We are a strangely discourteous society.
I say “strangely” because we are also a society obsessed with customer service.
Customer service is what you do to make a person happy that they interacted with you. It includes providing support, being friendly and helpful, and occasionally offering up some kind of bonus or gift. Customer service would seem to be in line with basic courtesy.
But often it isn’t. Often, customer service winds up being the exact antithesis of courtesy. And we feel the difference.
What is Courtesy?
Courtesy is, literally, having a courtly bearing – which is to say, being kind, considerate, and understanding. It comes from the medieval courts, which were associated with good behavior.
Courtesy transcended rank. It was possible to have a noble title but still be unwelcome at court because of your poor manners. It was equally possible to be of common birth but be admired by those of superior rank because of notably courteous behavior, and respectfully called “gentleman” or “gentlewoman” because of it.
This is still true today. Possibly the easiest evidence that we judge people not by their social status but by their courtesy can be found in movies: in the first five minutes we spend with our protagonist, we will see him interact with someone else. He will either be kind or rude to this person – either way, we know how we’re supposed to feel about him for the rest of the story.
Kind, considerate, and understanding. Of all the people you know, odds are the ones you trust and like the most exhibit these qualities. They may love vulgar jokes, drink too much, or swear like sailors, but when they interact with others, they show a little common courtesy.
What, Then, is Customer Service?
Courtesy is difficult to instill in businesses, mostly because it can’t be faked. Showing kindness to someone needs to come from sincere caring. If it doesn’t, it isn’t kindness – it’s customer service.
It’s impossible to demand sincerity from one’s employees. So what companies often wind up doing is demanding employees observe rules and regulations that imitate courtesy.
They can demand that their employees greet people within five seconds of stepping in the door, for example. They can insist that a customer carrying more than two clothing items should be asked if they would like a changing room held. They can send an email immediately after a support request to inform customers that their request for support has been received.
Any of these actions, motivated by a sincere desire to be considerate to another human being, would be courteous. When the act is motivated not by the desire to be kind but the desire to not get written up for insubordination, the results are cold, distant, and robotic.
It is wholly possible to have an interaction that, while correct in terms of the customer service manual, is completely lacking in common courtesy. I’m reminded of this every time I go to a certain grocery store, where the cashier dutifully, automatically asks me if I found everything I was looking for whilst bruising my tomatoes as she slings them casually down the counter toward the bagger.
Courtesy in Action
Customer service is a watchword for some of the most beloved businesses out there, but the examples that are most often touted are for situations that could not possibly have shown up in a customer service manual. They’re more likely to show up in one of my storybooks.
Trader Joe’s delivered food through a snowstorm to an elderly man so he would have enough food through Christmas Day – delivery not being a service Trader Joe’s even provides. They didn’t charge for the delivery or, for that matter, the food.
This is a Knight of the Round Table story if ever I heard it. A petitioner comes offering to pay handsomely for someone to rescue her father in the midst of a blinding snowstorm. Not only do the good people of TJ’s rally to the cause, they refuse to take payment even though they’re risking their own safety. It’s a good story – but it’s not a customer service story. It’s a human story, a story about the kindness we can extend to one another.
It’s a story about courtesy.
I’ve been the grateful recipient of dozens of acts of courtesy, many of them by people who work in large businesses.
The manager who noticed I had been standing and waiting for my order for longer than usual, and who delivered my food with a sincere apology and a gift card for over twice the amount I’d paid. The waitress who noticed my dinner companion and I were having such a distraught conversation that we couldn’t eat a bite, and had her manager waive the bill.
This morning, at the tire store, the woman behind the counter noticed that the paraplegic customer next to me had an untied shoelace. Since he clearly would have a great deal of trouble bending over, she said gently that she’d noticed his shoe was untied and asked if she could tie it for him. He nodded, and she bent, tied it swiftly, and carried on closing out his order for new tires.
Kind. Considerate. Understanding.
That tire store doesn’t have a section in its customer service manual mandating that employees should offer to assist handicapped customers with tasks that are clearly difficult for them. They simply managed to hire someone who embodies the soul of courtesy – which means they’ll never need the manual at all.
Once there was a noble lady – a duchess, if it matters greatly to you – who had a son out of wedlock, because of which unfortunate circumstance the son was not considered heir to a title of his own. His mother instilled in him from a young age that he had been roundly cheated by life, and so encouraged her son to become a petulant, rude, and entirely spoiled young man who tended to pick fights with his peers.
The young man was invited to court as a matter of courtesy to the duchess, and when he left the court resounded with the heartfelt opinion that he should not be invited again. And so he was not. This made matters on his own estate considerably worse, and his lady mother, much distressed, went to the king to appeal for a noble title for her son.
“Majesty,” said she, “if you would only make my son a gentleman, he would no longer be angered by his lot and my life would be at peace.”
“Madam,” replied the king, “I could make him a nobleman with a word, but God Himself could not make him a gentleman.”
There is No Manual for Courtesy
We talk so much about customer service in business, but it’s not enough. Not nearly enough. Customer service is how you behave because someone else is watching. Courtesy is how you behave because you have to live with yourself.