Jul 24, 2023
OPINION: Serving the Public
“The customer is always right” is a well-known statement in the business world. Only, it’s not true and everyone knows it. Customers are wrong all the time, but if someone wants to stay in business or
“The customer is always right” is a well-known statement in the business world. Only, it’s not true and everyone knows it. Customers are wrong all the time, but if someone wants to stay in business or keep their job they have to accommodate even the most obnoxious of clients.
Anyone who’s served the public knows the truth about serving the public. It’s the case now and it was the case fifty-odd years ago, when I was introduced to the world of work. It takes guts to serve the public.
In the school of hard knocks one gets life experience by growing up and entering the working world. Taking a job that involves face-to-face contact with the general public, i.e., “ordinary people,” qualifies one for entry into and graduation from that tough proverbial school. Toward that end, I share my personal experience working in the early days of fast-food in the 1960s, at Dairy Queen.
The first Dairy Queen opened in 1940. Soft-serve became popular, and a decade later there were 3,000; now about 7,000. I worked at one of those walk-up window-service-only DQs, where you leaned down and talked to the clerk through a small window. That store, in Denver on Colfax Avenue, is still there and hiring. We wore white uniforms, complete with a folding paper hat, and started at minimum wage.
Serving the public is educational in several ways. Most customers are OK, but some can be variously obtuse, demanding, fickle, forgetful, and oh so angry. Their bad day quickly becomes yours. I remember one customer who had sent his small son to order for the family. The boy ordered a large cone for himself and made a mess of it in the car.
The father came to the window complaining that we sold his son the wrong size cone, that it melted before he could eat it all. We had filled the order correctly but it didn’t matter. He was really mad.
The general public includes exhibitionists. I vividly recall one warm summer day and a woman driving up in her convertible and parking in front of the store. She was wearing nothing but a leopard-skin print bikini and makeup. Even if she was a bit past her prime, it didn’t matter to the impressionable adolescents working in the DQ that lucky day.
Some customers are understanding. We employees took pride in being able to get a treat out quickly, like a sundae, shake, or a banana split, to the point of becoming competitive. We were fast, which was good when you were facing a long line at the window during a 19-cent banana split sale.
One day a man walked up and ordered a banana split. I knew how to quickly split and peel a banana touching only the peel (good since we didn’t wear food gloves back then). Adroitly I produced a finished product in record time, complete with toppings, nuts, whipped cream, and cherry. I slid it out there.
The gentleman stared at the plastic dish and looked at me, crestfallen. In a low voice he then asked “Don’t they come with bananas anymore?” In my haste I had omitted one essential element. I assured him that yes, they do, and made a note not to make that mistake again. Fortunately for me he was more sad than mad. And, forgiving.
We called the soft-serve product “Dairy Queen” rather than ice cream; the boss didn’t want it known as ice cream. Since it was a mix of air and product, the air had to be properly adjusted. Without enough air, the product would be heavy, yellowish, and unappealing. With too much air or a bubble in the line, the machine might blow the cone to bits, right out of your hand, much to the amazement of the customer.
Serving the public included exposure to societal trends. It was the turbulent sixties, including racial unrest, and while most customers managed their prejudices, some customers were just — racist. A black man and a white woman pulled up in a ’63 Chevrolet beside the store in the gravel parking lot. He got their order and they proceeded to enjoy it. Then another man, white, pulled up beside them.
As I watched through the large side window, this man became irate upon seeing a couple from different races together. This wasn’t Selma, it was Denver, but nonetheless, racism was alive and well in Colorado, as this man began verbally abusing the couple. To their credit they didn’t respond in kind and patiently waited until he saw he would not get a reaction and left.
Skills learned at the DQ stayed with me. I could make change from a cash drawer with no register or computer to guide me. I got to work on time, rain or shine. I could eat my mistakes as I learned to listen better to the customer.
Each job, especially the first, teaches you things. Make the customer feel like they have made a wise choice. Put up with nonsense; it’s part of what you get paid for. Earn your pay and make your boss feel like he made the right decision in hiring you. Take pride in your work. And, always, always put a banana in the split (finish the job!).
I have respect for those who serve us, in a society that is a lot less polite today. We don’t always make it easy ourselves; sometimes WE are the obnoxious customer. So, send your kids to college, trade school, the military, or wherever, but first see that they get a job serving the public, so you’ll know for sure if they can make it in the real world. Because when serving the public, only the strong survive.
Gene G. Blair has been a resident of Huntsville for 43 years. He is retired from the Criminal Justice Center at SHSU, and he is a retired veteran of the U.S. Army. You can reach him at [email protected]
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