enough” as its credo or slogan? Once the standards (and expectations) have been set, documented, and communicated, every single process (from recruiting to performance appraisals) must reflect and uphold these high standards.

Next, I would remind restaurant staff that their jobs consist of both job functions; the duties and tasks associated with their job roles (e.g., seating guests, taking orders, completing side-work, etc.), and job essence; their purpose; their highest priority at work (e.g., anticipating customers’ needs, paying attention to details, displaying a sense of urgency, etc.).

Most employees define their entire job role solely in terms of job functions. And why shouldn’t they? Oftentimes, the feedback they receive from management (assuming they receive feedback at all) pertains strictly to their job functions. When employees focus exclusively on job function, their jobs may become routine, monotonous, and transactional. In work environments like this, employees tend to become disinterested in their work and indifferent toward serving customers.

But when employees recognize the totality of their roles, which includes both job function and job essence, they are predisposed to provide exceptional customer service by anticipating customers’ needs, paying attention to details, displaying a sense of urgency, and serving customers in other ways.

And this is not just wishful thinking. It is possible.

You wouldn’t expect to encounter a preoccupied employee at Chick-fil-A, an unresponsive phone rep at Zappos, an indifferent salesperson at Nordstrom, or a discarded candy wrapper lying along Main Street, U.S.A. at Disneyland, would you?

These companies have set exceedingly high performance standards and their employees are acutely aware of them. Employees at these companies also recognize both their job responsibilities and their higher purpose at work: to create promoters; delighted customers who are less price resistant, have higher repurchase rates, and are responsible for 80-90 percent of the positive word-of-mouth about a company or brand.

So, while employees are responsible for their personal conduct and performance in the workplace, their managers are responsible for shaping employee performance by setting high standards, establishing processes that enable employees to delight customers, and communicating an employee’s entire job role.

Don’t settle for ordinary. Choose extraordinary. (It’s always a choice.) Order Delight Your Customers: 7 Simple Ways to Raise Your Customer Service from Ordinary to Extraordinary by Steve Curtin or purchase from select retailers, including Barnes & Noble.

Watch the 90-second book trailer.

Illustration by Aaron McKissen.

Order Delight Your Customers: 7 Simple Ways to Raise Your Customer Service from Ordinary to Extraordinary by Steve Curtin or purchase from select retailers, including Barnes & Noble.
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