The “How Are You?” Experiment

I have worked in customer service for pretty much as long as I can remember. From selling corn at the end of my driveway as a kid, to that one year in high school *shudder* waiting tables, to starting my current retail career while in university, I’ve been on the “Thank you, come again,” side of countless transactions. And like many customer service employees, often the worst part of my job is – yes – customers.

The antigram of customers (at about 3 minutes) is often very fitting.

Not all customers, of course. There are a few horrible standouts in my memory. (Thinking of you, “I know the owner,” lady.) There are also a few lovely ones. (Especially Mr. “Hello my friend!” with the beautiful smile.) But the vast majority of the customers I’ve helped are a wash of nondescript faces and repetitive interactions.

Of all the customer’s I’ve served, I do have a favourite. Some years back, a man whom it was clear was happy to have spotted an employee, came hustling over to me. I greeted him and he said, “You wouldn’t happen to ha – ” pause “I’m very sorry. Hello. How are you?” And that’s when I got the idea for a little experiment.

I’ve always been polite in my interactions with others in the service industry. (Considering I live the service experience every work day, what kind of a douchebag would I be if I wasn’t?) But I knew I fell into that wash of nondescript faces, which has always made me a little disappointed in myself. It would be nice, I think, to be somebody’s happy memory from their workday.

So I decided to ask a simple question at the start of every transaction: “How are you?”

Lots of people criticize that, accusing me of hypocrisy because I don’t really care how the other person is. And if you look at it from that very narrow perspective, I can see their point. But most people in the service industry will understand that’s not the purpose of the question.

“How are you?” isn’t a request for information in this case. It’s making a personal connection, however slight. It’s creating the context for the interaction, letting the person who is being paid to be there know right from the start that it will be respectful. It’s saying, “I recognize and understand that there is a real, live human being on the other side of this transaction.”

The difference this has made in my day-to-day business is remarkable, especially where I’m a repeat customer. Yes, the first time I ask tends to get me a startled look followed by a knee-jerk, “Good, you?” But with each successive encounter, people come to expect it. Now I get recognized and greeted in the aisles of shops, cashiers ask me how I am before I get a chance to ask them, and staff at the farmers market stalls take time for a short chat, even when they’re busy. A minimum of effort on my part has obviously meant something to a number of others.

I’d say the experiment was an overwhelming success.

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