When customer service gets too friendly

By Kim Knight

How familiar should the relationship between customer and server be? Kim Knight considers the issue.
Picture / Getty Images, 123RF
Picture / Getty Images, 123RF

It wasn't that it had been some hours since the "oven" roasted tomatoes had seen an oven. Or that the sourdough had been summarily swapped for five grain. Nope. The moment we swore we'd never go back to that cafe was when the waiter spun around the spare seat at our table and straddled it, a la the chair dance from Chicago.

"How's it going?" he asked, like someone we had actually invited to brunch (we don't know any people who think it's okay to present their crotch before we've had coffee).

He was just being friendly. But in my world, before 11am on a Saturday, a "hello" is plenty-friendly. "What can I get you" is a spectacular follow-up, and all the words I really require to think well of a waitperson.

Here are some words that don't work: Love. Dear. Darling. Bruv. (No one has called me Bruv, but my colleague has experienced this and reports it made him feel funny in his tummy.)

This is a country where strangers call each other "mate". Where, according to one recent survey, our favourite term of endearment is "baby" (though in the Waikato, they prefer "honey" and in Northland it's "love"), but when a young man says "here you go, gorgeous" and a young woman says "be right with you, babe", it's undignified and unwelcome. Unfortunately, it's on the rise. Right now, in a cafe where framed hessian coffee sacks masquerade as art, a bearded barista is charging someone $5.60 for a soy latte with a side of unsolicited familiarity.

We live in an age where wait staff write your name on a cup, then yell it out, ensuring the creepy guy in the queue also knows what to call you; where coffee providers post statements like this on their website: "It's just a moment in time. Just one hand reaching over the counter to present a cup to another outstretched hand. But it's a connection." Honestly? I don't feel that level of connection to my dentist who I let reach into my actual mouth.

Of course I applaud good customer service. I like to smile and be smiled at. I like the waiter who hopes I enjoy my food and doesn't make me feel like a moron for pronouncing the Ls in bouillabaisse (like the Ls in tortilla, you moron). But I don't like the young woman who calls me "love" four times when all I want is a chicken and pesto roll. I am uncomfortable discussing what I am up to over the weekend just because I am buying a coffee on a Friday, and when a barista uses an unauthorised endearment, I wait to see if he is going to do the same to the man in the line behind me (he never does).

In 2014, the Restaurant Association of New Zealand listed the "casualisation" of dining - informal restaurants, shared plates and no bookings - as the number one industry trend. Was it just a matter of time, then, before service too, became more informal?

Marisa Bidois, the association's chief executive, says hospitality is about being hospitable.

"It makes sense that people would become, or try to become, familiar with their customers in some form or another. That's what we try to do in our industry, we try to create an environment where people are welcome, and they feel at home."

Late last month, in response to a Canvas phone call, Bidois did a very hospitable thing and surveyed association members for their views on this issue.

Of the 75 respondents, (from a variety of businesses including cafes, bars, country hotels and restaurants), some 56 per cent agreed staff were becoming more familiar with customers in their mannerisms or speech. A further 38 per cent said there had been no change, and six per cent were unsure.

What about the customers themselves? Fifty-one per cent of businesses said nothing had changed, 8 per cent were unsure and 41 per cent said they had noticed an upsurge in overfamiliarity from the paying side of the counter.

Sample reaction: "Let's not forget ponytail-gate!" Another interviewee said: "Occasionally you get men who have social problems trying to chat up my young female staff. The 'Mr Creepies' of this world. You get them in all public situations."

And this: "The business male has been crossing the line constantly. Making rude comments to the female staff and, at times, putting their hands on the back or even lower areas. For some reason, they think is okay."

(For the record, this is not okay. It is gross, disgusting and approximately a million times more offensive than a barista calling me "love".)

Many respondents said they encouraged staff to be friendly, via eye contact, hellos and goodbyes, and light conversation. But there was an acknowledgment that some younger wait staff were not able to recognise the need to use more formal language in their everyday jargon, for example "sir" instead of "mate".

One business said it had banned "certain over-familiar speech patterns, yet they are always creeping back".

For Bidois, it boils down to being able to read the customer. "And that is an absolute fine art in this industry. I think it comes with experience and understanding . . . But it does seem to me that customers are becoming more casual as well."

What's driving the change?

"I think society is, oftentimes, looking for ways to connect. If you dig down another level, we're not necessarily having that face-to-face contact anymore. So this is one of those rare opportunities where you are able to connect. But there is a line. There is definitely a line."

- Canvas

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