Tuesday, May 29, 2012

Should you disrupt your primary job function to be "nice"?

But I was just trying to be nice...

Last weekend, I left the cottage with my kids to return to Toronto for an afternoon engagement.  I had just enough time to get there with one coffee stop and one bathroom break. Yes,  I should have given myself more time but that's another story.

Feeling groggy and facing a three-hour car trip, I decided to pick up some coffee at a local coffee shop to steel myself for the trip. I won't name the coffee chain here but it is a huge chain with a great deal of Canadian share of heart and a long history in this country.  Some would characterize their coffee as uninspired but I like it.  It's mild and reliable and I know exactly how it will taste and that appeals to me. 

Mindful of my impending deadline, I checked the drive-thru line and since there were only two cars in it, I calculated I could complete my transaction in five minutes, seven if someone was ordering a sandwich.  I would have gone into the store but I was alone with my kids and wasn't in the mood for what would happen if they came face to face with the doughnut display case.

When I joined the drive-thru line, I was third.  One car was at the window already and another had just placed an order.  After ten minutes, the line hadn't budged and new cars had joined in behind me.  I assumed that perhaps the driver in the first car had ordered breakfast for several people and it was taking a while to microwave the eggs and sausage.  After 15 minutes,  there were eight cars behind me and I started to worry that something was wrong and the mechanism that signals waiting cars to the drive-through was malfunctioning.  So, jammed in a static line with no way out, I did something I almost never do.  I honked my horn, quickly and only once.  Seconds later, a furious voice came through the order speaker announcing that the staff of this particular coffee chain do not appreciate it when people in the drive-thru honk their horns and to stop it at once.

Soundly put in my place, I slunk down in my seat and waited my turn.  Finally the first car drove off, the second one was dealt with quickly and I sheepishly pulled up to the window.  If looks could kill, I wouldn't be here to write this post so, I smiled wanly at the clerk and explained hat I had honked my horn because I became frustrated with the delay and lack of communication.  She smiled back and said, "Oh, that's okay. The driver of the first car was going somewhere and asked us for directions.  Two of us were trying to help him get where he was going."

I was floored.  I know that she truly believed that by explaining that the holdup was due to their efforts to be nice, I would trade in my impatient attitude for a newly-acquired appreciation of their sense of community. Sadly, it had the opposite effect.  Although I didn't verbalize it, inside I was thinking, "I waited for 20 minutes so you could give someone driving directions?"  At this point, I just wanted to pay for my coffee and get out of there, which I did, after lifting the lid to make sure all looked normal.

I fumed all the way home and pondered why I was so upset about what was, at its base, a gesture of kindness.  It occurred to me that, in our paid work, whatever that might be, we all have things that are considered our primary function.  A plumber's primary function is to repair broken pipes, a coffee chain employee's primary function is to serve coffee and in my role as a freelance communicator, my primary function would be to communicate on behalf of my clients.  In the course of our day to day life, we also encounter requests for help or other interruptions, that do not coincide with the primary functions of our paid work but could be considered part of the primary function of our existence as human beings and citizens in a society.  But we can't respond to everything that is put in our path. We need to assess, consider the consequences and make decisions.  While most people would willingly arrive late at a meeting so they can help the victim of a car accident, it's probably not a good idea to make customers wait 20 minutes for coffee so you can tell someone how to get to a bed and breakfast.  In this case, there was an easy fix.  The coffee chain employee could simply have asked the driver to pull over, come into the store and wait until there was a lull in the customer traffic.  

Later on that day, I tweeted to the coffee chain that I had experienced a service disruption in one of their franchises.  They responded immediately and suggested I call their guest services line so that I might explain the situation in detail the next morning.  I did so, spoke with a wonderful woman who apologized profusely and promised to follow up with the store in question.  

Overall, I was pleased with the customer service response and I hung up the phone, relieved that, despite a small blip, I had been treated with respect and kindness and could continue to patronize my favourite coffee shop. 


  1. Honestly I laughed when I read this. Great piece.

    1. Thanks Linda,

      I can't say how happy I was that the customer service person I talked to on the phone was as horrified as I was when I told her about it.

  2. Great piece Louise - reminds us that sometimes the "chain's" can't always be there on the front lines but those who do it well know how to address and alleviate the potential "bad taste" that some front liners can leave with their patrons.

    Still shaking my head that someone would tell you that they don't appreciate honking...especially when it was they who were holding things up. *hand palm to forehead*. :)

  3. I know. I'm generally not a "honker" but I realized that when you're trapped in a drive-thru, it's really your only method of communication, even if it is an extremely blunt instrument.

  4. Wow. I agree with you, Louise. They should have asked the direction-seeker to come inside. It's ridiculous to hold up the entire lineup like that. Sheesh.