Leftovers: Anything-but-routine customer service

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First of two parts.

Customer service stories, like other popular cocktail party topics – Marcia’s new boyfriend, bad grammar, and the current guest host of “Jeopardy” – never grow tiresome.

We can debate endlessly about the customers always being right (they aren’t) or the non-negotiables of quality, attentiveness, and value. But it’s tricky when one person’s value is another person’s rip-off. Perception is always reality, except when it isn’t yours. 

That said, there are situations when no debate is justified and bad service is more than unexpected, and worse than unpleasant. 

Take elementary school teachers, for example. Compensated by our tax dollars but definitely not in it for the paycheck, their customer service extends beyond teaching children the basics. A teacher can give much-needed boosts of confidence, but in a moment of frustration, that same educator can make an off-base remark that imprints on a child’s memory forever. 

“I’ve always liked our son’s teacher,” said my neighbor Carol Jean. “But lately he’s been downright nasty and unfortunately I get it. (Our son) Mike can be an exhausting little snot but his teacher has said some rotten things. Mike is just 10 years old and now he’s referring to himself as ‘slow to know’ and ‘last in class’. Who says that to a 10-year-old?” 

If I didn’t know better I’d encourage Carol Jean to try and look past the negativity to the good about Mike’s teacher, but research shows that as long as the television set is off teachers are the biggest influencers on a young child’s sense of self. Telling a 10-year-old they’re “slow to know” is terrible customer service. 

While I’m not 10 years old, I had my own terrible customer service experience during routine eye surgery that took place in the hospital not long ago.

I needed the procedure on both eyes and was able to schedule my appointments a week apart. Things had been postponed several times due to the pandemic and then (big surprise) because of fickle Maine weather. But routine or not, in-patient or out, any surgery is a big deal. 

No matter how many times the nursing crew had provided the same necessary care, I was nervous until the IV was in place and the liquid in the little glass vial started working its magic. The first surgery went smoothly, although I was disappointed I didn’t leave the hospital with a “Pirates of the Caribbean” eye patch. 

The following week, as I waited in my faded paisley hospital Johnny I could hear an elderly gentleman through the curtain that separated us. Just out of his own surgery, he was repeatedly asking the nurse if they’d called his ride. Perhaps he was still clouded by anesthesia, but I could hear the nurse fussing around him and not answering. The man grew agitated and finally, without answering, she snapped at him to calm down.

The guy just came out of surgery and even if she had to answer the same question five times, so what?

Moments later, the nurse came around the curtain to start my IV. Pushing and tapping faint bluish-green veins, I told her where the IV had been started with no problem the week before. She ignored me and began inserting a needle on the side of my hand. No one had ever tried that spot before and even if she didn’t want to use the same vein as the prior week, I have a whole other arm.  

Surprised at the level of pain and amount of blood, I yelped out loud. The nurse looked up at me, shook her head, and curtly said, “You’re driving me crazy.” I was driving her crazy? Bursting into tears, I looked over at the nursing station where everyone was frozen in place, just staring at us.

“I want someone else, please,” I said loudly and bravely, if I do say so myself. 

When no one stepped in to replace her, I realized (by scanning her badge for her name) that this nurse who was so gruff with the man next to me, and who was sticking a needle into the side of my hand, was the lead nurse in charge of the floor. Everyone glanced at me sympathetically but went about their business. 

The woman’s demeanor instantly changed as she started making small talk with me after inserting the IV in a vein on top of my hand. Had I been in almost any other situation, I would have walked out. The small talk was infuriating, as if I’d forgotten she just insulted me while I was in such a vulnerable position.

But I was able to let things simmer until the hospital bill arrived. More on that next week.

Natalie Ladd is a Portland restaurant veteran, freelance writer, and connoisseur of all things Bruce Springsteen. She loves Boston sports, chewy red wine and has never sampled a cheese she didn’t like. She can be reached at [email protected].

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