Mere Observations · People

Cut Service Employees Some Slack

In this age of instant gratification, we’ve grown accustomed to wanting what we want and need, NOW. Even in South Africa, where we’re used to waiting for something we’re not sure is even gonna come. We expect to be given good service, as anybody who goes to a store, restaurant or government office does. Sometimes an encounter with a cashier, server or employee behind a counter leaves us wanting to destroy everything in sight, or at least just feeling kak about the rest of the day. And we’ll chalk it all down to ‘bad service’, not realising that the after effects of this ‘bad service’ is just part of a cycle of ‘Bad Feels from not feeling appreciated by the world’. I’ll expound on this shortly.

A couple of times I’ve seen a Facebook post that is supposed to be a short, open letter to all who work in the lower rung of service jobs in South Africa, specifically those who have an attitude. Comedians have joked about it, people around me including my mum have complained about it, and I’m wondering, is there really a scourge of service employees across the country who are just being snarky with customers?

In my experience with standing in front of a counter asking for assistance from someone, I’ve had employees who are happy to help, indifferent in their helping and some who clearly look like they’ve had a rough day. Whether or not they take their stress out on me, I may not realise or give it much thought, because I understand it’s rough having a job like theirs (and dealing with people who think they shit gold) so I am kind to them, give them a smile and thank them before leaving. That’s just how I was raised.

This is Tom. Just don’t be like Tom. He’s an asshole.

So with that, I wondered if there are a lot of cashiers, petrol attendants, servers, Home Affairs employees, nurses or whoever, that seem set on making customers uncomfortable? Probably not. So instead of addressing service employees, I want to talk to us: the customers who rely on these people every day in some type of way to help us with a lot of things.

Have y’all ever considered that maybe a service employee could be giving you attitude because they’ve probably been standing for hours, had their break cut short, don’t earn enough to support their families comfortably, dealt with another customer who was a right bitch, etc?

Service employees are people too, and like the rest of us in office/managerial jobs, are subject to ‘just not feeling like it’ once in a while. They are indifferent to life and its contents, just want to get through the day so they can go home and disappear into the blankets. You can’t expect service employees to be 100 ALL THE TIME; they break down too, the way you do at your desk, which results in you using the company phone to gossip about another colleague.

“But if they cannot handle themselves around people, and deal with the stress with customer service, maybe that’s not the job they should be doing”


This is an argument people have actually made in support of berating service employees for not subduing themselves to the demands of the customer. That if they’re not skilled enough to deal with people, they should just not work in that industry.

  1. Every job, even those where you work with sewage, requires some level of people interaction. What other job can one get that doesn’t?
  2. Across the globe, many people who did not go to university (or even those who did but cannot find a job, because the world sucks) or have the adequate skills to get a better job are pushed into service jobs because there is always a demand for a new cashier or McDonald’s ‘Crew’ member somewhere. Nobody, unless someone wants to dispute this, actually dreams of working as a petrol attendant. Sometimes a job is just a means to an end, not a starting point in what will hopefully become a long and enriched professional career.
  3. FOH with that classist bullshit (see: reason number 2)


I think a lot of people who have never held down a job with shifts, that saw one working long hours, even on some public holidays, have this idea that service employees have the better end of the stick. Because their jobs don’t seem too complicated. I think these people forget that our economy depends on the millions of service employees getting up and going to work. If just for one day, these folks all decided they were gonna stay home, nothing would get done.

Everything would grind to a halt. Who would be there to fill your tank with petrol? Who would be there to make your Mugg & Bean coffee? Who would be there to ensure that your place of employment is watched over and guarded? Who would be there to help you push your trolley to your car, even though you can damn well do it yourself?

People who have not ever worked in a service job, who have shit to say about people who have and do, need to take all the seats in FNB Stadium AND Ticketpro Dome.

“A smile wouldn’t hurt, though.”


It is actually difficult to smile, when you don’t feel like it. I commend those who can appear content when they are falling apart inside. Those people are exuding emotional labour to the fullest. That is strength, but that’s not something people need to go through. If someone is not getting satisfaction from their work, which is possible and frequent for a service employee, keeping a smiling face is hard and adds on the stress.

I learned about this in a unit called Organisational Behaviour, at uni. Performing excessive emotional labour can actually be detrimental to your health in the long run. Makes sense how it seems that once a person who has been working (in any type of job) for decades finally retires, they get sick all of a sudden, despite not showing signs of illness in their working years. They were working hard and staving off that illness but now that they’re idle, the stress is like “time to pile it on, she’s not doing anything now!”, then BOOM, hypertension plus menopause.

It’s natural to vent, no one can ever keep anything bottled inside them (trust me, I know). Stress relief is different for everybody, and for some, it comes in the form of a stank face.

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Just letting someone know that they’re not here for anything or anybody today is enough, for some. And I know it’s not pleasant to be in need for assistance from a bank teller or cashier and get hit with the stank face or not even a “hello”, but if we could learn to practice a bit of empathy and understand that you don’t know what a person has gone through that day up until you crossed paths with them, maybe we could learn to override the feeling of being insulted.

“You’re asking too much of me now. So even if I get treated like shit, I must just bear it because that person is having a bad day? What if I’m having a bad day, too? What is the customer care line for?”

Go and call ’em, what must I do about that? But if you’re actually gonna call the customer care line, tell whoever is on the other side that they should look into how it seems like their employees are not happy at work, recommend that they do something about it, so the cycle does not continue.

Also, what does getting ‘treated like shit’ actually look like? It can be anything between ‘the employee didn’t look me in the eye when they were scanning my purchases’ to ‘I tried to talk to the employee and they just gave me a death stare, sucked their teeth and continued working’. If you’re salty about not being greeted with the most gratuitous “hello” in history and an inquiry into how your day was plus meaningless small talk, then you’re a wuss.

I said it. The “the customer is always right” mantra that has seeped itself into people’s minds is getting out of control. That’s for the employees to understand, but not for you to abuse. “The customer is always right” does not mean that you can treat your server like they’re your slave, then not tip them. It does not mean that you walk into a store then stop and wait for someone to float towards you, prepared to serve you.

My mum has complained about poor customer service many times, and one thing she said that it felt as though service employees would treat White customers better than Black customers. Note: the overwhelming majority of service employees in South Africa are Black. She noted that when we had come out of the supermarket one time, with two trolleys of groceries, none of the car guards came forward to assist us. However, another White family had one trolley and they were being helped.

I don’t think my mum was exaggerating, I do think that is a problem: it seems that Black customers are not as appreciated as White customers. Do they think that we’ll just come by, browse but then not buy anything? Are we not profitable consumers? White people browse a shop for 15 whole minutes then leave, as if nothing happened. Or is it just that, after all this time, Black people are still not seen as people you’d need to pull out all the stops for? Will we ever know?

The above paragraph had a lot of presumptions in there, but if you’re South African, think about it. What would lead somebody to thinking there is a problem with poor customer service in our country? Of course, we expect that shit from Home Affairs and other government offices — they won’t get to doing work until there is nothing else to waste time doing — but I’m talking about retail. Is there really a problem, or do some South Africans not acknowledge that service employees are mostly poor and really don’t have it as good as the rest of us, lower middle class and higher?


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