Attack of the Two-Headed Help Monster

Can I help you?

Where do you look?

If you are at the Dunkin’ Donuts at the corner of 13th Street and 1st Avenue in Manhattan, then the answer is: both left and right, and fire-up your depth perception because there’s someone behind those two who is also clamoring for your patronage. If you are at the Crumbs Bake Shop in the East 50’s, then the answer is: get up on your tippy toes, and then look left and right over the overly high display case of over-priced mongo cupcakes. If, on the other hand, you are at the Buttercup Bake Shop just one block east, then the answer is: look directly at the single staff member who has attentively stepped away from icing lovely normal-sized cupcakes, and offered you some kind assistance.

Help Monsters

What is going on here?

There is a trend in business today, to be overly helpful. And a trend in employees, to be not quite sure how to implement that overly helpful policy. Perhaps the staff of some companies are afraid of losing their job (although, I did notice help monsters starting to pop-up long before the current recession began). Perhaps they think that if they jump on every customer who walks in the door, then they are doing a good job. They have seen it at retail clothing stores like Gap, where there is often a dedicated staff member standing by the entrance to greet (and prevent shoplifting). But it works better in that case since it is one person, doing one job. Many of us have probably also experienced one of the prototypes of heavy-handed retail customer greeting at Blockbuster, where years ago staff (dressed like Microsoft seminar presenters) would give a holler every time a customer entered or exited, often directed at the customer’s unsuspecting back. This overly attentive greeter is one type of help monster – one that grows organically out of a confused employeeship, who are perhaps bored, or think they work on commission.

The other dominant help monster today is the lingering telephone call center conversationalist, who insists on having the last word with, “Is there anything else I can help you with?” Again, this type of monster seems to have its roots in a company which is attempting to be more helpful to customers, but in actual implementation the rule seems to be:

Make sure you end every conversation by asking if you can help with anything else, even if it means asking it awkwardly several times after it has been made clear that there is nothing else to talk about. Be sure to get the last word. Customers like that.

And the staff, who are probably recorded for quality-control purposes, then follow that absurd directive and turn helpful customer service into an awkward phone conversation that can never just end when it needs to end. Inevitably, simply thanking the customer service representative for their time results in a further round of, “Is there anything else I can help you with?”

What To Do

Above all else, remember what you came in here for. You want coffee, you want cupcakes, whatever. You don’t care, particularly, which one of the jostling, bouncing, smiling heads behind the counter gets it for you. Let them work that out – inter-employee communications are a problem in every organization, and the cause of much employee frustration and wasted effort. Not that I am looking for these counter-folk to maximize profit by hopping back to some routine task instead of “making nice” with the customers, but the truth is, two people trying to hop in and do one job of serving one customer is, at best, silly and confusing. At worst, it is sort of demoralizing to the employees, who at some level likely feel like they are not really a necessary part of the operation (which leads to more two-headed help monsters growing every day).

Note to staff: When there is no need to serve a customer, it is okay to sit back and do nothing.

Just be sure you are honest about when, exactly, there is no need to serve a customer.

For the customers of these hopefully soon-to-be-extinct help monsters, remember that it is okay to look a single helpful head squarely in the eye and say, “Small coffee, one sugar and milk,” and be done with it. Secretly, the help monster might appreciate the time thus freed up to send a text message to a friend..

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